Tuesday, February 26, 2013

9-9-81 (บอก-เล่า-9-ศพ)

I Need Numbers!

Nine short films and twelve directors. This omnibus horror film project doesn't get any bigger, with each creative team providing their inputs in creating a sub-universe of their own, revolving around Wipawee (Patitta Attayatamavitaya), a woman dressed in a wedding gown, who had jumped to her death from an apartment block. Exactly why she did so, and the impact this fateful event had in the lives of those around her, whether family, friends acquaintances or in ways remotely linked, will get revealed in less than 90 minutes, where the full picture will be painted, not in chronological order, but in a fashion that will throw up some fine surprises.

If you're interested to find out the synopsis of each of the short films, you can do so at Wisekwai's definitive site on all films Thailand. Or you may prefer to keep the cards close to your chest and not sneak a peek, allowing each title card to flash up on screen with the segment's and director's name, to provide you that remote clue as to where the story might take you. Some of these segments are collaborative in nature, with light comedic touches introduced in some stories, while in others they somehow lapsed into dipping from the usual bag of visual tricks and cuts, and sound effects range that feature in just about any horror genre.

Patitta Attayatamavitaya plays the bride whom we get to know a little bit more of in various stories, and are given various perspectives just like how we play different roles in life, toward different people. Obviously her role here is central through all the stories, and Patitta gets to exercise a wide spectrum of emotions in her portrayal. Standing out in the various segments are her best friend, who's more of an obese and envious fiend at Wipawee's blessed physical outlook, and Setthasitt Limkasidej, who plays the boyfriend who had a more direct role in Wipawee's demise. These characters stretch across more than a single short film slice, and provides the anchor on which others get built upon.

The more powerful stories come from those whose characters are more directly related to Wipawee, while light comedy crept into the narrative as these relationship links become more diluted. And being Asian, you can bet (ahem) your last dollar that there will be a tale about superstitious folks being involved in rituals to ask dead spirits for lottery numbers, which in a way is asking for it, and playing with fire.

Makeup effects were basic, usually centered around the grotesque aftermath of a suicide victim from height, whose spirit appears up close to try and elicit cheap screams. They do work for a while, until you get acquainted with the makeup in which this tactic loses its effect. But that didn't stop the different filmmakers from trying. Omnibus films are usually fun to sit through, as it provides for a great cooperative platform in which to showcase different talent in cast and crew, and has that mix - some bad but mostly good - to keep things interesting and leaving audiences guessing.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Kai Po Che!

The Three Amigos

Some 3 years ago, Chetan Bhagat's novel 3 Point Someone was made into Rajkumar Hirani's film 3 Idiots starring Aamir Khan, and the movie was an instant blockbuster success, despite some controversy surrounding the placement of the writer's credit. In Kai Po Che! adapted by director Abhishek Kapoor, there's no such dispute given the opening credit to Chetan Bhagat as the original novelist with The 3 Mistakes of My Life, and from the get go you may see some shades to 3 Idiots, especially when the story deals with three friends, but this time round the narrative spins into a darker territory, against an explosive time in Gujarati history in the early 2000s.

The first Indian film to feature in the World Panorama section of the Berlin International Film Festival, Kai Po Che! has all the artistic trappings of a film that's quite unlike the usual mainstream Bollywood masala fare, sans deliberate song and dance sequences, and possessing an extremely strong storyline centered upon detailed and deep character studies on all three protagonists. There's hardly a scene that goes wasted here, as we're drawn into the world that these three friends inhabit, experience how things around them start collapsing, and permanently changing their relations forever.

In a way it reminded me of an entrepreneurial session I attended many years back, where a businessman dispensed some advise to those budding and raring to head to the world with their big ideas, that if possible, avoid running a business with friends. You can become friends with your business start up partners, but never quite the other way round, where you'll likely risk relations souring because in a way, familiarity breeds contempt. That's about what happened to Ishaan (Sushant Singh Rajput), Omi (Amit Sadh) and Govind (Raj Kumar Yadav), three friends who decided to open a business made up of a sports store and an academy combined, steeped towards cricket which is the national sport, and potential cash cow on the demand side. And things looked rather rosy with their firm camaraderie oblivious to the hardships and obstacles placed in front of them, such as the lack of finances and having to be sponsored by Omi's uncle Bittoo Mama (Manav Kaul), who is also an active member of a Hindu political party.

What I thoroughly liked about the film, is its equal opportunity provided to all three leads, such that each story arc does not overshadow the other, giving every one of them a focus, objective and dream of their own, that will inevitably converge towards the finale, making it so gripping, and heartfelt all at the same time. Ishaan finds a cricket prodigy in the kid Ali (Digvijay Deshmukh), where he becomes like the big brother, protective and ever so concerned about his professional development and welfare, sometimes at the expense and patience of his friends. In Omi, he has to fend off, and finally having to give in to help out in his uncle's political campaign, drawing him away from what he loves in life, to put his skills into work in another field against his wishes. And in Govind, the calculative one who had seen his lofty plans to expand their shop in a mall go up in smoke, he has the romantic angle to tackle when he falls for Ishaan's sister Vidya (Amrita Puri) and they maintain a secret relationship for fear of Ishaan finding out.

Making things more complex, is how politics, race and religion all play a part in the proceedings, leading everything to a heady and explosive mix with fear, tragedy and loss all being featured in this tale that dealt with plenty of darker themes. Many have cited the story by Chetan Bhagat to be amongst the weakest in his bibliography, but I suppose Abhishek Kapoor found the right formula in translating this for the screen in just a little over two hours. How the story arcs finally converge and come together was handled expertly, with that perfect mix of its limited songs, and adopting a cinematographic style and production values that opted for realism in the vast outdoors than having to cower in studios, bringing to life that real sense of urgency and tension as events escalate into an inevitable crescendo.

Whether it's a devastating earthquake, or the dangerous cocktail of race/religious based politics, armed violence and senseless killings, Kai Po Che! has these put in the background as tests of the friends' resolve to being larger than that hate and catastrophe around them, using their friendship and love for cricket to try and transcend negativity, albeit to varying degrees of success. Each actor, being relatively new to the scene, also bring about a certain breath of fresh air with their earnest performance, and are just about the perfect cast, sans big names and their associated egos, to bring Kai Po Che! to the big screen. My favourite Hindi language movie this year to date! A definite recommend!

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Hyde Park on Hudson

A Presidential Welcome

The distributor of Hyde Park on Hudson here could have prepped this as counter-programming during this Oscar season, having release this film at the same time as Lincoln, which had amassed the most Oscar nominations, and is a biography about one of the great US Presidents. Franklin D. Roosevelt is also one of the few war presidents, and the film touches upon the King of England's visit to the USA in the late 30s to obtain the support of FDR should England have to go to war, which is an inevitable conclusion as Hitler started his campaign.

Unlike Lincoln, this story by Richard Nelson takes on a more intimate view. It's not about politicking nor about FDR's rise to the White House. Rather, and rather repeatedly so, it's stated many times that this is about seeing those in power as people, who share the same hopes and fears as do any other. Told from the viewpoint of Daisy (Laura Linney), one of FDR's many mistresses, this is a somewhat romantic tale about a president with an indomitable spirit, being paralyzed in his legs, and having to rely very much on others for his mobility.

And while Daniel Day Lewis was born to play Lincoln, the casting of Bill Murray in the role may raise a few eyebrows. Granted that Murray is rather eccentric and erratic in his choice of roles, it's quite the surprise to see him play a president, and FDR at that. There's not too much effort going into trying to make Murray resemble his character to the real McCoy, but as good an actor as any other, Murray shows why he's correct for the role. There's no hint of the comedian in his character here, keeping it rather jovial and positive on the outside, while hiding immense pressure on the inside, pressure coming from his household of many women - from his wife Eleanor (Olivia Williams), secretary Missy (Elizabeth Marvel) and mother (Elizabeth Wilson), the latter who is host to the English King's visit, and that from running a country, though the latter we see less of.

If you've watched Tom Hooper's The King's Speech, then you should be fairly familiar with King George VI / Bertie (Samuel West), and his Queen Elizabeth (Olivia Colman), with this particular milestone visit being an event before that in Hooper's movie. When excited or afraid, Bertie chokes up and begins to stammer, but unlike the esteemed, regal presence one would expect from the monarchs, the way they are portrayed here is with plenty of humanity, warts and all. Being in an unfamiliar location that's hardly the resemblance of a castle, the Royals get to be entertained by their American hosts, and on one hand trying to keep up appearances, we see more of their moods and genuine attitudes behind closed doors, which Nelson's story had humanize them to something believable, and likeable.

