Wednesday, October 31, 2012

House at the End of the Street

You Know How This Will End

It almost always starts with a piece of real estate tagged to an incredibly hard to believe price, meaning dirt cheap for the kind of view it commands or the neighbourhood it is part of. Then of course there's a catch, since the place will probably be part of a crime scene, or the perfect confluence for the supernatural to come together to celebrate Halloween every night. The buyers themselves are either folks who are writers looking for inspiration, or turn out to be those looking to put behind their emotional baggage for a new life ahead. You will probably run out of fingers to count the number of movies made from the same mold in recent years.

Then you'll soon realize that the cliches in the film are tremendous, from throwaway cops, torchlights that don't work, to creepy neighbours who are more than meets the eye. You may decide to be gung ho about it, or to spare it some precious time for that glimmer of hope that it'll turn out to be fairly entertaining for what it's worth, but you'll find that trust betrayed with each long drawn out dramatic scene that tries to add some depth to the characters, but ended up turning the narrative into a long winded one with throwaway caricatures you don't really care much for. And the lapses into jump cuts that try so hard to provide some cheap scares, just make things a lot worse.

The other word of caution is that Jonathan Mostow was slated to write-direct this some 10 years ago, but now have handed over this project to director Mark Tonderai and writer David Loucka to come and salvage something from it. Perhaps the only saving grace comes from a somewhat "star" lister in Jennifer Lawrence, having made her name in X-Men: First Class, and spearheading The Hunger Games most recently, but even then the filmmakers failed to make it count where it mattered, preferring to rely on her many cleavage baring, tight tank tops to try and make a point, not.

Elizabeth Shue and Jennifer Lawrence star as mother-daughter Sarah and Elissa, who find themselves a nice abode in the middle of the woods of a small town, where the townfolks aren't all that keen that their new neighbours had moved in next to a house that bore witness to two killings, which the prologue introduces us to. Soon, Elissa finds herself drawn to the sole survivor of that massacre in Ryan (Max Thieriot) despite her mother's objections, and we're left wondering if the aloof Ryan is really a real Boo Radley type who is much maligned by everyone else, or is actually hiding something a lot more sinister especially when it had to do with his supposedly missing sister Carrie Anne (Eva Link), accused of murdering their parents in cold blood.

Movie goers will probably be able to stay multiple steps ahead of this insipid storyline, if only they can stay awake for the first hour where the movie decided to go all over the place in showing how Sarah and Elissa try to fit in to their new environment, in school and at the hospital, making friends with the police and teenage peers for a rock concert that doesn't materialize because a modestly budgeted film will not allow for one. Things start to turn a wee bit interesting when Ryan enters the picture, with red herrings and suggestions thrown about at will, but only if given time to properly gestate into a proper back story, or sub plot. Instead, these potential ideas got quickly glossed over, coupled with a ridiculous ending that sees a desperate epilogue thrown in to salvage some points. That didn't work, because instead of being smart, it turned out to be way too silly and ridiculous.

Still, this is something Jennifer Lawrence's fans will flock to in order to see their heroine in kicking butt. Watch out though for Max Thieriot's performance, which given a proper script, could really get under your skin as genuinely creepy.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

End of Watch

Bad Boys

Mention David Ayer, and you'll probably remember his run of gritty crime thrillers that he either wrote, or directed, or did both, with films such as Harsh Times, Street Kings and Training Day part of his filmography. To spice things up a little bit stylistically, the found footage makes its debut for this genre, just as you're wondering how much more this technique can be pushed without boring, or irritating through its constant jerkiness. And Ayer has milked the technique gracefully here, with a little bit of a cheat of course.

End of Watch may have ridden on the gimmick of found footage, where a narrative gets assembled from a camera, or multiple cameras, usually charged with extended battery life, and an invisible hand at splicing the footage together. But here's the catch - David Ayer and his editor Dody Dorn never got too hung up with whose camera we're actually peering from at any one point in time. It could be from the cops, it could be from the thugs, it could be from CCTV or video cameras mounted in patrol cars. Or it would just be. Not before long, you too will likely not care about the plausibility of certain angles, or presence of somebody else around to have taken that shot, and while this could get on the nerves of purists, I would recommend to let it be, and let the story take control instead.

The narrative follows two beat cops Brian Taylor (Jake Gyllenhaal) and Mike Zavala (Michael Pena), thick buddies and best friends for life who take on the meanest districts in the city of Los Angeles. As part of a film course project, Brian carries with him a video camera to record his days at work, and ropes in Mike to also carry around pinhole cameras which they wear at their breast pockets. Additional footage come from the multitude of cameras strategically located in and around their patrol car, and then some. But don't get too flustered or bothered as the film wears on in determining who, or from where, a camera angle is taken from, because you'll deem it worthwhile to just focus on the story instead of the gimmick.

And the story just about covers all the sexier aspects of policing, with danger at every turn, unexpected for the most parts in what may seem like a low risk, routine patrol call or response. It's episodic, and almost day in the life of, as we trace both men's personal lives, and public ones when they adorn the uniform, which as one line in the movie puts it in rather straightforward fashion, that they're police officers and everyone wants to kill them. So much for law and order, with a little black humour thrown in for good measure throughout, because I suppose in jobs like these, you need to keep your chin up, with trust being a valuable commodity whether it is earned from within the same department, or even respect gained from those on the other side.

But it's all not fun and games as we patrol the streets together with Brian and Mike, since we see different facets to policing, from criminal gang violence to domesticated ones, right down to an unexplored subplot involving serial gang killings. There's a maxi-arc that runs along the entire film with the Mexican drug cartels, especially with our protagonist duo taking it upon themselves to launch some deeper investigations, or at times stumble upon something much larger than what's at face value. What's more, there's also a stinging criticism at the inefficiencies of US intelligence gathering, with the myriad of agencies and departments usually getting in one another's way, or that red tape prevents pertinent information from going through to the right parties, resulting in the unnecessary loss of lives when it could have been prevented.

Their personal lives also get a little lift from the film, and it's quite brilliant how Ayer managed to weave in a romantic subplot for a film as serious and gritty as this, without losing its edge. Mike has an amazing relationship with his wife Gabby (Natalie Martinez) and their story involves the birth of his kid, while that of Brian's relationship issues deals with his meeting of what he deemed as possibly the One in Janet (Anna Kendrick). Both female roles may not be much to shout out about, but their short appearances bring about a good balance to the testosterone levels in the film, steering away from the dread in the streets toward something to look forward to, and expands the protagonists' characters a lot more in providing a different view and aspect of their lives.

But what I value most about the film, is not about the police procedures, or the set action pieces which were as realistic as can get. It's about the friendship and camaraderie formed with another human being who's put in the same boat as you, with heavy reliance on one's partner to be able to be there, or back you up. It's the basic formula of a buddy cop movie done extremely right, with focus on the bond the two men share, and especially the very candid manner in which they discuss almost everything under the sun when in their patrol car. It humanizes the characters beyond their roles and uniform, and this is what makes End of Watch so engaging from start to finish. Another winner from David Ayer, and a must watch film of the year.

Monday, October 29, 2012

[In Flight] Fairy Tale Killer (追兇 / Zui Hung)

Speak Up

The Pang Brothers have so far produced a series of hits and misses, and that too even in their own individual film pursuits. They have unique ideas especially for the horror/thriller genres, but somehow have not always been successful in crafting a solid, punchy finale to finish off their stories that have always started off quite brightly. Which makes it a disappointment, and anti-climatic. Alas this continues even in Danny Pang's Fairy Tale Killers, a film that even the evergreen and reliable Lau Ching Wan had failed to save.

Lau plays Han, a cop who has questionable morals, and this even extends to his subordinates. After all, as the Chinese saying goes, if the upper beams are crooked, so too are the bottom columns. It's a relatively unique set up in that we know upfront that the protagonist is going to have something bite back at him for his lack of honesty and integrity when in a job that calls for such values, and one who doesn't have any qualms at backstabbing others just to ensure his expected promotion plans doesn't hit a brick wall.

Trouble begins when they arrest Jun (Wang Baoqiang) whom the investigations team think is nuts, since he provided them a name of someone he had killed, but whom they had found alive. They release Jun, only to find that his victim (Lam Suet) got killed eventually. Worried that their superiors have found out that they had intelligence on a pre-meditative killing but had released the culprit so that he can do what he told them, they begin to concoct a cover up and try to re-arrest Jun, which is where trouble continued.

As with all serial killer movies, the killings often follow a ritual, and here they are something that vaguely resembled fairy tales as the title had suggested. Vaguely. And in true blue Pang brothers style, the story here falls back on the horror genre style of revelation, where everything will finally get rationalized with a real world situation stemming from unfair treatment or abuse. Here, it relied very much on Wang Baoqiang's ability to play crazed, and Elanne Kwong's unremarkable turn in playing a mute, almost deranged artist whom Jun has the hots for, where they have eloped from their institution. How they survive from children to adulthood get brushed aside into acceptance of this movie logic, if only to draw a connection between them and Lau Ching Wan's cop.

It's more about a tale of redemption and morality, but one that was meandering and bogged down with unnecessary subplots, and weak villains so to speak. Lau Ching Wan can only do so much with a character which I admit is written with loads of potential, but stuck in situations that are relatively absurd. Many things get explained away very conveniently, if at all, and the domestic issues Han face really plodded the pace, with Han having to deal with his wife (Joey Meng) and autistic son, and often getting chided for spending more time than necessary on his job rather than on the family.

If I had my way, this should have just focused squarely on the one-upmanship between killers and cops, rather than to try and include some moralistic smarts just for the sake of. Drama isn't the Pang's forte, and this film exposes Danny's shortcomings in this area, making Fairy Tale Killers lack its desired happily ever after as a movie.

Friday, October 26, 2012


Back In Her Majesty's Kingdom

It's the 50th anniversary of Ian Fleming's James Bond on the big screen, and the character is celebrating that milestone with his 23rd film outing in what would be the longest running film franchise that had seen the mantle being passed on from actor to actor, and helmed by various directors providing their vision of the debonair spy in Her Majesty's Secret Service. Skyfall continues the good work set out by Casino Royale, with director Sam Mendes achieving a remarkable balance between celebrating that milestone jubilee, while setting the stage for the future films with potential to be fulfilled.

Skyfall is an ominous sounding title, and the events here close a chapter, and reopens another, with two more Bond films in the works and may be shot back to back to compensate the rather long gap of four years between this one, and the rather lacklustre Quantum of Solace. We're still firmly into Bond's reboot of sorts with Martin Campbell taking over the reins with Casino Royale after having done so with GoldenEye, which charted Daniel Craig's induction as the new Bond, and two films on we have seen a more serious Bond at work, as compared to his predecessors. This film will change all that, through the subtleties in giving Bond that unmistakable sense of humour, and the introduction of a Q branch boasting a youthful looking Q in Ben Whishaw, which puts the character in very different light from versions of the past, and promising much more fanciful gadgets (or perhaps maybe not, given the rather old school-ness of this Q) in the coming installments.

And by the time the end credits roll, much of the Bond elements missing from the Craig versions so far, will have been introduced, which is a fitting way to celebrate one's 50th year, in a way going full circle. But that doesn't mean alienating the established fan base who grew from the era of Sean Connery's version, or any of the other earlier incarnations. The scribes in Neal Purvis, Robert Wade and John Logan managed to weave in a number of easter eggs from James Bond's film history into the movie, which is an extremely nice touch when they appear, to rapturous applause by audience members who instantly recognized those blast from the past nods.

But the story's not all nostalgia, as it deals with a more immediate, direct and personal threat this time round, as compared to the more bombastic, dasterdly plans that classic Bond villains usually have. It deals with the challenges any security agency would face in today's environment where the enemy is seldom overtly known, but having gone underground, and is rather faceless, yet ready to strike at any time. Javier Bardem got invited by Daniel Craig to play the villanous Silva, a one time collaborator under M (Judi Dench), but now hell bent on seeking revenge against M for what he calls as sins of the past. Which Bond is now only too familar with given the prologue's botched attempt at retrieving a sacred hard drive, and M's insistence on sticking to her guns and judgement call when instructing another fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris) to take a shot that resulting in his temporal retirement from active service.

And it's rather interesting here to see a less than able Bond at work, as compared to the earlier versions where his feathers were rarely ruffled. Here, he huffs and puffs his way through, and in some ways, found himself in pretty unfamiliar territory despite London being called home. In most, if not all, of the films, he would be jet setting to exotic locations, and rarely had to operate at home, so having Bond back in London and fighting for what he believes in, is another cinematic milestone that took some 23 years to come to fruition. Daniel Craig's Bond has never been quite the polished, finished article, and this film continues in his development as the master spy, albeit one who is rather out of shape and out of touch for the most parts.

The villains here were a little less colourful than their counterparts in earlier films, and I suppose Bardem's Silva is likely to polarize audiences between thinking he's the epitome of evil, or a rather ineffective one that falls into the usual trappings. There's a distinct lack of a colourful henchman as well, although Patrice (Ola Rapace) did share a very elegantly shot fight sequence with Bond, completely in silhouette, in Shanghai. Sam Mendes puts the style back into the Bond franchise, allowing this installment to stand head and shoulders above other more contemporary spy films, that any Bond film would be proud of.

While other touches such as the introduction of Kincade (Albert Finney) for that connection and bit exploration into Bond's past, and Ralph Fiennes' Gareth Mallory to verbal spar with M, perhaps the Bond girls this time round lacked a little bit of presence. In fact I would like to suggest that THE Bond girl here is M herself, for having this story centered around her and the dedicated screen time she gets, as compared to the likes of Harris' Eve as a field operative with a nice final treatment, and Berenice Marlohe's Severine, which is that classical femme fatale that didn't have much to do, really.

Still, there's a lot more to love in this Bond film that would rank it as good as Craig's initial film, with a more intimate plot setting that strikes closer to the heart and souls of the principal characters involved, while keeping the doors very much wide open for more adventures given a new team set in place. Sam Mendes now has the origins assembled proper, which only promises of better things yet to come in the future. Happy 50th anniversary Mr Bond!

Thursday, October 25, 2012

[In Flight] People Like Us

Room For Two

I haven't seen Chris Pine in a drama before, so this would introduce him to a genre that I cannot fathom him being in, at least not at a time when he's usually in safer, high octane genres such as the romatic comedy, science fiction, and the action adventure. But I suppose an actor relishes the challenge of not being stereotyped into a role, and beyond the pretty boy looks, People Like Us provides an avenue to demonstrate if he has some acting chops, or not.

Chris Pine plays Sam, a barter trade facilitator who, through a series of aggressive deals, finds himself in hot soup when external factors start to throw a spanner into his well oiled operations, and finds himself wanted by the authorities to answer to some dubious dealings, as well as his customers being none too happy about his non delivery on his professional promises. Worse, he gets news that his father just passed away, and while girlfriend Hannah (Olivia Wilde) tries to get them on the first flight out to his family home, he tries his best to sabotage attempts, if only to continue hiding his pain and further his reluctance for reconciliation with family.

But they do get there, and there's where things start to get a little more interesting. We learn how estranged he is with his parents, especially since mom Lillian (Michelle Pfeiffer) greets him with a tight slap, and dad didn't leave him much. To rub salt into the wounds, his dad's last will and testament instructs him to deliver a bag full of money, to the tune of substantial thousands, that he has to give to his half-sister and nephew, people whose existence he has absolutely no idea about. So therein lies the dilemma, whether to be selfish and go against his conscience to embezzle the money, needing it to save his own skin, and since no one's there to check on him, or to do what's right and pass it on.

Curiosity got the better of Sam, and as he turns stalker into the lives of Frankie (Elizabeth Banks) and her oft bullied son Josh (Michael Hall D'Addario) who is the de facto misfit in school. Contact soon gets made, and with his best of intentions to keep his real identity and relations to Frankie and Josh a secret, this blows up quite unexpectedly, bordering on the cusp of near incest as Frankie's emotions start to get the better of her, since she's probably on the lookout for a father figure for her son, which now comes in the form of Sam. It's a little bit morbid to think of it, but I suppose dramas like these love to stretch some limits, especially when secrets got harboured on one side only.

So can Chris Pine do drama? Sure, if People Like Us is anything to go by. Perhaps he still got a lift in playing the cocky salesman who thinks he's infallible, only to find his fears of family relationships coming back to haunt him, and perhaps also serving as an avenue for redemption and the picking up on responsibility, something his character had never committed to. Elizabeth Banks seem to picking up a lot more bit roles of late, and this one didn't have her do much except to slowly open up in the wrong way, while Michael Hall D'Addario becomes the scene stealer with his rage against the entire world attitude.

Having the likes of Olivia Wilde and Michelle Pfeiffer in small supporting roles didn't detract from the film's main intent to examine the building of ties between Sam, Frankie and Josh, and it surely goes well to say that blood will almost always run thicker than water. It has star power alright, but it didn't lift it beyond the average drama that it is.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

[In Flight] The Pirates! Band of Misfits / The Pirates! In an Adventure with Scientists!

Pirate Cook of the Year

It's a pity that this one didn't quite make the cut for a local release, where its wit and comedy would have been much appreciated by the more adult crowd. But I guess it's Brit wit and brand of humour may not find substantial box office business, so the plans eventually got shelved, and primed for a straight to DVD release. Still, the work done here by the team from Aardman, responsible for plenty of quality stop motion animated shorts and films, is nothing to scoff at, and one will find plenty to laugh about, and laugh at, in this adventure of the high seas.

We're introduced to the Pirate Captain (voiced by Hugh Grant), a not-too-successful pirate with his riff raff band of merry men, with distinct physical and attitude quirks (such as pirate with scarf, albino pirate, etc), who have camaraderie to be proud about, since they don't have much booty to go around. And this is certainly the moral of the story so slyly written into the film, that it's never about the success or riches one has, or one tries hard to accumulate through means both legal and illegal, nor to gain fame and be admired by thousands, but the relationships, friendships and bonds forged between good people that actually and truly matter in life.