But the story's firmly on the romantic side of FDR's heart, wit his womanizing ways being given the spotlight. It's not that there's anything graphic or obvious about it, but it goes to show his human tendencies, and desire for companionship, that you may feel that he could have been quite the cad in expecting the women he loves to come accept one another. This takes centerstage and most of the first act, which makes it take a while to build momentum, making you wonder how much longer this tale, as narrated by Laura Linney, would have to run before the Union Jack comes into sight.

We don't get to see much of FDR's administration here, given that this is a more personal portrait and biography of the man, rather than about the series of events in his life, and that of his policies that got shaped as America entered into WWII. Perhaps there is room for those stories, but that is material for another film other than this one. This one, stripped to its bare essentials, is about a man and the loves of his life, playing host to visitors from abroad coming with specific objectives and motives, and how any professional relationship would benefit from the personal touch and firm friendships formed that would be hard bonds to break. Recommended!


Urge to Bite

How far the mighty have fallen indeed. In 1995, writer-director Amy Heckerling hit the nail on the head with what would be the definitive chick flick of that decade with Clueless, and propelling its lead Alicia Silverstone into super-stardom, launching words and phrases into collective acceptance. Fast forward to today, both didn't quite have projects under the belt that rivaled their early success, so I guess coming together again was probably an opportunity to find their collective magic, and what's none better than to tackle a popular subject matter for film - Vampires.

Granted that Alicia Silverstone is no longer the teen that she was, Amy Heckerling has created quite a smart plot device, which provides Silverstone with playing an older character, but able to retain her relatively youthful looking features for the story of the undead and immortal. She plays Goody, a 2nd generation vampire who was turned by Sigourney Weaver's Cisserus in the late 1800s. In today's context, Goody managed to save Stacy (Krysten Ritter) from Cisserus, convincing the latter of Stacy's fashion sense and the need to stay with the times. So Goody and Stacy become "blood sisters" after the latter gets converted, staying in their coffins in an upmarket swanky New York apartment, leading the good life but only at night, but are at the beck and call of Cisserus when she goes out hunting for human blood.

It is probably in the mantra of human-friendly vampires to be sucking on blood of vermin, following the Twilight model. And Twilight dictates the falling in love, so there's a huge sub-plot revolving around Stacy and her relationship with a Van Helsing bloodline in Joey (Dan Stevens), where soon their differences get discovered because you can't really hide the fact that one is without a pulse, or body warmth, with pale skin that had hardly seen any sunlight. This of course raises the suspicion of Joey's father Dr. Van Helsing (Wallace Shawn), himself a vampire hunter given their heritage, and with Cisserus going around killing folks for sustenance, you'd know everything would converge and come to that necessary climatic finale to have all narrative loose ends resolved.

But underneath this candy and sugar coated sweetness, lies a rather dark tale about love, and the cruelness imposed by immortality. People you love would come and go, and there's always more than enough folks wondering why you just won't age together with them. It's an incredibly lonely process, and a heartbreaking one, as epitomized by Silverstone's character of Goody. But of course there are those who live it up given selfish motivations, and drunk by immense power that the undead status brings. This contrast is what propels the story right to its touching finale, which is rather surprising if one happens to contend and condemn the film solely on its trailer and promotional material.

Effects are laughable though, if you forget that this film is firmly set in B-territory. There's no masking of its limited budget, and the deliberate use of plastic props whenever possible, with tongue-in-cheek effect. Even the CGI is completely amateurish, a throwback to things down some two decades ago, which highlights just how cheap the production really is. But it contains a decent story, with romance and comedic elements to allow it more breadth in its narrative. Sigourney Weaver hamming it up these days in various support appearances also makes it a little bit fun, but the winner here are the darker tones that lie beneath its surface, if you'd only give this film a chance, and look a little bit deeper. Recommended!

Movie 43

Wait Till You See What I Got Hidden!

If you're up for some short stories in the comedy genre, then this film is for you, if you don't mind jokes that are offensive and appealing to the lowest common denominator, with a star studded lineup to sweeten the deal. Touted as a film with the most stars, it's quite like the many ensemble effort that Hollywood has been churning out of late like Valentine's Day and New Year's Eve, although this consists of no less than 13 separate shorts that for sure had tickled my funny bone.

It would be insane to review each and every short film contained within, which were held together and presented as a screwball screenwriter wannabe (Dennis Quaid) whose ideas for a feature film are getting pitched to a studio executive (Greg Kinnear), which allows for a variety of content to be laid out for the purpose of cramming plenty of recognizable faces into lead roles in the respective shorts. Having different directors helm each segment also brought about different styles in presentation, and it couldn't be more over the top crazy when a peek in the credits list see Peter Farelly and Seth MacFarlane having producer credits, the latter seeing his stock rise in recent months.

Some highlights of the film that I had enjoyed somehow centered around speed or blind dating - Kate Winslet and Hugh Jackman on a blind date with the latter playing an eligible bachelor which the former will find out why, speed dating amongst a group of superheroes played by Justin Long, Kristen Bell, Jason Sudeikis and Bobby Cannavale, and Halle Berry and Stephen Merchant playing truth or dare during their first blind date with insane results. Others include the segments that poked pun at people's penchant for doing the impossible with technology in iBabe with Richard Gere playing an executive, and Terrence Howard playing a coach in the 50s giving that motivational talk to his basketball team before their all-star match up.

There were duds too, such as Emma Stone and Kieren Culkin playing an unlikely couple giving each other sexual innuedos over a supermarket check out counter, or Johnny Knoxville and Seann Wiliam Scott playing the best of friends who get to celebrate the latter's birthday with a leprechaun, that somehow tried too hard and didn't hit its intended highs. Thankfully though these misses were kept to a minimum, and while the others were passable, they benefitted from having a scene or two that were outrageously offensive and funny.

This is probably Paris Je T'aime and New York I Love You in cruder, and grosser terms. where toilet humour is never out of place, and political incorrectness gets embraced with open arms. A definite must for those who haven't smiled in a while, and need the simplest of reasons to laugh out loud.


Walking Into History

Daniel Day-Lewis is primed for another Best Actor Oscar, and the truth is it's not hard to see why, and he doesn't become the 16th President of the United States, but transforms into him, disappearing completely and immersing himself into the role. And yes that voice, somehow made the entire illusion complete, and it's hard to see how any other actor could top his effort to play Abe Lincoln, given that Day-Lewis probably gave us the most definitive interpretation to date, despite the Vampire Hunter parallel universe version being one of the most fun.

And with Steven Spielberg at the helm as director, quality is assured and stamped on every intricately crafted scene, that none go wasted, and will totally engage you for more than 2.5 hours, even if most of what's transpiring on screen happen to be plenty of politicking amongst politicians of the day. And you know it's done right when something so steep in one's country history, can be compelling to others who are largely at best remotely aware of the many milestone events, beginning from Lincoln's second term in office, with the American Civil War into its fourth year, and Lincoln pushing hard for the 13th Amendment in the US Constitution to abolish slavery.

Adapted in part from Doris Kearns Goodwin's book Team of Rivals: The Political Genius of Abraham Lincoln, Lincoln the movie fights its narrative battle on these two fronts, which is probably what has framed the Lincoln administration and set the president in his course in United States history. Those looking toward having violent scenes of war that Spielberg is capable of creating, may be a tad disappointed, though compensated with the opening scene after a short prologue, that had a bloodbath of a battle between the Unions and the Confederates, which highlighted the urgency of the current administration to seek peace rather than to have American kill American by the thousands.

But on the same agenda is the table to abolish slavery, and here, Lincoln and his trusted aides and advisers, such as State Secretary William Seward (David Strathairn) have to draw upon their experience in policies, compromises, sheer gut and will, and personal convictions, to fight not only what's on the battlefront, but something more challenging against lawmakers, to try and turn the tide by doing almost whatever it takes to obtain votes for their cause. It's easy to turn these scenes into boring, paint-watching where rhetoric after rhetoric get blasted from one side to the other, but under Spielberg's execution, these scenes of cajoling, influencing and encouragement, highlights the frailness of a newly formed democracy, and their emphasis to seek reunification of sorts amongst a country divided by war, and a war against one's way of life.

If there's a small quibble, it is perhaps this screenplay, written by Tony Kushner, is relatively void Lincoln's personal life, save for a couple of scenes in private between him and his wife Mary (Sally Field) where they bicker a lot, and through heated conversation we learn a little bit more about their married past, and those with his sons Tad (Gulliver McGrath) and Robert (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), the latter finding it hard to step out of his big man's shadow, and finding opposition when wanting to join the many other sons who decided to leave family to take up arms for their cause. Supporting characters were also fairly one-dimensional save for Tommy Lee Jones' portrayal of Thaddeus Stevens, leaving the spotlight firmly on the titular president and his fight for just cause.