And to tell this tale, we see how the Pirate Captain gets obsessed with winning Pirate of the Year award, an annual congratulatory recognition that goes to the pirate that brings in the largest booty to the organization, with keen competition from more competent pirates such as Black Bellamy (Jeremy Piven) and Cutlass Liz (Salma Hayek), almost demi-god like in their introductory scenes as they gatecrash the registration to demonstrate just how steep the competition is for the year. Resigned to having not likely make the cut and competition. the Pirate Captain hits a lucky break when he got mixed up with Charles Darwin (David Tennant), and the latter's quest to get the Pirate Captain's "parrot" into a prominent science fair, since the "parrot" is none other than from an endangered species and would win the largest prize to the victor of the fair.

The conflict of personal interests between Pirate Captain and Charles Darwin forms most part of the laughs as they do battle with each other to wrest control of the presentation from its build up, since one is clearly in it for the money, while the other is after fame and the chance for an audience with his crush, the current Queen Victoria (Imelda Staunton). And there is more to the latter who becomes the de facto villain of the film, in addition to passing laws that require all pirates be put to death.

Pirate Captain's irreverent gang of misfit followers provide laughter that come thick and fast in their scenes, coupled with plenty of other sight gags that all add up to the charm of the various characters. And when I mean sight gags, you have to keep your eyes peeled at every corner, foreground and background for something funny that's bound to happen, especially when you least expect it. And like all Aardman products, you have to keep you ears peeled to the dialogues because that too is another major avenue for unbelivable humour. And yes, it ranges from the low to the high brow, so there's just about something for everyone to smile and laugh to.

With stop motion animation being done the non-traditional way using the computer rather than the rather tedious manual process, I suppose the dilemma here is that one's appreciation of the stop-motion technique may diminish a little because sweat-and-tears behind the scenes may not play a factor anymore into its charm. And what more, the computer may also simulate the little inconsistencies and chinks in the armour ubiquitous with the stop motion technique, that can now be recreated at a pixel level. But story remains king, so if the story's great, it really is not much of a deal what techniques got employed behind the scenes to bring a certain genre to life. That's my opinion anyway.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

[In Flight] The Chef (Comme Un Chef)

Best Chefs

One of the few films in the mini French Film Festival this year, Le Chef sees Jean Reno drop his gung-ho action demeanour, and put down his pistol, to pick up the culinary knife for the kitchen, where he lords over his 3 Michelin Star restaurant. But even one of the greatest contemporary chefs Alexandre Lagarde (Reno) in the world gets his fair share of a writer's block equivalent when he needs to come up with a new menu for the next season, and worse, has boardroom politics to contend with when the owners of the restaurant threatens to unfairly replace him with molecular food chefs should he lose a star come the next restaurant critique.

Enter Jacky Bonnot (Michael Youn), a chef wannabe, or passionate food amatuer, who has spent the most parts of his life impressing many with his fine choices of food, and skill set to go with, but usually doing so at the wrong places. Pressured by his pregnant girlfriend Beatrice (Raphaelle Agogue) to find a steady job, he has to forsake his talent for something that brings home the bacon, and when fate allows him to meet with Alexandre, with the latter offering him an unpaid internship at his restaurant, Jacky has to balance working for one of his idols, whom he has already mastered all his recipes, and that of putting on a show for his girlfriend thinking that he indeed has a regular 9 to 5 job.

Le Chef has the talents of both Jean Reno and Michael Youn to thank as they play master and apprentice, although the apprentice here comes with a mind of his own, in ever so willing to defend his master's famous recipes, with obsession that doesn't even allow his master to make tweaks to them, for the sake of purity. The tussles of course lead to comedic situations between them, where the talents of both men make these moments come across naturally rather than feeling forced or contrived. Despite its relatively short run time, the story by writer-director Daniel Cohen moves at such breakneck speed, it's pretty amazing at how both characters were nicely fleshed out rather than to lapse into the easier caricatures, nicely left to the supporting act.

And not forgetting, the many fine cuisine that one can view when dishes have to be whipped up. There are many parallels with Pixar's Ratatouille, with Jacky being both the down and out kitchen helper Linguini and the rat with fine taste Remy combined, with that bit of drama, romance, and love for food all rolled into one delightful film with expected outcomes for both principal characters.

Monday, October 22, 2012

[In Flight] The Five-Year Engagement

Seriously, You'll Wait That Long?

I am guessing someone procuring the films for this inflight entertainment system may have an infatuation for Emily Blunt, given two other films, Your sister's Sister, and Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, are also made available. One of the rising British actresses of today, Emily Blunt stars as psychology major Violet Barnes, who meets with Tom Solomon, played by Jason Segel, at a superhero fancy dress party, and within a whirlwind year of romance find themselves engaged, and being perpetually so at this state, outlasting many of their elderly relatives who would have loved to see them tie the knot. This is made as a laughing point, but The Five-Year Engagement really took on a more serious note at how time has an effect on a non-committal relationship.

Directed by Nicholas Stoller, who also did Forgetting Sarah Marshall, The Five-Year Engagement seemed to depart from the usual Judd Apatow produced films where raunchy comedy would find its place in the narrative. After all, it had Jason Segel writing that and sharing writing credits with Stoller now, but comedy seemed to be fewer and more fat between in scenes, where it took on a more conscious effort to examine relationships rather than to go for the usual flat out comedy, and is especially strong in examining how one side of the partnership often wilts when a win-win compromise cannot be achieved.

This comes in the form of giving up one's promising career for the fulfillment of another's dream, where one may have good intentions and hopeful wishes that all would be well, but in reality it's a monumental task in fighting against stereotypes and prejudices, not to mention other vultures mulling around for a fall, to advantageously pick up whatever's left standing. Here, because of Violet's acceptance to one of her dream research roles at another university, the couple had to uproot themselves from San Francisco to Michigan, leaving behind Tom's promising career as a chef, and thinking that he could start afresh in a new city while his fiancee pursues her research under the slimy Winton Childs (Rhys Ifans) and his motley group of researchers.

The comedy comes from Segel for the most parts, whose Tom gets his life sucked out of his being with each passing year in Michigan, a place where his culinary skills doesn't get appreciated, and whom many thinks he's quite the moron to have left his promising and cushy job in the big city of San Francisco. And to contrast his lop sided, compromised relationship, we have Violet's sister Suzie (Alison Brie) and her marriage to Tom's friend Alex (Chris Pratt) serve as a what-if scenario, which worked pretty well, if not a tad too obvious.

Alas The Five-Year Engagement proved to be too long, like how its title alludes to, in dealing with the crises that the couple face, and in addressing the issues it set out to deal with. This doesn't do the film any favours as it stayed largely beyond its welcome, with many scenes that would make you scream for it to move along already. Repetitive at times, it started to take on a completely different life on its own when it dealt with other associated themes like timing in relationships, and the upbringing of kids as well, so much so that the entire narrative suffered from being too scattered, and the unfunny comedy being desperately juvenile in order to salvage some cheap laughs from audiences.

It would have been livelier had it been trimmed a good half hour, and keeping the focus strongly on the couple, instead of their other relationships that were inevitably played out to expectation and didn't offer anything different from a tired soap opera, leading to a very rushed finale just to close loops to end it. Granted that relationships are relatively life long especially if a transition is made to have it protected by an institution, but surely a movie doesn't need to go through the full works to mimic the somethings meandering paths taken in real life.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Paranormal Activity 4 in D-BOX

New Scream Queen In Town

With film franchises, you'd wonder when one installment will finally come along to say, enough is enough. The challenge with each release of a film is primarily to show what its predecessor haven't, and with each release comes the hope that it has fresh ideas and new contributions to the series, rather than making use of what had already been done, and offer nothing new in comparison. Paranormal Activity now seems to be stuck in that rut with Film 4, and unless it can quickly turn things around with its already greenlit Film 5, its days are seriously numbered.

There's some continuity here given that directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman are brought back to helm this one, which gives them the opportunity to progress with the story after their retrospective prequel in Part 3. This allows them to tackle the curiosity of fans who have wondered about the fate of Hunter, now armed with a back story suggested by the earlier film. With Chad Feehan brought in for probably a fresh perspective in his story, with Christopher Landon now working the screenplay, it is most unfortunate that surprises are little, scares are scarce when compared to any of the earlier installments, and it's pretty much a rehash on techniques already seen, that they become stale the minute they are introduced.

Paranormal Activity 4 is set some 5 years after Paranormal Activity 2, where in 2011 we have the maturing of tools and technology, such as the video chat. From CCTV footage to walking down memory lane with the VHS tapes, the jerkiness of video over internet, as in the trailer, played up possibilities, which somehow remained rather unused in the actual film, which is a pity. There is opportunity to show the pitfalls in a congested medium to allow for either gaps in story or to heighten anticipation when unceremoniously paused, versus the always available, traditional video capture medium, but this one reverted back obviously for a more coherent narrative purpose at the expense of keeping it fairly realistic.

With each new film, we become accustomed to the scare techniques the filmmakers have utilized to date, and sticking to the same strategy for consistency and familiarity takes the surprise element out of the experience. You'd know to expect shadows at corners, as you would expect pets getting in the way for some cheap scares some time. Then there's the crashing of furniture, children running around in the wee hours of the night, and now the seemingly illogical moments where people do walk around the neighbourhood with a camera strapped somewhere, with its night vision turned on. Light switches seemed to have gone obsolete in the year 2011, not.