It's little surprise then to find that Lincoln had emerged as a frontrunner with the number of nominations chalked up for this season's Oscars. With Spielberg and his frequent collaborators in John Williams providing music, Michael Kahn tightly editing this, and lensed by Janusz Kaminski, this is one solid biography of an American President that's befitting of the man, full of intricate details and crafted with love in every aspect of its production values, and probably will set the bar with which how presidential biographies in future could be benchmarked against. A definite recommendation, even if one knows what the outcome would be, since Daniel Day-Lewis gives a one of a kind performance here, as always.

Friday, February 22, 2013


No We're Not Serving Coffee Now!

You'll probably know Robert Zemeckis through his films such as the Back to the Future trilogy, and of course Forrest Gump. Those films had a feel good quality to them, and created thriving cultural icons. So I guess there's a need to walk down the wild side for a change, and get back in touch with directing real people as opposed to dabbling predominantly with CG and 3D in A Christmas Carol and Beowulf, and with that brings Flight, which may seem like a legal thriller about one pilot's daring flight strategy that saved a lot of lives, but is actually a tale about one man's alcoholism and drug abuse, and the shame he has to live with in covering up his addictions from the public eye when propelled into the limelight.

Wait, does this mean that the trailer's wrestling of airplane controls that resulted in the money shot of flying it upside down, was nothing than a peripheral plot device? Unfortunately, that is an affirmative, with Denzel Washington's Whip Whitaker, a veteran pilot executing everything in the books to correct his jet's sudden nose down scenario, culminating in the upside down glide of the plane to an open field that minimize ground casualties. With 6 perishing under the circumstances out of more than a hundred passengers, Whip's steady hands, which we'd have experienced given his punching his plane out of a stormy weather, once again demonstrated that experienced pilots, compared to the younger officers (Brian Geraghty), are miles better with vast experience and cool head to deal with any unexpected situation.

But Whip's character comes under scrutiny, when the film opens with an eyebrow raising booze and drug abuse, hours before his ill fated flight. I don't know anyone who would not mind travelling on a plane with the pilot on likely DUI charges if found out. One could get away with it most of the time, but when found out, the circumstances surrounding one's state of mind, whether or not one's alert, would mean scapegoats are quickly identified, and blame pinned on something that's easily grasped, versus to scour through hundreds of materials, eyewitnesses and various reports. It's as if it's an open and shut case, and if it is, the film wouldn't be too much, would it?

Which means Don Cheadle's lawyer character Hugh Lang, appointed to defend Whip, didn't get much to do, since this is not a legal thriller, and most of the charges got easily defended, deflected, and covered up through technicalities. It probably also reflected some hard truths in life, that perception is everything, and who's who in your network is just as important when it boils down to knuckle fights and you need some biasness to swing results in your favour. So exit Cheadle once he's done his supporting role. And Flight is temporal in its treatment of supporting roles, with John Goodman being Whip's principal supplier of his vice, popping up when needed to help sober him up, and Bruce Greenwood as Whip's pilot pal in the union, offers little advice, if any at all, there to represent the interests of most parties that would expectedly be in any lawsuits thrown at either direction.

Then perhaps Kelly Reilly's role was the most peculiar here, one that could have been done without as well. Her introductory scenes were edited in at the beginning quite haphazardly interspersed with what's going on thousands of feet in the air, and having little bearing with that panic in the sky. It's fairly irritating to be engaged in a mid-flight crisis, then cut toward Reilly's Nicold role as a junkie who got propositioned for a pornographic film in order to feed her drug addiction, then cut back toward the flight in the sky, then back at her woes of being unable to pay the rent, and passing out on a junkie high. We don't really care about Nicole at that point in the narrative, and having been put off, we continue not to care about her hook up with Whip, being rather peripheral in the character's motivation and intent, as being the fodder for Whip in a what-if scenario that he'd man up to his addiction, and take active steps to correct it, like Nicole did. We know that's the intent, and to add a little bit of loving between the two characters in the same boat, but editing 101 says it could have been done better.

Denzel Washington owns the role of Whip, but perhaps a little too much in successfully bringing out the helplessness of the character who repeatedly refuses to help himself, that after a while it stopped eliciting sympathy from the audience, and alienating Whip further away through his lies and cheating ways. It's consistent with those battling addictions, in that he never really admitted, and is in constant state of denial. Denzel's character is repulsive, and can lie to anyone straight in the eye. We'd like to root for the pilot who had saved lives from the jaws of death, but after knowing his character inside out, that fame and idolatry dissipates, and it became quite laborious to observe that one man's desperation for assistance when he had visits key witnesses to try and influence decisions and statements. Denzel nails his role and that nomination in this year's Oscars, but I suppose the statue will elude him no thanks to the overall negativity that role brought to the party.

Robert Zemeckis had teased Flight to be something more, but it boiled down to be an intense character study on alcoholism, drug abuse, and just about the most repulsive of human traits one can bring to the big screen. It's a departure away from his usual feel good movies, quick to remind us on the failings of the human being, that quickness to judge and condemn, though the pacing of the film sagged in the middle as it muddled around these issues far too much. The first act, without the unnecessary introduction of Nicole, and the final act, are what made the film excitably engaging, but I suppose having been out of the game for some time, it takes a little bit of getting used to, so let's hope Zemeckis next film will return him to the heights he was once known for.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Red Numbers (红字 / Hong Zi / Ang Jee)

Crawl Away, Nice and Slow

Are Singapore movies becoming predictable, and is there an unwritten rule that first time feature filmmakers ought to consider putting Gambling and a Chinese dialect (Teochew in this case) into their movie to appeal to the large Chinese-speaking heartlander base, and our penchant for betting? You can scroll through the list of Singapore films on the right panel, and tick off the movies that either has Gambling/4D as a theme, or feature it as a plot device, and the number would probably surprise. It's time to break away from this unnecessary and unhealthy obsession, and proclaim - movies with such scenes and themes, are B-O-R-I-N-G. And the truth is, they actually are.

Written and directed by first time feature filmmaker Dominic Ow, Red Numbers is that early local box office counter to Jack Neo's Ah Boys to Men: Part 2 success this year, with that film being the crowning glory at the box office, and this one more than likely to see empty halls. The cast list is fairly unimpressive even as co-producer Edmund Chen, a familiar face in television, got a starring role, and roped in some of his studio colleagues such as Hong Huifang, Chen Shucheng, Eunice Olsen and some of those from yesteryear, even if you get the best acting talent available on this island, you'll not be able to bail the film out of its insipid storyline.

Which may be why, like the mantra that's economically fashionable in country, if you can't find locals willing to partake in any work, go foreign! The leading role in the film went to Zhang Lu Bin (credited as Rubin), who stars as the world's most unluckiest person Xu Xiao Xu, booted out of his hairdressing job, and finding his luck turning for the worst each passing minute. He chances upon geomancer and Fengshui master known as Master Hui (a real life practitioner) who enlightens Xu that the latter only has a 3 minute window in his entire life for good fortune. And Master Hui also serves as consultant to the Gao family, whose patriarch Lao Gao (Chen Shucheng) had kicked the bucket, and returns to the world courtesy of bad CG effects, to try and bless his wretched family of his grand-daughter (Kanny Theng) and her no good live-in boyfriend (Sugie Phua), her bar girl mom (Hong Huifang), her voyeur dad (Henry Heng), her aunt (He Jie) and her aunt's lover (Lee Chau Min).

What transpires is an extremely laborious plot (if you can call it one) development involving Xu and the Gao family trying to avert the misfortunes, and death, that awaits them, while Edmund Chen's Lollipop, in what would be one of his worst roles ever, figures into the entire mix that tried to hoodwink the audience and pass itself off as a mystery. And not forgetting the obsession of the characters to try and second guess what Lao Gao has in store for them as far as 4D numbers go, which flashes across the screen at random intervals, encouraging you to take note of them and go buy them later.

Spoken lines are awkward, and the non-actors cannot act even if their lives depend on it, with Ow as director not being able to coerce any credible performances. Master Hui, the real deal, looks and sounds just like how he does on television during the Lunar New Year eve celebratory variety shows, and is obviously not an actor, with his namesake on screen being just a reader of lines, imparting Fengshui tips that you may care about to take notes. Everyone else seemed out of place and unsure about what their characters stood for, with hardly any development, with the likes of Eunice Olsen as a bargirl, and James Wong as yet another random pop up character, prone to exaggeration and over-acting.

Technically, the colors looked very saturated, and the narrative was so bad it wasn't even funny. Ow probably tried too hard in wanting to impress with his first feature, and fell into the many pitfalls that await the eager. Between Ow and his editor, someone probably thought it was a good idea for quick cuts each time Xu has to run from place to place. It's charming for a while, but restraint is something not in the vocabulary. And the same goes for the necessity to pepper every other scene with highlights of numbers, enlightening you that these digits in the show mean something in real life, being 4D numbers that won the lottery at some point in time. Trivial? Yes. In-movie easter egg? Overdone.

And one thing to note about differing standards. Sex.Violence.FamilyValues got into issues with the censors for purportedly making racist remarks in the film. Eventually, the decision to ban it became a decision to mute over the offending statements (muting itself is bloody irritating, though effective in making John McClane sound like a pussy). But why did Red Numbers manage to make a racist joke/remark, and got away with a PG-13 blessing? It boggles the mind, and one can only reckon that the same complainant / censor did not have the good fortune (or had!) to watch Red Numbers.

If there's only one consistent Fengshui prediction for this, I'm sure Master Hui would have seen this coming, that the film is going to be a box office dud, dead from the get go. For a film with commercial aspirations, it lacked mainstream sensibilities, and is harping on the rehashed elements that audiences are probably already tired of (Oh, yet another Singapore film, about gambling). It's time for local filmmakers to up the ante, because films like these that continue to get funding and made, just limits the genres of films that can be made here, and give Singapore films, on the whole, a bad name of being devoid of creativity and talent. Skip this at all costs, as it certainly qualifies, albeit early, as one of the duds this year.

Monday, February 18, 2013


You Can Be Clark Kent

There's almost always something special about a director's early films, as the charm comes from its inherent rawness, and perhaps willingness to take greater risks to get something finished. And this lack of experience at the helm also meant an appeal that audiences would be more forgiving, and open their hearts out in giving the film a chance. The magnificence is, when it works, like Bekas, you're going to embrace it wholeheartedly and completely.

Writer-director Karzan Kader draws deep from his own personal experiences of having to escape Kurdistan, Iraq as a young kid in the 90s, to come up with Bekas, a road trip tale of hope, following two orphaned boys Dana (Sarwar Fazil) and younger brother Zana (Zamand Taha), who have to fend for themselves at every corner and turn, growing up under harsh circumstances with little adult supervision. They have to rely on their street smarts, brotherly love and loyalty to each other to get themselves through day by day, earning their keep as shoe shiners for pittance, and homelessness meant sleeping out in the open at any random, but available rooftops.

And you would be mistaken to think that Kader would take the easy route out and flood his film with plenty of melodrama, to tug at your heartstrings at the plight of the boys. Instead, he fills his narrative with plenty of anecdotes and shenanigans that the two boys get into, which often result in either one, or both, being at the wrong end of a slap, ear pull, or in terms of greater insult, the slipper. But this is a story about growing up, and growing a hide that's thick to ensure survival, that the boys will have you in stiches most times when they get to the central plot device - of getting out of their predicament, and relying on any of their own means possible to get to America, and meet their idol Superman, whom they hope to enlist in a fight against Saddam Hussein, and to ressurect their dead parents.

Despite being non-actors, both boys Dana and Zana are set to charm your socks off with their banter, sibling rivalry, and inevitably, love. Kader knows when to push the right buttons in crafting scenes that will make you root for them to escape impossible situations, or to cheer them on as they encounter adversity after adversity in getting to their eventual destination, which is "just miles away" on a map that looks more like one from a discarded Risk board game. Anyone who thought Quvenzhane Wallis from Beasts of the Southern Wild, should take a look at these two boys, who are naturals despite their penchant to raise their voice most of the time. Whether or not it's Dana finding first love, or Zana being disappointed time and again by his older brother, these two boys put on a masterclass performance that makes your heart go out to them.

Filmed on location, the cinematography is excellent, capturing scenes seldom seen by many unless you've travelled to the region. And there's no more to ask for when the visuals have aural accompaniment that accentuated mood to provide that extra dimension of feelings. Through a road trip, Kader manages to link scenes up perfectly, as the boys go from episode to episode atop their donkey, and every other conceivable mode of transport from cars to trucks, to evade detection and capture as they pass through guarded borders. Whether or not they reach their destination, would be immaterial by the time the story ends, painting a bigger picture of hope and love, narrative themes which are far more powerful than the fictional deity they seek to locate in a foreign land, whom they probably found in each other.

Bekas is one fine film set in the Middle East, such as Son of Babylon, that will endear. A definite recommendation!

Bekas opens in cinemas from 28 Feb 2013, as part of The Picturehouse Selection.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Last Stand

Grab All Available Weapons

The action heroes of the 80s and 90s are back, coming out of retirement to show the world that they still have a thing or two especially when the Hollywood action genre still hasn't really found proper successors to the likes of Stallone, Willis, Schwarzenegger and probably every notable actor on the Expendables list. Coming together for Expendables was a treat, but individual egos meant each of the listed trio required their own film to flex their muscles in. Stallone went with Bullet to the Head, Willis returned with yet another Die Hard, and Schwarzenegger gave up his Governor role for that of a small town sheriff in The Last Stand.

Directed by Korean Kim Jee-woon, who did the genre blending The Good, The Bad and The Weird, Kim continued with that mix-mash of genres, combining the good ol' Hollywood action genre with that of a Western, complete with small town saloon, gunfights along Main Street, and having the sheriff and his deputies defending their town and way of life against a band of outlaws armed to the teeth with military grade weapons and training. The plot is kept extremely simple and linear, with a Mexican cartel head Gabriel Cortez (Eduwardo Noriega) breaking out of FBI custody, and making a run fit in a prototype sports car to provide for token car chases across to the Mexican border, with only the town of Sommerton Junction standing in his way.

Schwarzenegger headlines the production despite having the likes of credible character actors like Forest Whitaker in the mix, relegated to looking mean and bad-ass, and responsible for very poor escort of a high valued prisoner in Las Vegas. As the sheriff Ray Owens, Schwarzenegger does what he did best decades ago, spouting one liners to mixed reactions, and showing off his tough guy demeanour with that sensitive heart, being an ex big time cop having to walk away from adventure and excitement because he had seen too much blood being shed. With a team of three deputies in Jerry (Zach Gilford), Sarah (Jaimie Alexander) and Figgy (Luis Guzman), things hardly happen in their sleepy old town, until Gabriel and his cartel decided to use it as a transit for their escape.

Curiously though, Johnny Knoxville also got top billing locally, but only had yet another small role to play as a weapons aficionado, which in the trailers, would have shown his responsibility in providing the big guns to match their opponents' firepower. And also as comic fodder. The rest of the supporting cast are largely relative unknowns, allowing attention to be stuck to Schwarzenegger, with few surprises brought to the table, from build up, to scene after scene of full on action greatness.

More disconcerting would be the need for graphic violence in just about every action film in recent months, this one included. I'm no prude or squeamish toward such scenes where bodies get pumped with lead, heads get blown open, bodies dismembered upon explosions and the likes, but too much of such scenes has somehow numbed my attitude towards them. Gone are the days of suggestion, and the new norm seem to require such scenes in the pretext of realism, but I suspect it's because audiences have been sensitized that cultivated the need for more. One can be wrong though.

Still, amongst the three films from the holy trinity of 80-90s action movies, The Last Stand stood tall amongst the competition, relishing in its successful fusion of genres and being a lot of irreverent fun, with cliches galore, and having everything done loud, complete with one dimensional villains whom you'll love to hate. Hollywood doesn't make action films like it used to, and now it took someone else to show them how to again. Recommended!



Cinema audiences have in recent months been introduced to literary franchises such as Lee Child's Jack Reacher series with Jack Reacher, and now Richard Stark's Parker novel series hits the screens with Taylor Hackford's Parker, with Jason Statham in the starring role of a professional thief who lives by his uncompromising moral code that he imposes on his partners, only to soon find himself being double-crossed, and through a stroke of luck in surviving what could have mortally finished him, returns to exact a cold and calculating revenge. And yes, it certainly did seem like any other Jason Statham action film out there.

But as a fan, I guess that's exactly what one would be asking for, since if it ain't broke, why fix it? Casting Jason Statham in an action role will only mean some elements of characterization staying consistent (and that's why he's casted, right), as someone who is as much of a lone wolf as he is a team player, talks less, delivers much, and doesn't waste time nor BS in dispatching opponents. Being a real tough guy, action sequences get crafted to his strengths, together with his reputation of doing his own stunts bringing some authenticity to the characters he plays. Some may find fault with his acting chops, but face it, you don't come to expect much of that in a Statham marquee action film.

The plot is kept fairly simple. We get treated to a major heist at a carnival with Parker and a new crew introduced by Parker's mentor Hurley (Nick Nolte), which came with a bad after-taste when Parker's rule gets a little bit compromised when one of the four members deviated from their established plan and put strangers in harm's way. But more deviation from the original intent came up, as Melander (Michael Chiklis) suggests they reinvest their earnings to prepare for a much larger job, and with Parker's refusal, he gets gunned down and left for dead. But you can't keep a good man down, and before you know it, he's back plotting off the heels of his ex-crew, to steal what they had stolen from him and more, but not before they send a hitman Parker's way.