Kathryn Newton as Alex becomes the new scream queen here, almost single-handedly lugging the lacklustre film from beginning to end, as she plays big sister to her brother Wyatt (Aiden Lovekamp), who befriends the strange kid next door Robbie (Brady Allen) when Robbie is taken in by Alex's mom Holly (Alexondra Lee) when his mom got hospitalized. Soon, enough things go bump in the night, and gets quite creepy especially when Robbie becomes unnecessarily touchy-feely, coupled with attitude unbecoming of a kid his age. What more, there's this inexplicable unseen friend both he and Wyatt play with, and soon, Alex's boyfriend Ben (Matt Shively) comes up with a great idea to start recording things through video cams. And more so to have the X-Box Kinect play a key role at capturing images of the supernatural.

But Chad Feehan's story creates more questions than answers, such as who are the kids Wyatt and Robbie and their roles critical to the plot. And with the prologue very much alluding to the story of Hunter and Katie (Katie Featherston), you'd expect them to pop up soon enough, and the connecting of the necessary dots. However, when that happened, it felt like it was being weighed down by its own albatross, unable to break free from what the earlier films have set up, and is forced to go along with it. Even the climax was more of a let down given its rehashing of a similar structure shared with the other films, that it probably is the moment in time when everyone in the audience will sit up since everything gets thrown onto the screen in its final five minutes.

The first Paranormal Activity surprised us with its simple yet effective found footage story. Now it makes the rest seem quite unnecessary. For true, unjaded fans only. The only kick I got out of this film, was the rookie experience in watching a movie strapped to a moveable chair that simulates motion on screen. So each time the camera moves, the seat will move in the same direction. Or if someone falls into bed, or something crashes to the ground. Or the constant hum of a vehicle. You get the drift. It's a dimension better than 3-D, because it provides that constant, and natural feedback directly

And while only a few rows of the cinema are equipped with D-BOX capability, buying a particular D-BOX seat activates it, which leaves out freeloaders from potentially enjoying the same experience without paying a premium, since it functions like a normal, non-movable chair if nobody purchased its ticket. And one can adjust the intensity of the movement, so go for the maximum kick for that sense of satisfaction, especially if the film has nothing new to offer.

Friday, October 19, 2012

On Vacation

5 Star Trek Captains. James Bond's 23rd Film for his 50th Anniversary. Arsenal at Emirates.

It's gonna be a good break.

Back by end of the month. Meanwhile I'll pepper the next few days with reviews from whatever can be viewed on Krisflyer during the half day flight both ways in that big baby above, and of course, Skyfall.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Sex.Violence.Family Values Press Conference

In response to the ban, a press conference was organized where writer-director Ken Kwek and his cast and crew made their case through a series of Q&As:

Videos from Today Digital YouTube Channel:

Let's see what's the outcome. Censors, you listening not?

Monday, October 15, 2012

Soar into the Sun / R2B: Return to Base (R2B: 리턴투베이스 / R2B: Riteontu Beyiseu)

Flyboy Swagger

Let's get a bias out of the way. I'm a fan of fighter planes worldwide, so if I was not wearing glasses, I would've tried serving National Service under the air force, where at that point in time, the RSAF only flew A4-Skyhwaks, F-5 Tigers, then later on added the F-16 Falcons and the F-15 Eagles more recently. There have been Hollywood films centered around a particular plane or model, such as the Falcons being the focus in the Iron Eagle series, B-17s in Memphis Belle, A-6 Intruder in Flight of the Intruder, and of course, the F-14 Tomcats being the highlight of probably the most recognized fighter plane movie (and ironically, a Navy's Air Force), Top Gun, propelling Tom Cruise to instant stardom.

In Soar into the Sun, the F-15s, one of the workhorses in modern day air forces, finally get their recognition, although the irony here is that this film is not made by Hollywood, but by a key US ally in South Korea, in what would be a film to flex its military and air force muscles, showcasing what they have in their armament, as well as the skills depth of their visual effects department in creating a film that utilizes much of the Top Gun formula. After all, it's probably what is being used as a benchmark since it's so widely recognizable, so one wouldn't stray too far from the mark paying homage both stylistically and narratively as well.

And what of the Top Gun homage? Plenty of silhouettes with characters posing against sunsets or sunrises, the unmistakable Ray Bans, the cocky swagger of pilots and their rivalries, personal tragedies, romance and well, dogfights with communist enemies all rolled into one. There are enough music video moments, and even some political tension thrown in for good measure, which was a definite fanning of national fervour as it sticks the middle finger out at the USofA, as if to scream that enough is enough of US-centric policies and self-interests. And what more to drive that final nail in the coffin, even the North Koreans get in on the act, as the enemies unite to get rid of rogue elements who threaten stability in the peninsular.

While Top Gun 2 never made it off the ground, given the passing of Tony Scott, and more importantly, the lack of a credible rogue nation/enemy (even Top Gun had the pilots battle unidentified enemy bogeys that had generic communist markings on the MiGs), the clear and present danger that South Korea faces in the threats from the North, gives it the bandwidth to craft a scenario that's fully plausible, with the film industry taking certain liberties with the maneuverability of the planes they feature, but hey, it's movie making, so a little fantasy to spice up some aerial dogfights is more than expected for entertainment's sake.

For fans hungry for air combat scenes, this film featured plenty of stunts, effects, and battles that really made Top Gun look very dated, especially in its adoption of more fanciful camera work that seemed to fluidly move around the aircraft when it's in rapid motion in the air. Views are offered in and around the cockpit bubble, sometimes slowed down for somewhat comical staring of daggers between opponents. There's the usual dogfights between planes - having the F-15 do battle against its arch-rival the MiG-29 - is pure delight for any combat aviation fan, and if my eyes didn't play tricks on me, look out for the MiG's fabled cobra maneuver - I'd almost jump out of my seat with disbelief and glee when that happened.

Soar into the Sun has a whole host of arsenal deployed and missions to fulfill, such as air-to-air, surface-to-air, air-to-surface missiles, anti-aircraft guns, and missions from routine patrols, infiltration, and search and rescue all making it one holistic look at the workings of an air force. And what's more, not only do fighter pilots get in on the action, but attention being paid to the ground technical crew who keep the planes in tip top condition in between sorties, as well as ground commandos in extraction missions using their fixed wing aircraft, trained to rescue pilots who are downed behind enemy lines - and yes, this is yet another subplot that managed to find its way into the narrative, based on the John Moore film in 2001 starring Gene Hackman and Owen Wilson in his rare outing as an action hero.

Rain completed this film before heading toward his obligatory national service, and here he plays hotshot (what else?) pilot Jung Tae-Hoon, who's the youngest in the acrobatic Black Eagles team, flying the FA-50/T50 Golden Eagle (flown by Indonesia and South Korea's air force only), which is a trainer and multi-role fighter. But his decision to spice up a routine air show wasn't appreciated, and he also becomes the fastest to get sacked from the acrobatic team, being redeployed to an operationally ready squadron because its commanding officer believes that his talent with an aircraft shouldn't be gone to waste.

What is probably unheard of if this is done by Hollywood, is to admit that the main protagonist isn't the perfect all rounder he is. It's established early on that Tae-Hoon is the specialist in low flying, so he isn't quite cut out, as scenes would prove, that he's dogfight material. so this means Rain having to step aside and share the limelight with Yu Jun-Sang as Major Lee, who is their squadron's ace. And although the F-15K variant here is obviously the aircraft of choice and the superior fighter in the film, it's a nod toward Korean pride to have its lead fly the FA-50/T-50 Golden Eagle for his final, all important mission that delivered the payload.

The money shot is of course what you've caught a glimpse of in the trailer, where two F-15s are hot on the heels of a MiG-29, or at times, vice versa, as they storm through the skyscape of Seoul. The stunt and visual effects team did a great job to create that urban battle scenario, and yes I'm raving about that cobra maneuver again. Aerial combats in the film are sleekly choreographed, and the brownie points come in watching this in a theatre with optimal sound, because you'll be able to hear the roar of the planes' afterburners when they kick in.

So I guess it's enough on the hardware and the technical aspects of Soar into the Sun, so what about the storyline? It's perfunctory to say the least, with balance achieved in providing the myriad of characters their particular idiosyncrasies and one note role in the narrative. There's the token love interest for Tae-Hoon in Sergeant Se-Young (Shin Se-Kyung), the prettiest and most competent technical ground crew around, her boss and comic relief played by Oh Dal-Su, fellow co-pilot Yoo-Jin (Lee Ha-Na), and the rookie (Lee Jong-Suk) whom I do not know how he'd pass the pilot qualifying tests for his frequent fainting spells when subjected to high G-forces.

Soar into the Sun, also known as R2B: Return to Base, is pure entertainment, where the story didn't really do much, with odd screwball comedy thrown around, it does provide one heck of an adrenaline ride. Rain fans will celebrate at an obligatory scene where their idol appears topless, but the real stars of the film, are the military hardware on display. And this scores from every angle you're seeing this film from. So I'd give it a biased definite recommendation!

Soar Into the Sun opens in cinemas from Thursday.