Action sequences here are stylishly created, bloody and violently executed to perfection. Statham versus Kroll (Daniel Bernhardt) was a highlight, in their close quartered combat in an apartment, coupled with the finale which was what Statham normally does best when in character - quit the talking and get down with the executing. A few scenes allow Statham to show off his usual physical moves, which are usually impressive treats that Statham has to pull off to cement his action star status.

And lucky for Statham, he gets romanced by two ladies in the film. There's Emma Booth playing Claire, Parker's love and daughter of his mentor Hurley who naturally becomes a target when Parker's life is at stake, and Jennifer Lopez as a desperate real estate agent who gets unwittingly caught in Parker's revenge plans. Lopez doesn't act in too many movies these days, but she plays the perfect fodder opposite Statham, lending good comedic timing to an action film that's serious from the get go. The romance didn't really work too well since it's unrequited love that's adopted here, and somehow these scenes felt too laborious, necessary to set up how Parker is a loyal one woman man, but is largely unnecessary to the main plot on vengeance.

Director Taylor Hackford, who had done an action thriller with Proof of Life, could have improved the pace of what seemed like a fairly straightforward film instead of having its middle act sag on the weight of an inconsequential romantic focus and repertoire between the two leading characters - yes we get that engaging a star like J.Lo would be wasteful if scenes do not exploit her physical presence - and having more challenging villains would have helped Parker cement that his mission wasn't that easy a walk in the park. Still, for Statham fans, this is once again an automatic must watch, just to see how many iterations of the same film can he get to do, time and again. Let's hope he keeps it varied enough to avoid a career like Seagal's!

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (大話西遊之三藏付魔 / Da Hua Xi You Zhi San )

I'm Supposed to What?

The Journey to the West story has been told countless of times in various mediums, and for film, there could only be a capture of a segment reasonable enough for a 90 minute film thereabout, and one that usually involves the Monkey King and an assortment of demons and spirits to deal with. Stephen Chow himself was involved in what would be two of his best comedies in A Chinese Odyssey, where he co-directed and starred as the Monkey King, turning in a rather touching story that had a strong romantic core, and provided a real spin off and unique vision to the well known stories contained within the Chinese classic. So what else does Chow has up his sleeve this time round?

Truth be told, I wasn't quite impressed with the idea that Stephen Chow had to revisit one of his greatest films, and do another version of it. But Chow had proven me wrong, and had some nifty creative ideas behind what he had wanted to do with another Journey to the West tale, hardly rehashing the earlier Jeff Lau effort. He had managed to keep the strengths of what he is well known for in irreverent comedy, and crafted his best in years, while coming up with yet another new spin to keep things engaging even for the most jaded amongst us on the tale of Monkey King. The trailer, while keeping things really short, now on hindsight was a brilliant little piece of a short prologue, while teasing the audience on a Monkey King appearance that's never been portrayed nor seen before in this form, which does take some getting used to.

But this film, co-directed with Derek Kwok, sets its sights on Tripitaka the monk, or Xuan Zang, instead, before he got preordained into monk-hood. In this re-telling, Xuan Zang (Wen Zhang) is a novice demon-hunter, and a hopeless one at that. He believes that every demon should be shown compassion, and is for non-violence as much as possible, in order to rehabilitate demons that he found, using his book of nursery rhymes which his master claims to be one of the best sutras around for subduing of spirits. Xuan Zang embodies all that is benevolent, consistent in spirit (pardon the pun) what you know of the character, except that he has that thick mop of hair. But despite his lack of skills other than a stout heart, help comes in the form of Ms Duan (Shu Qi), the expertly skilled demon hunter, with her own posse to allow some cameo appearances, who has the hots for Xuan Zang (again playing to the tune that he is someone desirable, as any Journey story goes), and pops up almost always at the right time to save his hide.

Elements from Journey stories include the individual encounters with all his disciples and their tweaked back stories, which credit has to be given to the screenwriters for improvements that worked within the confines of this alternate story they wanted to tell. The highlight is of course how Xuan Zang's first meeting with Sun Wukong (Huang Bo) went, which is as comical and witty as can be, which extended to the big battle finale that had as much heart, a key winning element from Chow's A Chinese Odyssey films, to move when themed against the notion of sacrifice. The final twenty minutes was a fitting climax, building up upon a series of very smart episodes, which included, on a higher level, how scriptures are based on love.

And this romance between Xuan Zang and Ms Duan forms the crux of the story, like in A Chinese Odyssey, that drives the narrative forward. Shu Qi plays the much tomboyish demon hunter with aplomb, who has to dig deep to find her femininity in wooing Xuan Zang, and who would have guessed she looked so comfortable and credible in executing many of her martial arts scenes. Wen Zhang like others before him who have played the kind monk, was right at home with his performance, a little bumbling mixed with that tinge of innocence, and sheer determination in wanting to do good despite only having the best of intentions, and none of the skills. And amongst the other characters, all eyes are perhaps on Huang Bo's rendition of the Monkey King, which I can only say it's extremely different to begin with, and I'm sure some find the character design a little bit bewildering.

Then again, it's a retelling, so some decisions made may not sit well with others, but I thought it was a breath of fresh air, especially since it's probably the first time (in a long while maybe) that it took the stance of all the disciples being enemy combatants and demons. I can't rave enough about the finale that dealt with how the Monkey King got that golden headband of his, as it touches on the virtues of love and forgiveness all in one fell swoop, conspicuously making the deities of Journey missing and unnecessary in this story.

Chow as a director has somehow imparted his acting techniques from the many demeanours he had portrayed in the past, to probably each and every character here, so much so that everyone has shades of Chow's easily recognizable persona, especially when dealing with comic timing, and style. And like his recent lavish productions, this one is no different, which is full of CG effects, but polished and more of a tool to tell the story rather than drawing attention to themselves. But that doesn't mean that Chow has lost touch with his more humble beginnings, at times opting for practical gags that had served him well in the past, and low brow humour still ever-reliable in eliciting laughter.

Given a subtitle in this film, one can only hope there's a follow up of sorts, because the baseline has been set, the origins told, and what lies ahead are the countless of episodes in the troupe's perilous journey westwards to retrieve the Buddhist scriptures, which anyone could be taken and given a new narrative spin in similar treatment as this one. Stephen Chow once again showed that he still has that creative flair and streak within him, that even if he doesn't appear in front of the camera, he has what he takes behind it to deliver the best of his heydays. One of the best films out of this Lunar New Year season!

Upside Down

Right Side Up

I'm all for science fiction, with filmmakers and writers coming up with something innovative and unique worlds to spin their respective tales in. But sometimes they try too hard in explaining their vision and set the rules they want those in the same sandbox to play in, and these inadvertently get to trip everything up, that they no longer make much sense, and instead provide those gaping plot loopholes in which you have to accept wholeheartedly, since there will be no explanations for these gaps at all.

And so, Upside Down by Juan Solanas is exactly that, where the plot device, ideas and backgrounds work if they didn't get explained to death. But it had to provide three "laws" from the get go that immediately sunk whatever goodwill you want to extend in order to enjoy the film. It showed us two planets side by side to each other, and that these planets are unique because they have dual gravity, which abide by the rules of matter being in one gravity, will always be pulled by the same, that weight can be offset by matter from the other world, known as inverse matter, and that inverse matter will burn when it's in contact with matter from the other side.

All's fine and dandy, except when you seriously think about it, how can the two worlds be connected to each other by virtue of a Tower of sorts, which serves the conglomerate known as Transworld where the richer Up world is exploiting minerals from the Down world, thereby creating an instant income gap that's as wide as the planets are apart. This fixed connection meant no rotation on their own axes, otherwise this Tower would break, and if no rotation, how do we explain sunrises and sunsets? Worse, how can light even penetrate through to the lands, especially deep within, when skyscrapers are everywhere, suggesting that the individual worlds are actually flat. But this contradicts its opening scene...

So put that astronomical logic aside, and focus instead on the love story. It's a Romeo and Juliet epic where two lovers are star-crossed, and each time they managed to transcend their constraints, the calvary arrives without question and starts shooting at them, condemning them to stolen kisses and glances, and another convenient and inconsequential plot development where one of them had to suffer from temporary amnesia due to a fall. And conveniences are what Solanas enjoyed most in his film when he discovered he'd soon be found out, that the logic he placed didn't become the opportunity for a special tale to be told, but an albatross around the neck.