Saturday, October 13, 2012


Hello Future Self

If you'd look at writer-director Rian Johnson's modest filmography, the films he had made cannot be boxed into a single genre, and their treatment has never been conventional. Brick was a murder mystery done film noir style, while The Brothers Bloom is a fairy tale about con men. Now he reunites with his Brick star Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who's fast cementing his status as being one of the best actors amongst his peers, and loops a story involving time travel, with a mish-mash of elements from Terry Gilliam's 12 Monkeys (which also starred Bruce Willis) and James Cameron's The Terminator, but delivered in a refreshing manner encapsulated by a fairly creative tale that's beautifully character driven.

In Johnson's vision of the future, time travel becomes a reality, but got immediately outlawed for all the damage it can cause, some of which we'd already know from many science fiction films. But that doesn't stop the mob from harnessing the technology to do its dirty work, especially when it needs to get rid of people without a trace. So those on the mob's hit list got shackled and sent back in time to the year 2014, where their looper employee gets to execute people from the future, and dispose of them. The bounty's some slabs of silver that come with their target, so that makes it quite a lucrative career, with Abe (Jeff Daniels) being the man from the future sent back to look after this hit squad operation.

But here's the catch. Should this contractual agreement need to be closed, the future self of the looper gets sent back, and executed. And before you'd think that's a loophole for trouble, it's actually brilliant, because it provides an insurance policy that doesn't exist in any other scenario, and the movie actually takes time to address this suspicion of a paradox. In fact, Johnson takes the time to work any space time continuum paradox to be in the story's favour, which allows one to watch the film at first go without getting all flustered about this inherent aspect of any time travel film, with a very nice touch put in about half hour into the story, where rules get set up, and the parameters drawn in which his universe is set to operate in.

This paradox involves someone from the future coming back, and that you'd recognize him/her for the first time as your future self. But for this moment in time to happen in the present, we're really dealing with two separate timelines which now converge. And the film presents all these timelines in a single narrative, nicely edited to allow its chinese production partners some story telling time that dwells on Bruce Willis' Old Joe in future Shanghai, expanded for Old Joe to have a richer back story since Joe himself has a decent one for the present time, before both Joes converge. For the non-Chinese cut of the film, many of these aspects got unfortunately edited for pacing reasons, so I suppose picking up the DVD/Blu later is quite the no brainer.

When the Joes converge, it's really when the narrative shifts gear, with a lot more action since the story now goes off like when the cue ball opens a billiards game. Joe and Old Joe sit down to evaluate their options and to exchange none-too-pleasant pleasantries, with Joe needing to fulfill his end of the contract, but Old Joe adamant in not letting him so, at least not until he gets his revenge on the Rainmaker, which is a Terminator-ish plot line to get rid of an influential messiah like character who's now a child in the present time. To complicate matters, there are three possibles.

And while these are action based, it's the subtly treated character arcs on both Joes that made Looper more than just your average science fiction flick, ad gives it soul. There's no clear right or wrong here, only shades of grey, where Old Joe has to find it within himself to turn executioner for the greater good, and young Joe has to turn protector, since he's buckled himself with Emily Blunt's Sara, and her young kid Cid (Pierce Gagnon) to prevent his future self from eventually coming for them. And the best conflict presented, is if should Old Joe succeed in his mission, it's likely the future will change and he would forget about his deceased wife (Qing Xu), since the circumstances of their meeting will inevitably be changed. And this memory is something he fights so hard to want to keep alive.

It is these internal conflicts and battling with demons that make Looper the top notch entertainer, where ultimately any sacrifice to change the world, should begin with the steps one will take on one's end. The final third will definitely blow your mind as Johnson had kept a number of aces up his sleeve, to deliver sucker punch after sucker punch where it mattered for the final act. Visual effects wasn't out of this world nor never seen before, but were gelled excellently for the purpose of adding to the narrative, rather than for the sake of. Production values are solid, especially when used to present different timelines, or areas within the futuristic landscapes.

Bruce Willis still showed he's kind of kick-ass, and still had it within him to play action hero who ploughs through anyone who dare stand in his way, including his younger self. But the scene stealer is of course Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who through the help of prosthetics to make him facially resemble Willis in his younger days, really nailed it with the nuances and mannerisms that screams Bruce Willis. Emily Blunt was rather rote here, while Paul Dano had a small supporting role primarily used to explain Looper's parameters. Noah Segan's Kid Blue becomes one of the main villains in the film hell bent on proving himself to Abe, whose values are in contrast to the principles held by Joe. And lastly, Pierce Gagnon as the kid who could fit right in to any horror film that deals with demonic possession.

Looper has both style and substance for a science fiction movie, and is a film that begs another viewing just to take in everything that's been thrown on screen and introduced into the story. And to make this second viewing worthwhile, guess what? Rian Johnson has actually made an In-Theatre Commentary Track that you can download at Soundcloud for free, which you can plug into to listen in on the nuggets of information he's eager to share. It will be totally different from the DVD/Blu commentary track, so don't miss out on what could possibly be the best science fiction film this year!

Dangerous Liaisons (危險關係 / Wei Xian Guan Xi)

What Do You Want?

Based on the 18th century French novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Perre Choderlos de Laclos, Dangerous Liaisons got a memorable screen adaptation through Stephen Frear's film with the likes of Glenn Close, John Malkovich, Michelle Pfeiffer and Uma Thurman playing pivotal roles in a tale of power, corruption and the use of sex as a manipulative weapon amongst the rich and idle. While the original tale is set in France before the French Revolution, this Chinese version sets it in the tumultuous period in 1930s Shanghai, retaining key plot developments and characters from the novel

Screened at the Cannes Film Festival Director's Fortnight sidebar, this Chinese production, directed by Korean Hur Jin Ho, who did April Snow, doesn't offer anything new to those who are familiar with the original tale, or various adaptations already done for the screen and stage. To the uninitiated, it deals with the games the rich engage in play in, using each other's resources to tangle and play with the feelings and emotions of others, just because they can, or in essence, to hit below the belt of one's enemies, striking straight into the ego and pride. And relationships built are nothing but temporal and fleeting, for the purpose of advancement, with self interests put above anything else.

I mean, who puts mirrors on ceilings, if not to reflect on one's narcissism? Which is just about what Cecilia Cheung's character of Miss Mo, central to the plot and chief manipulator, does for her mansion of opulence. The primary villain in the film, the character is the classic smiling assassin, who seem to befriend you with honesty and sincerity, only to be wielding a butcher's knife behind your back, ready to strike. A trophy wife who had made it good when her husband passed on, she's what would be top of the list if Forbes was doing the richest, most powerful and influential list of women in Shanghai, to whom everyone kowtows to. And her objective here is simple, to get the playboy Xie Yifan (Jang Dong Gun) bed the virginal Beibei (Candy Wang), in order to slap the face of a rich rival who is determined to marry a virgin.

But for Yifan, Beibei is not a challenge, because his sights is firmly set on the recently widowed Du Fenyu (Zhang Ziyi), his second cousin who is now staying in his mansion. For all his wit, charm and style that made countless of women fall under his spell, he cannot seem to get through to Fenyu who has been resisting all his advances, and I suppose nothing appeals more to Yifan than a real challenge. At one point he admits that he never would dare cross Miss Mo, and given the knowledge of Beibei's mother badmouthing him to Fenyu, he accepts Miss Mo's challenge and bet, and the manipulative games are all set to begin, for unexpected consequences to all parties who allow true emotions be involved, and putting everyone in a fix whether to trust their hearts, or heads and the respective reputations that precede them.

For its rich production values in recreating costumes and sets for 30s Shanghai, obviously the filmmakers decided not to pay attention to other details, such as the accuracy of the English subtitles, which is horrible for a production of this scale and magnitude, with ambition to appeal to the Western world. It was bad to the point that you'll be paying attention to the next line of subtitle to spot yet another typo, which is distracting to say the least, taking attention away from what is happening on screen. The significance of change, with the story unfolding just before the French Revolution, somehow lost its touch in this Chinese adaptation, which had anti-Japanese sentiments in that era, but obviously played down given the socio-political situation of today. So we don't get any macro-influences, with this version firmly involving micro-relations between all the characters.

While the characters themselves are one-dimensional for epitomizing certain values associated with them, the delivery could have been ramped up by the star studded cast made up of actors from China, Hong Kong, and South Korea, who seem to have been miscast in the film. Cecilia Cheung still needs a better role for her comeback to the entertainment scene, since Speed Angels was really straight to video material, and Legendary Amazons was a total joke under the guise of a period action film. Here, her Miss Mo cannot seem to wipe away her hypocritical smile, and nary does she threaten convincingly as the master of manipulation at the top of her game, unable to shake the rust from her absence.

Zhang Ziyi too had roles which were more challenging than the one she played here, and is often reduced to icy cold stares, or is trying too hard to act demure, or clingy, as the housewife who has that streak of rebellion in her, which was never crystallized in full. Perhaps it would have been more interesting if Cheung and Zhang swapped roles. Jang Dong Gun seemed to have been cast not only for his good looks, but to allow the South Korean market to be open for this film to make inroads in. But he's just too clean cut for the role, unlike say, Lee Byung-Hun, who has this natural streak of playfulness, and roguish demeanour to have made it a lot more convincing.

Still, for those unfamiliar with the Dangerous Liaisons story, this film could be your introduction to it, except that since it's a Chinese production, do expect sexually tense situations to be watered down for mass PG consumption. It does it job to introduce the tale, but is hardly one of the best adaptations around.

Friday, October 12, 2012

The Bullet Vanishes (消失的子弹 / Xiao Shi De Zi Dan)

It's Elementary

The poster seemed familiar, and the trailer suggested something along the lines of Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes, only for Victorian London to be replaced by a city in China, with a production design that rung that equally familiar bell. But thanks to a solid storyline of a whodunnit. The Bullet Vanishes blasted expectations out of the water, and I was surprised by how entertaining, and an engaging affair this turned out to be, with truly first class performance by the ever reliable Lau Ching Wan, and Nicholas Tse who seemed to grow in strength with each role he takes on.

Co-written and directed by Law Chi Leung, whom some of us may know from his debut directorial feature Double Tap, The Bullet Vanishes may probably be his most polished and accomplished film to date, with remarkable production values blending beautiful sets and costumes, with CG to recreate the Old Tiancheng, which is terrorized by what could be the double whammy of corruption in high office, and a phantom linked with the city's superstition, with inexplicable messages inked in blood popping up, and mysterious deaths occurring to workers in a sweatshop operation of a ammunitions factory. This calls for not one but two detective sleuths to step in, and plough through threats, coercion and obstruction to justice as they engage in rudimentary science and crime scene investigation to get to the truth.

Both Law and co-writer Yeung Sin Ling managed to craft a top notch detective whodunnit that's heightened with mystery, chock full of supporting characters, and blended with set action pieces that made The Bullet Vanishes possess a little something for everyone. The title, which may sound chunky in both English and Mandarin, explains the bulk of the mystery, because bodies are turning up, but each without the remnants of a round that should usually be found within the victims, or in the surroundings where they turn up. A little bit of CSI through autopsies, hypotheses that requiring tests, and an all round good use of science, will make you work as hard as the detectives in trying to stay a step ahead of them.

Lau's Song Donglu is yet another cop character that the veteran actor has tackled in his career, and is as unorthodox as can be, preferring to be his own little guinea pig to run experiments on, in order to study forensics, and his methods also involve getting into the criminal psyche, engaging with inmates, and through conversation, learn techniques, and is able to appeal for those innocent to be let off the hook. To varying levels of success of course, but these efforts don't go unnoticed, and he gets sent to Tiancheng to deploy his skills. Song's introduction with detective Guo Zhui (Tse) didn't turn up all too chummy at first, but both men quickly share a common ground in investigations, with Guo having a keen eye and observation skills, which serve him well since he's arguably one of the fastest marksmen in town. Just in case you'd think one of them takes on the Sherlock mold, and the other as Watson, well, think again, as there's no clear cut division between the two in such fashion, with both main leads being quite apt for the job, except for Song's preference to not be packing a pistol.

And you can sense that the writers got into a love affair with the leading characters, taking time off the main event to tell some of their back stories, or letting romance get in the way as well, such as Guo's relationship with a young fortune teller played by Yang Mi, and Song's exchange of letters with an inmate (Karena Lam) which form the narrative background for the movie, and become the moral compass as well by the time the story runs into its thrilling double climax. It examines the nature and plausibility of the "perfect crime", while also deals with the perennial nature versus nurture issue on how criminals get made, since it is believed that no human being is born evil, and some may turn to crime or twisted justice as a means out of an unbearable environment they live in.

Other supporting actors who stand out include Liu Kai Chi, who is running a risk of getting stereotyped with his devilish, over the top portrayal as the unscrupulous factory owner, while Boran Jing's role as a rookie cop almost makes it a triumvirate for the heroes if not for his character's lack of experience in the field, and becomes the slight comic relief in this film that's suspiciously seeped with a social commentary about exploitation and corruption in pursuit of monetary goals, and how the corrupt always make strange bedfellows. Nicholas Tse and Yang Mi may sizzle on screen for their love scene, but all eyes are definitely on Tse-Lau as their excellent chemistry par none here will probably pave the way for more future films together, I hope.

If there's a little bit of a letdown, it's that the censors here decided to snip off those little impact moments where bullets make contact with the skull. Save for the scene near the beginning of the film that allowed one to sink into the moment of an unnecessary, cruel killing that set the stage, the rest got unceremoniously truncated, which is a pity since there's a subplot involving the fastest and most accurate gun in town put into the story for a reason. It's too bad that we only get to see the outcome, and not that I'm bloodlusting, but I'm never for butchering a movie in this day and age.

Still, The Bullet Vanishes is Chinese Cinema's answer to a detective story that's worthy of some of the best that Western cinema has to offer. There's definite room for a franchise because it's a pity to stop what this film has started, and hopefully it'll be able to find a more unique voice than to look too Holmes-ish. I'm giving this my vote of recommendation, and it's an automatic shoo in for those who have been starved of a good detective flick. It's period setting is great, as the filmmakers are forced to be creative with techniques since they cannot use modern day ones, and this means plenty of innovation on their part in crafting such a tale. Who knows, I may just sneak this in as one of the best of this year as well.

Tuesday, October 09, 2012

The Perks of Being a Wallflower

School Days

I guess we have been wallflowers at one point or another in our lives, where we prefer to blend into the background, be alone, and observe. It's a comfort zone that we withdraw into, with nobody giving us a second look, and vice versa. For Charlie (Logan Lerman), a deeply buried incident had caused the inevitable change of behaviour, with a constant worry that the real him may not be well liked by peers. So he's quite the aloof kid, and when introduced in the story, is seen writing a letter to an imaginary friend as therapy, confessing his loathe for soon becoming a freshman in high school, under which this story unfolds.

Written and directed by Stephen Chbosky, who adapted the screenplay from his own novel (which was made up of a series of the said letters to that imaginary friend), The Perks of Being a Wallflower plain works, and engages on multiple levels, especially if you had grown up in the 80s and 90s, and would instantly recognize some of the iconic pop culture references used in the books, music, and musicals referenced both in the book origins, and on screen. There's wonderful drama about friendship, and the growing pains in this coming of age tale that had series of episodes that would be easy to identify with, making it seem a little bit closer to our hearts, with an eagerness to embrace it, since it's such a whimsical, nostalgic trip down memory lane.

There are elements associated with school life that may likely mirror one's own experience, dealing with first loves and the things we do for them, or those whom we fall in love with out of convenience then find it hard to back out from, the formation of firm friendships, school life from mugging to examinations, inspirational teachers who leave an imprint and encouraging us to fulfill potential, the proms, secret santas, gifts, the silly parties and shenanigans we get into, the extra curricular activities, cheap thrills, vice and fights. And how about those mix tapes as well, where we put together a series of songs for that special someone. The Perks of Being a Wallflower succinctly captured them all with a narrative breeze, without making any seem like overstaying their welcome, and had just enough oomph in them to leave you wanting more.

Logan Lerman really shone as the protagonist Charlie, who has a degree of innocence that's ripe for the mild corruption, especially when he hooks up with the brother-sister team of seniors Patrick, aka Nothing (Ezra Miller) and Sam (Emma Watson). Lerman vividly portrayed his role as the understated heart and soul of the trio, and in their wider clique of friends, who were perfunctory to allow small subplots on various school life experiences squeeze through. He is the emotional anchor in the film, while also grappling with his own inner demons, and shows a tinge of vulnerability, with major struggling with a condition that we'll be privy to in due course of the narrative. And this was a major step up from his Percy Jackson and The Three Musketeers days to showcase some genuine acting chops.

And the powerhouse performances continue with Emma Watson as Sam, in what would still be her first few roles in leaving Hermoine behind, adopting a shorter crop of hair to play a spunky lass whom Charlie nurses a crush on, and who has quite the reputation with a long string of ex-boyfriends. Ezra Miller plays her brother Patrick, who has plenty of flamboyance, and is almost nearly the scene stealer with some of the best lines in the movie, topped by a natural charisma for the character who harbours his own secret and pangs too. Chbosky's story has these protagonists painted with a degree of confidence on the exterior, before paring it all down to their core, to see exactly what they were made of. And it's no surprise that all of them were equally vulnerable, and through the course of the story, became reminders on the importance of the building of confidence and gaining of strength from each other's comradeship and company.

I suppose for any writer turned director and working on his own screenplay, there's a tremendous sense of ownership and thorough understanding enabling a very true interpretation of what he wants to show and tell. It doesn't get any more truer than this, and Chbosky crafted some incredible interaction and dialogue amongst characters that make them all seem so authentic and real. Besides the offbeat comedy now and then, he really knew when to hammer those deeper emotions in, since the story also deals with emotional damage suffered from the past, which slowly unravelled itself. And not forgetting his very keen musical taste, as can be told from the soundtrack, with David Bowie's Heroes being used as bookends to mark the major transitions in life.

There will be moments where you'll chuckle, and moments where you'll cry. There will be moments which will move, touch, hurt, and make you reminisce about an era gone by, all captured in a capsule that is this film. With a packed narrative that's solidly portrayed by its youthful cast, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is that rare coming of age tale that's plenty of heart and emotion, that it's now in my shortlist as one of the best this year has to offer. A definite recommendation!