Jim Sturgess plays Adam, the man from Down who falls in love with Kirsten Dunst's Eden from Up, whom he met when they were young kids atop their respective mountain peaks, and breaking multiple rules just to hang out together. They separate for more than a decade, before Adam conjures up a plan, with the help of others, to try and infiltrate to the Up world by using inverse-matter, strapping a whole lot of them in a vest, and hidden in various parts of his clothing, so that he could anchor himself on the right side of gravity when in the other planet. But the law says that inverse matter will burn up, so in between his hour long dates with Eden, he has to disappear ala Cinderella before his entire body combusts. So he can't really hold much of a conversation for too long, or partake in whole day activities with his lady love.

But the narrative sometimes forgets this, and opts to signal his time is up in the most random of ways and durations, even as far as montages go. The only good out of this is following Adam's flight from lady love, coupled with fantastical imagery as he transits from world to world, especially when racing against time. Stripped out of its science fiction elements, this is a tale of obsession and sacrifice for love, plain and simple, without those unnecessary rules to play by. The special effects will set to wow, especially when it remembers that Adam has a specific career requirement in the development of an anti-ageing cream, with a key ingredient that will be crucial to the plot.

Jim Sturgess and Kristen Dunst didn't need too much time to make it believable that they could be lovers separated by distance and social standing. The film tries a feeble attempt at condemning the status quo of a class system, so the potential got wasted. The leads serve as eye-candy, while on the other hand had enough acting chops in them to make you fall in love with them as well, and appreciate their plight. But Solanas' handling of the story, and film, left too many gaping narrative gaps that would short change the audience, especially its ending when the director felt that pulling the plug on a tale he has no idea how to finish, would be the best move. And thus condemned the entire film.

Friday, February 15, 2013


The Horror!

Mention the name Alfred Hitchcock, and one of his greatest films, and that of cinema's, in Psycho, will inadvertently crop up. But who would have thought that there was just so much drama behind the making of a film blessed with an instantly recognizable iconic scene, that the production of this film forms the basis in which the biography of Alfred Hitchcock the director could be told. Adapted from the book Alfred Hitchcock and the Making of Psycho by Stephen Rebello, this bio-pic by director Sacha Gervasi is reference filled for the Hitchcock buff from the get go, and of course, those who have not seen Psycho, would do themselves a favour before watching this film.

Sir Anthony Hopkins dons prosthetics to play the heavyset director, whom we get introduced to while at the peak of his established career with the success of North By NOrthwest. Needing another film to differentiate himself from the many copycat filmmakers now flooding the industry to make the kind of movies that he does, we go on a filmmaking journey from rights, to production, and what I thought was a very quick climax in the final act with the independently run marketing and promotional efforts of the film, and its subsequent release.

Alas we get very little in terms of the private life behind the public Hitchcock brand and figure. Those expecting somewhat of the usual elements in a biographical film, such as childhood, career highs and lows, will be a tad disappointed because everything we can possibly learn about Hitchcock the man, is centered around Psycho. Which may interest the casual fan, but not so the aficionado who would probably be armed with facts and figures, probably taking pleasure from seeing notable anecdotes brought the the big screen by screenwriter John J. McLaughlin and director Gervasi, which were used by the truckloads, making it feel, just as Hitchcock would have you in the Psycho film proper, as if you're there and participating as well.

But for all that Hopkins could master to play the directing maestro, it is Helen Mirren who steals the show as Hitchcock's wife Alma Reville, who for more than three decades have stood by her husband dutifully, playing the role of his biggest supporter, fan, and critic, as well as being part of the key creative force that's behind the Hitchcock brand. The irony then is perhaps scenes where she tangents off from Hitchcock, much to his jealousy, to spend time with another screenwriter who enlists her help to polish up his script. This new found freedom of being recognized for her talent is liberating for anyone who has stood under the limelight of another, and it does say something when this sub-arc collapses and converges with the main narrative thread to give us that narrative charge to the finale.

I always have interest in films that tell of the old Hollywood days, where studios wield considerable might with their system of control over the entire chain of production and distribution, and censors being quite the pain in the butt more so than those of today. Even Hitchcock himself had to wrangle with the censor board, as Psycho became quite the poster child for compromises that had to be made, and how it triumphed over certain contentious issues regarding nudity and violence. Then there's the artistic production values with sets and design, as well as actors of today having to portray their luminous counterparts of yesteryear, bringing them back and mimicking them to the best of their abilities.

This is more of a film about the making of Psycho, with the accidental tale of Alfred Hitchcock the man and his wife Alma thrown into the mix. It provided glimpses of his professionalism, and will undoubtedly pique your interest further to devour other Hitchcock materials out there. For starters, that box set that I've got would be the right place to start with. But for the uninitiated who are interested to watch this film, get your hands on the original Psycho movie first, then drop by to witness key moments that had occured to make that vision a reality. Stay tuned for an end credits stinger as well. A definite recomend!

Love... And Other Bad Habits

Does It Come In Black?

Produced by Mediacorp's new Toggle.sg channel, this made for streaming movie struck gold when given an opportunity for a theatrical screening, and it was later announced that two different versions were playing, with alternate endings, so it's really something quite novel. Except that I don't expect that anyone would want to pay twice the price to watch the film again just for the finale. After all, it really does look too much like a typical local television production, meant for the small screen, with local television idiosyncrasies imprinted everywhere from sets to cast, against very familiar storylines.

Directed by Lee Thean-Jeen who was at the film Homecoming, and attached to the still stuck in development hell ambitious project 1965, Love... and Other Bad Habits is a tapestry of three relatively distinct short stories that rarely intertwine, telling stories obviously meant for the Valentine's Day period with plots that would appeal to a vast spectrum, from puppy love budding in schools, to that between co-workers at the workplace, and a relatively mature one amongst estranged spouses. It toed along the safe lines, and that made it rather average with little standing out, falling upon the usual cliches and comfort zones.

In the first tale, we go back to school with Kimberly Chia's Ann being the subject of pursuit by Ian Fang's Darrell, only for the latter to not admit it directly, but playing guessing games with the former through social media and phone technology of today. On one hand, during drama classes that he almost always make a scene out of, he displays nonchalance and disinterest in their Cyrano play, but once out of class, his boyish awkwardness gets in the way, tripping up most times when he's alone with her at the bus stops, resulting in silly runs home. Whether he will finally muster up some courage, identify and admit to being the pursuer, is what this story deals with.

Ann comes from a single parent family, which forms the second story. Her mom Mei (Zoe Tay) discovers that her ex-husband and Ann's dad Chin Wei (Chen Hanwei) is going to get married to Mei's best friend and rival all her life, Suzy (Kym Ng), and this causes a bit of confusion to everyone involved, especially when bridges weren't burnt, and everyone holding onto a candle for the other. Suzy obviously triumphs over everyone, and being quite oblivious to the emotional undercurrents, and it's up to Ann and more so JJ (Tan Shou Chen), Suzy's employee at her bridal shop, to step in to get everyone own up on their true feelings.

And the third tale, totally unrelated to the first except for the crossing of some characters in a very minor scene on the judging a book by its cover, deals with office romance between ad creative directors Mike (George Young) and Jess (Carmen Soo), who keep their relationship under wraps, only to find that their careers are at a crossroads - the ultimatum being one of them has to be let go, and promoted at the expense of another, if they can clinch the Spa deal with Mrs Cheng Cheng (Irene Ang). So it's a battle of the sexes, and seeing their professional aspirations being that road block in their budding relationship, whether it's career or love that's priority.

The characters aren't any less than cardboard in all the different segments, but at least this film doesn't admit to being anything more than it isn't, and there's nothing wrong in delivering a mediocre film done right. It may have touted itself to be one of the first films in having best friends Zoe Tay and Chen Hanwei cast opposite each other as lovers, with Tan Shou Chen almost always stealing the scene, if not for his rather cliched effeminate role here that's stereotypical and typecast. Some fantasy elements persists, and characterization was somewhat weak throughout, especially Kimberly Chia's character who may seem a little bit too mature and perfect for her age, again with many characters lapsing into feel-good, cardboard and one dimensional.

Zoe Tay's inevitable transformation from plain Jane to glamour puss was probably the only character shift, with Ian Fang's Darrell being someone who just decided to drop pretence and his cool-like-that facade. George Young and Carmen Soo were trying too hard to convince they were lovers, and most fun came from their war-of-the-roses type of rivalry where misunderstandings continue to mount as their relationship begins to deep dive into the doldrums. And with its ensemble cast, not everyone were given equal opportunity with their roles, such as Kym Ng's whose Suzy could have gone uber bitchy, or played the sympathetic card.

Still, this is meant to be a lightweight, feel good film for the Valentine's season, with its rather muted publicity about an alternate ending being the only trump card that could have convinced the curious to give it a go. Being a Toggle.sg original production, let's see when both versions would appear on the platform it was developed for, and hopefully gain a much larger audience from there.