Monday, October 08, 2012

NO Sex. NO Violence. NO Family Values

Tickets were on sale for the general public screening weeks ago, for daily 7+pm shows at Cineleisure Orchard, being an exclusive showcase under The Cathay Cineplexes. There was even a gala premiere for invited guests only last Friday 5 Oct 2012 at 915pm, Cineleisure Orchard Hall 3. The film was rated M18. You can check out the ticket stubs here.

It even got reviewed by F*** Magazine. How they watched it, I've got no idea. But I suppose they could have been to any one of the many festivals that the film had travelled to and watched it in its entirety there.

Then this was just in on the film's Facebook Page:
Friends & cineastes,
The theatrical release of SEX.VIOLENCE.FAMILYVALUES has been cancelled after the MDA revoked our license on Oct 6, a day after the film's premiere at Orchard Cineleisure. Thanks to all who attended.

... MDA revoked our license...


Sex.Violence.Family Values runs 47 minutes, and is made up of 3 shorts - Cartoons, Porn Masala, and The Bouncer.

It's not anyhowly made. It's written by Ken Kwek, writer of Glen Goei's The Blue Mansion, Kelvin Tong's Kidnapper, and It's a Great, Great World. It features a power packed cast including the likes of Adrian Pang, Pam Oei, Tan Kheng Hua, Benjamin Heng, Serene Chen, and more. Ken Kwek makes his directorial debut here, and MDA shuts it down.

I guess MDA only prefers flicks like this one, since the end credits clearly put MDA's endorsement (Well, it could be a joke, but it's not funny lor).

MDA has NO QUALMS about Cartoons since it rated it PG13-Passed Clean, so I guess there must be something so shockingly offensive in the segments of Porn Masala, or The Bouncer, for a sudden turnaround on Oct 6, one day after the film's local premiere on Oct 5, to decide to ban everything.

Perhaps the censor who was doing his job censoring the film, was actually fast asleep and passed it M18 out of convenience for the local gala? Perhaps his colleague who could have watched it on Oct 5 discovered the offensive bits and had to re-rate the film, banning it instead?

It was only days ago that this was published
MDA has ACTUALLY moved away from censorship towards classification and co-regulation. This is to ensure that diverse audiences have greater access to a wide range of media choices without compromising on the need to protect young children from undesirable content.

Riiight. Action speaks louder than words. So what's this about the revoking of a license? And protecting young children from undesirable content? Are cinemas lax in their controls and letting children into halls screening M18 films already?

I plan to watch this when it premieres for the general public. I am now being denied access to a choice.

One can only speculate until the truth is out. If ever. And it remains out there, because of those who can hide behind the cloak of anonymity and have no need to justify any action taken. It's like Dredd you know. "I am the law".

This campaign was 2 years ago. Nothing has changed.

Update: "for racial references which are demeaning and offensive to Indians". Yup, so it's Porn Masala that the censors found issues with.

16 Oct 2012 Update: One of the Films Consultative Panel members publishes a letter, and for the curious, these are the FCP folks.

Saturday, October 06, 2012

Celeste & Jesse Forever

Getting Back The One Who Got Away

It's quite uncanny, but the message shared by English Vinglish about couples coming together to form a family unit, also found itself resonated in this movie. The trailer may have billed it as a romantic comedy of sorts, but in fact this film is quite depressing, especially for those who have their heart broken once before, and have taken much time to come to terms with it because of pride, ego, or just plain refusal to let go and move on.

The title may seem like two lovers who cannot separate themselves from each other, and make every opportunity possible a declaration of their love, relationship and togetherness. But once the opening credits are over, we begin to realize, like how the trailer began, that both Celeste (Rashida Jones) and Jesse (Andy Samberg) have separated from their marriage because they find themselves quarrelling a lot more often when under matrimonial vows. So they call it quits. They still keep in touch and hangout almost every day, and are happier with this arrangement instead since they're not screaming at each other. We also learn that they live almost next door, with Jesse just having to move to his standalone studio which sits in the compound of their home.

Just why they separated isn't dwelled upon, since who would want to explore an unhappy past, but slowly and surely, we learn why they couldn't get along. Some are destined to be best friends, and taking a step further in marrying one may just happen to be that wrong move that can jeopardize a firm friendship. They take that ocassional break from each other's presence, but ultimately find that it's probably the easiest way to go back, and there's nothing more comforting than to confide in a trusted someone. Unlike my other favourite film of the year in Ruby Sparks, this one didn't have much of an uplift for a finale, because it wallowed too much, and cut a little too close to reality, unlike the other mentioned film that has a certain degree of fantasy thrown in.

Executive produced and co-written by Rashida Jones, one may not be faulted for thinking that this was more of a Celeste centric story despite its title, because of the character's screen time and the dwelling on issues that Celeste faces throughout the course of the story. Jesse gets written away for the most parts in the middle act fairly quickly and easily, because he's off trying to be a would be father to his unborn child, conceived by a Belgian woman with whom he had a one night stand with. This means Celeste is left out on her own, and have to get back into the dating game, making this something like the 40 Year Old Virgin, without the sexy bits, but having likely to be drawn from experience and the school of hard knocks. This makes it strikingly real, with moments that one will be able to identify with.

Director Lee Toland Krieger may have crafted a winner here, boosted by the various strong performances from the leads, but the cinematographic aspect could have been improved. I'm not quite sure if someone out there actually advocates shaky-cam as a technique best utilized for a reflection of reality, but frankly it just draws attention to itself when people start to curse at the shaky cam, and makes viewing a lot more difficult, especially during scenes of contemplation. The dialogues are top notch, as is the more introspective examination into the dynamics of how relationships get broken, the refusal to let go, and the very sad competition, or perceived competition, about who could recover from the ordeal first without a tinge of demonstrated regret.

Or has how English Vinglish puts it, a relationship is best amongst equals, or to help the other when down, and not shooting each other down with expectations that are never satiated. Otherwise it's a recipe for disaster, no matter how strong a friendship it could be. Celeste and Jesse still remarkably stay friends, but the cracks do show up every now and then, and these fill in the blanks for the audience wondering how their firm friendship, with countless of inside jokes and private moments amongst the two, could have gone all the way south instead.

And add to that the supporting cast of Elijah Wood as Celete's manager at work, and Emma Roberts as a skanky engineered pop star, really playing against type, just makes the narrative here seem fuller, again centered around Celeste's professional life as a trend analyst, very much opposite the laid back Jesse's freelance artist. At some point in time, Celeste makes a confession of an expectation desired in a husband, and that probably sealed the deal without her consciously realizing it. I suppose these moments of honesty are what we need to catch ourselves, and from there realize how issues and problems could stem from them.

It just about possess equivalent heart and soul poured into it as Ruby Sparks, but its melancholic tone may be a tad too depressing for some. Still, other than its cinematography, this is one solid tale about love found, love lost, and love left confused. It's about letting go when the time is up, and not to hang on to the past for longer than necessary. A definite recommendation.

The Words


It seems that writers are getting the spotlight on film these days. There's Ruby Sparks, Sinister, and now The Words, where newly minted sexiest man alive Bradley Cooper plays one who in his desperation does the ethically unthinkable - plagiarism, and while he enjoys the fruits from inevitable success, his soul gets gnawed away by incredible guilt, and more so when the original writer, played by Jeremy Irons, come knocking on his door.

But that's not all. There are a total of three stories in different timelines that are tackled in directors Brian Klugman and Lee Sternthal's ambitious tale, boasting a stellar cast but ultimately these ingredients usually thought necessary for a hit movie, turned out to be quite the bore, akin to all freshness being sucked from a xeroxed copy of something original. There's Cooper, Irons, Zoe Saldana, Dennis Quaid, Olivia Wilde, and two younger actors in Ben Barnes and Nora Arnezeder all playing characters whose lives intertwine at different points over the decades, with a twist that didn't come as much of a surprise given both Klugman and Sternthal's direction in placing events in quite verbose fashion. Or perhaps having two directors meant a more schizophrenic narrative treatment.

The Words opens with Dennis Quaid as Clay Hammond, a successful novelist who is doing a large scaled book reading for fans, and in between chapters and during a break, find fancy in the student-writer Daniella, played by Olivia Wilde in yet another role that requires maximum use of her come hither looks, so much so that it's really getting quite tired. They flirt between sessions, and finally you get the sense of an expected evening where both parties get to fulfill their lustful desires, if not for curiosity and plenty more posturing questions to come ruin the atmosphere, from a romantic one into a rather investigative one instead.

Then from Hammond's reading comes his tale of the writer Rory Jansen (Cooper), an impoverished writer who is constantly looked down by many since he's deemed untalented for his chosen profession. Seeking out his dad (J.K. Simmons) for charity to tide him over his difficult times, perhaps it is his wife Dora (Zoe Saldana) who has a major role to play in the events that unfold, where their shopping trip ended up with Rory getting an antique looking bag, where within he finds an unpublished manuscript. For some inexplicable reason he types every single word and punctuation mark into his laptop, which Dora reads because she finds it impossible that his work is taking precedence over their sexual lives, gets tremendously moved, and encourages him to publish it.