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Viddsee Showcase of Top Local Short Films

If you haven't heard of Viddsee yet, then you should pay attention now!

Viddsee is the latest online social watching service from this part of the world for filmmakers and audience of Southeast Asian short film videos. Built and designed by engineers and filmmakers, Viddsee enables you to easily discover, watch and share stories from around our immediate region on your desktop and mobile devices.

As part of efforts in partnering with this season's Singapore Short Film Awards, Viddsee is the platform of choice to showcase last year's nominated films, releasing one film a day starting from Friday, 15 February, at 7pm everyday.

But of course, if you want a sneak peek into the lineup, here you go!

Friday 15th Feb
Awarded Best Art Direction
Nominated for Best Director, Animation, Script

Saturday 16th Feb
Nominated for Best Art Direction

Sunday 17th Feb
Nominated for Best Documentary, Editing, Cinematography

Monday 18th Feb
Nominated for Best Animation

Tuesday 19th Feb
Nominated for Best Art Direction, Performance

Wednesday 20th Feb
Awarded Best Editing
Nominated for Best Documentary

Thursday 21st Feb
Nominated for Best Animation

Friday 22nd Feb
Awarded Best Performance
Nominated for Best Director, Script

Saturday 23rd Feb
Nominated for Best Fiction

And of course, if the quality of these shorts have already piqued your interest, then don't forget to head down to The Substation for the Singapore Short Film Awards 2013 Showcase happening from 23 February to 3 March 2013. More details, including the lineup of films for each of the days, can be found here.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Special Chabbis / Special 26

Jai Hind!

It's been almost seven years before writer-director Neeraj Pandey decided to go back to the director's chair for what would only be his second feature film to date after making his debut with A Wednesday. And Special Chabbis, or Special 26, is indeed that special project that would lure him back, being once again a film inspired by true events, around a time in the 80s where identities of the taxman, and the policeman, were utilized by thieves in their respective heists against corrupt businessmen and politicians whom they know would not breathe a word on the loss of their ill gotten gains.

Akshay Kumar plays Ajay, whom we see as a Central Bureau of Investigations (CBI) officer, together P.K. Sharma (Anupam Kher), Joginder (Rajest Sharma) and Iqbal (Kishor Kadam) performing a raid in New Delhi together with local policeman Ranveer Singh (Jimmy Shergill) against a prominent minister. But soon this facade soon gives way that Ajay, Sharma, Joginder and Iqbal are none other than con men of the highest order - confident in execution, meticulous in detail, and able to cover their tracks really well in their many heists together. This is like Danny Ocean and his Ocean's Eleven, except that Ajay relies on a much smaller crew in their attempts to fleece, relying on quick wits to turn unexpected situations into opportunities of gain.

The crux of the story, once we get out of the extended introduction, is the cat and mouse game between Ajay and his crew, and that of CBI officer Wasim Khan (Manoj Bajpayee) who is determined to track them down and bring them to justice for ruining and embarrassing the good name of CBI officers everywhere. And in part this key assistance comes from Ranveer who had been duped into helping Ajay and crew, and possibly being the only one who can help identify all the perpetrators, who have so far stayed below the radar after the completion of each heist.

Neeraj Pandey knows just what it takes to make a heist film, utilizing key requisite scenes such as the planning, and execution, tossing in surprises along the way to keep things fresh and engaging for the audience, never for once knowing just how each attempt would play out, at times for light comedy, but most times in admiration just how an escape strategy got formulated, with audacity. What's best here is of course the true meaning behind the title's Special 26, where once it's fully explained, will wrap up the brilliance of the entire caper, which proved to be that ace up Pandey's sleeve, with a pace that never lets up, save for moments where he felt he had to balance the testosterone levels with the introduction of Kajal Aggarwal's character Priya, serving as token romantic fodder for Ajay.

I felt Akshay Kumar was badly in need of a hit, and a film that didn't requite him to play the joker. His filmography in 2012 was rather weak throughout, and for a hardworking actor who appears in more than a handful of outputs, 2013 might be off to a great start for his fantastic performance here as the master thief and schemer who is into his final lap, so that he can retire with his lady love and ride off into the sunset. It's not the first time Akshay's playing a thief, but it's clearly one of his best roles in recent years. And added to that is Anupam Kher's ever reliable performance in a supporting role, as the one amongst the gang who has the most to lose, given a large family to support, and the one who gets put in a spot to decide whether he should give in to the law, or stick by Ajay and his grand plan.

Special Chabbis / Special 26 is that crime caper that's all smart and serious, but never without a light touch when the situation calls for one. Perhaps the only weak points here were the song-and-dance interludes that felt forced and necessary, but would have done heaps better without these pauses in the narrative, mostly for romance to take place, and to flesh out more depth to the Ajay character. But in all honesty, it's the audacity of the crime that's being committed that we're here for, and to see just how, in true Ocean's Eleven style, these robbers get to wriggle their way out of trouble. Recommended!

ABCD: Any Body Can Dance

Dance Master

You'd wonder why it took so long before Bollywood finally came up with its own dedicated film about dance. With dance incorporated into just about every film, perhaps that was reason enough not to have a movie that dwells within the confines of a dance premise, which the US has in its Step Up franchise and UK with its StreetDance equivalent. But the lucrativeness of these franchises mean untapped opportunity, so why not make one and dabble with the 3D technology as well? The result is the aptly titled ABCD - Any Body Can Dance, because if anything, every character here does show off a thing or two, of the rhythm within.

And not to mention the success of the wildly popular Dance India Dance television series that also made that final push for box office potential, with some of the participants also making it to the film in leading roles. The storyline by Tushar Hiranandani is kept functional, and really simple. After all, all you need is an excuse to assemble a crew, and have them put through the paces in rehearsals and competition whether underground or official, to have highly choreographed item numbers to thrill the movie going audience. It begins with the rivalry within Jahangir Khan (Kay Kay Menon) and Vishnu (Prabhu Deva), the brains behind JDR, a dance troupe who is once again crowned champions in the nationwide Dance Dil Se competition, only for the former to kick out the latter through the employment of foreign talent.

It took a while before things started to pick up, because of the necessity for Vishnu to go through the motion of moping about what he should be doing, whether to go back to Chennai and continue teaching dance, or hang around in New Delhi to take another potshot at Dance Dil Se, with a vastly different crew. And helping him assemble something is good friend Gopi (Ganesh Acharyaas), although the members they finally get into their troupe are hardly any professional to begin with.

Like any self-respecting dance movie, this is again the requisite characters necessary to impart values like teamwork, camaraderie, trust, loyalty, and more essentially, dance skills through various training montage. And having a rag-tag crew also allowed little subplots to creep in, such as romantic rivalries, parental objections to all things modern and deemed destructive to culture, envy, melodrama, and drug abuse even, that allows individual characters their respective share of the limelight, given so many supporting ones who will inevitably fall by the wayside.

As far as competition goes, we don't really get to see much of JDR in action, especially since they're progressively turned into a balletic outfit courtesy of their new choreographer from the US imparting something that's quite lacking in the imagination. After all, they're an outfit who are dancing to impress, moving away from Vishnu's, and their original philosophy of dancing to express. So we follow DDR for the most parts, in watching how Vishnu whips up a motley bunch into a well oiled machine able to take on some of the best, especially with its inventive choreography.

Which in truth belonged to the multitude of choreographers that Bollywood is no lack of, providing an opportunity to showcase various dance forms through DDR's execution and their march towards the finals of the Dance Dil Se competition. Even Prabhu Deva playing Vishnu has to put his foot where his mouth is, given once central spot before the interval to dance and demonstrate a thing or two why he is and still at the top of his game. Unlike the HOllywood counterparts, the camerawork and editing here all combined seamlessly in providing the audience with the best possible vantage point in which to observe the dance and dancers, and nary did any put on the wrong foot such that you'd miss something crucial to their movement. It's only a pity though that there's no screen in Singapore showing the 3D version, as you can tell that deliberate care has been taken to craft this for the 3D medium.

While some dance choregraphy and sub-plots may have already been suspiciously experienced before in other films, there's no doubt that the key ingredient to the film's success is its ability to blend culture into dance, which will whip up any audience into a frenzy. And I suppose that is the key message, that while things we share and experience can be universal, culture is what will truly make a people stand out and differentiate themsleves for the better. And in this case, if others can make a dance film, so can India, and doing it even better! For those venturing into dance movies fo the first time, ABCD should be on the top of your list, and for fans of dance movies, this is something you'll not want to miss!

P.S. It's interesting to note that besides the Smoking is Injurious to Health warning at the start of every Bollywood movie of late that features scenes that have characters smoking, a little warning also appears at the bottom of the screen just when the deed is about to be done!