That story that Rory transcribed into his laptop, forms the final piece of the puzzle, which tells the tale of a post WWII soldier (Ben Barnes) who picks up the pen and writes while in France, married to his muse Celia (Nora Arnezeder), and is thought to be living the dream despite having little, only for tragedy to strike deep, and how recovery and salvation never quite came by. Part of the supposed mystery here is for the audience to piece together how each of the sequence of stories would relate to the present time, and ponder over how events take on a Russian Doll like approach.

What would have been a lot more interesting, and left relatively unexplored, is the issue of morals, since the second arc took up the bulk of the screen time. Instead it put the focus on the various obsessive writers in all the three stories, and about their broken marriages, which somehow turns this into an anti-romantic genre film, with hope that is bleak. There's the exploration of how lies tend to take on a life of its own, and how a bigger lie is almost always necessary to cover up an initial one. With plagiarism comes the impact on the editors and the publishing industry should it get wind of doubt creeping up onto a bestseller that it may not be an original work, and a copied one at that, with reputations expected to be headed to the doldrums.

Star power can only take a film so far, and the best scenes involve Cooper and Irons sharing in the same frame especially when they debate once the truth got revealed, because everything else seemed to be coasting through and devoid of life, as if a tale based on copying, translates lifelessly onto the screen as well. Which is a real pity.

English Vinglish

Lifelong Learning

Many will know I have been following Bollywood films over the last few years with keen interest, with one of the prime reasons being, why not? We have dedicated halls and screens which are always showing the latest the industry has to offer, very often having same day premieres, and I cannot fathom having to close this option off for the lack of language ability. English subtitles is a boon, and my only option to understand what's being said on screen. English is of course the plot element here in this film, written and directed by Gauri Shinde, who has made a film that's strong in heart, and powerful in performance.

I'm talking about Sridevi's comeback to cinema, having retired some 15 years ago to raise her kids. And this leave of absence surely helped her in her protagonist role here, but more on that later. For those unaware, like I was previously, Sridevi is arguably the best actresss Indian Cinema has produced over the last few decades, and it is only today that I fully understood why. Her performance as Shashi, the traditional Indian housewife, is impeccable, and the littlest of nuances put into her role, reaped results in the manifold. As a line of dialogue described, her eyes are like coffee drops in a saucer of milk, and that in itself is an understatement.

Charisma is something that you have, or have not, and Sridevi's presence is something that arrests your attention immediately when she comes on screen. Carrying the entire movie, it's unbelievable to think that she's pushing 50 already, as her performance here will probably inspire many actresses of today's generation sit up and take note, to realize that they still have a long way to go to reach a fraction of her level. I'm sold, impressed, and very eager to catch up on her filmography to see what more she had to offer during the 80s and 90s when she was at the peak of her popularity then.

Her comeback in English Vinglish is a casting coup for its filmmakers, and let's not forget Shinde's story which was custom fit for her as well, playing the role of a mother, which probably made it quite an easy transition back to the industry. But it's an important role because one of the key takeaways from the narrative, is how we often take those who love us for granted, and as part of the process, inadvertently hurt them too. We may not realize it, or sometimes we do, but these hurt will likely be the worst possible. A callous word and a careless comment go a long way, and is difficult to, or sometimes cannot be taken back.

It's something many of us have been through and experienced, regardless which side of the equation one was on, where respect does not get accorded, and where words go out to make others feel small about themselves. In Shashi's case, this happens to be her lack of command in the English language, perceived to be an ability of social status, made quite unbearable when her children thinks it so, and when her husband (Adil Hussain) also gets in on a private joke with their daughter.

The film's story worked on many layers, and what I especially admired is how Sridevi becomes the spokesperson for lessons without being too overt about it, save for the ending speech that hammers in the emotion, and is sure to make your eyes well up. It deals with, on a macro level, how as humans we should be helpful and tolerant to those who don't speak our language or understand our culture, that one shouldn't be made to think one's superior just because, or make the other look small. And on the more micro level, the structure of the family and its importance. All these and more, told through a story about a woman finding her inner strength to stand out, stand up and be counted, building and reinforcing confidence that she's more than just a Laddoo machine.

But social factors aside, the more obvious ingredient that's put into the movie, is the Mind Your Language type scenes when Shashi enrolls herself into an English crash course to learn conversational English in four weeks. Instead of Mr Brown, there's Mr David (Cory Hibbs) the teacher (whose sexual orientation again highlights the differences in the human race and the need for tolerance and acceptance), and a motley crew of classmates from various parts of the world bonding together. From a woman who centered her life around family, building a network of friends became something of a lifeline of sorts, in keeping life interesting through the sharing of experiences, and of course, food.

English Vinglish has everything a typical Indian film contains, from comedy to romance - handled with such maturity - culture and language. What more, it has Sridevi's remarkable return, showing why she was, and still is, one of the iconic female actresses ever to grace the screens of Indian Cinema. A definite recommendation, and though formulaic at parts, is delivered with such slickness, that I'd shortlist it as one of the best this year. Look out for Amitabh Bachchan's cameo as well, on board a plane and watching Source Code with amusement!

Friday, October 05, 2012

Tai Chi 0 / Tai Chi Zero (太極之零開始 / Tai Ji Zhi Ling Kai Shi)

New Heroine In Town

The first thing that'll jump out at you should you watch the trailer and promotional clips, is the steampunk influences in this martial arts film. But don't let that bother you too much because it's nothing but a large red herring, and something of a gimmick, that added a fun element to the typical story of a zero to hero, only that this Stephen Fung directed film comes in two parts, splitting it down the middle to focus on its protagonist's journey from a nobody to a somebody, surrounded by a village full of highly skilled exponents out to defend their livelihood.

The plot is pretty generic and derivative, but thankfully the film has its technical department to thank for, in dressing this up really beautifully, with the story focusing on its countless of different easter eggs to bring on the laughs, or the surprises, that keep on coming in fast and furious fashion. It doesn't take itself too seriously, and has many tongue in cheek moments clearly set to lull the viewer into what would be an anime inspired presentation gone life action, and it worked incredible wonders, even though it's half a story, with the promise of more to come in the sequel (which is already primed for release later this month) for this mixed-genre film.

It centers around Yang Lu Chan, played by newcomer Jayden Yuan, who himself is a former world champion in Wushu, likely to follow the footsteps of Jet Li if this film takes off at the box office, given that this is quite the showreel for the young martial artist turned action actor. His character is born with a small horn at his right temple, which is indicative that his is a life blessed with natural kung fu prowess if harnessed correctly, and destined for something great. But he ended up with the rebels fighting an ailing Qing dynasty, before having to flee to the fabled Chen Village, where he is to seek the village chief in order to be imparted a set of Tai-chi inspired martial arts, in order to control and expel the inner injuries he's sustained, threatening his life. And each time he uses his skills, the shorter his lifespan becomes, during this critical stage.

But things are never made easy for the protagonist of course, and he gets bullied by Master Chen's daughter Chen Yu Niang (Angelababy), and other skilled exponents all trained in the same arts, which has been decreed never to be taught to outsiders. Most of the film deals with Yang's persistence, at times comical, in wanting to pummel his way to the village and pick up the necessary skills, made easier through his innate ability to pick up skills through observation. The real adversary comes from the external and manifold. There's Eddie Peng as Fang Zijing, a western educated man who finds no love from the Chen Village where he comes from, and is the fiance of Yu Niang, having put in a crossroads where he's heading a project for the government in building a railway cutting right through the Village. He's slimy, and he's a cad, and it'll be interesting to see how his character develops in the next film. Then there's the threat of the Qing forces combined with the British forces who now find it lucrative to come exploit the Middle Kingdom. And if that's not all, the final scene sees two strangers at the brink of infiltrating the village, primed to lead into the next film.

And let's not forget about the steampunk inspired designs of a huge railway builder, which is just the tip of the iceberg on the technical strengths that this film boasts, from visual effects, to sets, to martial arts designed none other than Sammo Hung himself. Angelababy had the stunt team to thank for looking believable as the village chief's highly skilled daughter, fighting with a degree of grace, while Tony Leung Ka Fai's role also had him work with the stunt wires to lift him up the pedestal of one of the movie's greatest combatants, and then some. The playful character introductions throughout the film is something of a highlight as well, as Stephen Fung managed to assemble a variety of legendary actors, directors, and martial arts exponents to pop up as cameo and supporting characters for a scene or two, such as Shu Qi, Andrew Lau, and even Bruce Leung, amongst others, so keep your eyes peeled.

Some may dislike Tai Chi Zero for being all over the place, but that is nothing but its primary appeal, and Stephen Fung has assembled a extremely unique piece of martial arts filmmaking, dabbling into the era of silent films for flashbacks, animation for the opening credits and then some, and with a general eye, and aggressive camera work to visually spice up the narrative with a playful look and feel from first person perspectives, to anime and comic book styled fonts that appear either to move the story along, or translate sound effects into a comical visual treat. I'm already all pumped up for the follow up film, since there were many sub story arcs left hanging in the balance, and am reserving my call whether this could possibly be a favourite amongst the year's selection.
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