Sunday, February 10, 2013

[DVD] Model Behaviour (2013)

In 2010 I got the chance to review Australian independent filmmaker Nathan Hill's Jasper, which I enjoyed enough to hope that its cliffhanger would have a follow up film. That didn't happen, but that's only because the filmmaker had gone on to fulfill yet another film, this time swapping Private Investigator duties for the Melbourne Police Force's, playing a detective caught in a web of mystery in trying to unearth a serial killer who has been going around killing prominent people in the fashion industry, with methods that are grotesque, and leaving behind vengeful, cryptic clues.

With a story written by the multi-hypenated Hill, who also has directing responsibilities and starring in the leading role as Detective Jordan Rhodes, Model Behaviour doesn't have that tongue-in-cheek fun that Jasper had, preferring to stick to the serious given the subject matter and genre. Together with cinematographer Stewart Marshall, the filmmakers here have opted for a grittier look, and the handheld camera shots that glides throughout most of the scenes to highlight that sense of urgency and race against time to weed out suspects and whittle down possibilities, which seem to close the noose round Jordan's neck as collateral damage seem to mount.

You may think you'd have watched just about every cop thriller out there, but Hill and team managed to spin and weave something a little bit different, keeping things engaging through its central character, who seem to have just about the worst days of his career, from making errors in ethical judgement calls such as sleeping with his prime suspect, model Alexis Clarke (Stacey McMahon), losing his standard issue handgun, being framed for something he did not commit, becoming tabloid fodder, and suspension from duty just when there's some headway in the case. Talk about having a bad day, this one was a long spiral off what the title is, stemming from a moment of impropriety and leaving one exposed, and easily manipulated.

For the seasoned film-goer, you may have guessed just who would have been involved in the killings given the rather small cast ensemble, and Nick Levy's screenplay didn't work too much favours in leaving behind red herrings. Still, it had you guessing on the true motives behind the killings, and kept the non-linear narrative firmly on Jordan Rhodes and possibly the worst period in the character's life. The running time of just under 90 minutes also had Jordan's story-arc involving his family cut short, though it's a shrewd narrative move in knowing just when to cut one's losses when this expansion into Jordan's background didn't seem to go anywhere nor lend much to the plot nor characterization.

Perhaps Model Behaviour benefited from Nathan Hill's charisma in the lead role, where he had demonstrated his acting chops time and again in scenarios his character gets put under. One of my personal favourites involves his interrogation of a suspect, where you know he's skirting around his asking of questions until a fellow cop colleague took over and blew everything wide open, making Jordan guilty as charged. It showed the fallings of man especially when one tries to cover one's tracks, and Nathan Hill portrayed this struggle in this pivotal scene really well.

If you'd think Model Behaviour has its fair share of runway scenes, and the backstage access to plenty of beautiful models, well not quite. It's not a lightweight in treatment and doesn't come with the usual model cliches as one would expect for a film set in the industry, but an investigative drama that deals squarely on the issue on ethics. Model Behaviour showed just what it takes when creative forces get together to work on an independent production, dealing with its constraints to put out a solid film as possible. Recommended!

Friday, February 08, 2013

Hotel Deluxe (百星酒店 / Bai Xing Jiu Tian) / I Love Hong Kong 2013 (我爱香港2013恭喜发财 / Wo Ai Xiang Gang 2013 Gong Xi Fa Cai)

We Lost?

You know it's that time of the Lunar New Year celebrations when Hong Kong cinema puts out two comedies to usher in the new year, with star studded ensembles and cameo appearances to entertain the masses, which in recent times have seen two separate camps emerge to battle it out at the box office. There's the usual All's Well End's Well crew which was in its umpteenth iteration, now having to move along to something a little bit different in treatment, having their creative juices put behind the running of Hotel Deluxe, while the TVB backed crew led by Eric Tsang and team continue in their nostalgia backed stories, with their success in having pull many stars from yesteryears out of retirement and back onto the silver screen.

So I thought why not review both films at the same time, since they're released over the same period, with the obvious target audience those celebrating Lunar New Year in this part of the world, where audiences usually are quite forgiving in what's put on screen, so long as they are family-friendly in its entertainment values. Let's go with Hotel Deluxe first, which forms the premise revolving around a core team of hotel staffers who are put under pressure to maintain their property's five star rating, despite every individual's quirks and idiosyncrasies that threaten to

There's Ronald Cheng as the assistant manager OK Pao, Chapman To as Pacino the bartender and actor wannabe, Sandra Ng as the housekeeper with OCD known as Tao Jie / Peach, and Teresa Mo as the newly minted and unpopular manager called Cruella, whose shrewd and direct tactics do not earn her any new fans. Adding to the cast are Lynn Hong and Karena Ng who play rival stars staying at the same hotel, with the former playing against type as a spoilt and hypocritical celebrity, and the latter being the idol of OK Pao, which provides some room for some sort of romantic entanglement of sorts.

But from the second act on, the story streamlines into the trying to unearth a mysterious hotel property critic who could be anyone in the film, and the sham marriage that heiress Paris, played by Fiona Sit, tries to pull off at the hotel enlisting the help of the core team, in having to fulfill the requirements for her inheritance, with Raymond Wong entering the fray as her suspecting uncle Peter Chan (a play here since he's romancing Sandra Ng's character), also having OCD which naturally draws him to romance Peach. Ronald Cheng and Fiona Sit step up into leading roles from this point on, which doesn't disappoint since they share chemistry which worked.

The jokes here can be a little bit juvenile, especially in its opening act where the crew try to drive off Eric Kot's writer character from staying longer than necessary, and antics that see them go up against Cruella. There's the requisite toilet humour put in as well, which doesn't surprise, but does expose an unnecessary low point. Subplots get introduced and quickly dropped, leading to a fairly choppy narrative, but it's nothing unexpected for a movie like this that banks on every conceivable crazy notion to try and drive humour through. Production values do come off as a little bit cheap looking , and the storyline ultra-predictable in its end result, with the customary pat on the back for a job well done and a disaster averted.

So You Wanna Hang Out Sometime?

On the other film, I Love Hong Kong 2013 revolved around the quintessential Hong Kong coffee house known as the Cha Chan Teng, where Song (Alan Tam) is forced to sell off his long standing premises in order to pay off a debt that he stood as guarantor for, much to the chargrin of wife May (Vernoica Yip) and their children, who have to put up with early reunion dinners year after year so that Song's maximization of his restaurant's time for customers' discounted reunion dinners can happen. But ultimately he has to sell off his restaurant to rival Ha (Nat Chan), contemplates suicide, if not for an angel (Eric Tsang) appearing to make him think twice.

And that's when I Love Hong Kong 2013 really kicked off, with that nostalgic look into the past, dealing with the friendship of Song and Ha, now played by Bosco Wong and Michael Tse, their pursuit of May (Kate Tsui playing the younger version) and her best friend Yuen (Joyce Cheng), and their subsequent fall out due to Ha's mounting debt. The strength here was in the episodic recount of life that's much simpler, with Song being the country bumpkin meeting up with Ha, who showed him the ropes and is responsible for Song's settling down in the colony, before events drive these two friends apart.

It's a also a romantic tale between the poor Song and the rich girl May, framed against events in Hong Kong such as the stock market boom and bust, and issues about migration, which brings in an extra flavour to this comedy that I dare say belongs to a series that's far superior than its peers during this festive period. Good use of CG blending well with production sets and art direction makes the blast from the past scenes a sight to behold, with costumes also adding a dimension of vivid re-creation. Other highlights that were enjoyable included the musical numbers that came on, being reworked from classic tunes into catchy ones that turned this into a mini-musical.

Like its predecessor that pulled Teresa Mo and singer William So back to the big screen, this one also didn't lack in its reintroduction of stars from yesteryear, as if keeping with its theme about anecdotes from the past. Singer Alan Tam plays a pudgy looking Song with his bowled haircut, cutting a very different figure from his heydays as one of the king of Cantopop, then there's Veronica Yip, one time popular Cat III actress who had faded into obscurity, until now. All I can say is age can be cruel, and she didn't age as well as fine wine. Her acting too still wasn't much to be desired (pardon the pun), so it's a good thing that the narrative focused more on the younger versions of their characters, with Kate Tsui, Bosco Wong and Michael Tse carrying the film with their charisma.

What's sorely missing in both comedies, is the Cantonese language. For years now we have not had commercial releases from Hong Kong featuring the native language because of our Speak Mandarin campaign, so the prints we obtain are those dubbed ones either from Mainland China or Taiwan, which in many ways kill the wit that's in the banter and puns used by characters. Language is always rich and unique to culture, and when we're dealing with comedy, that's one key aspect being robbed when dubbed. Both films still suffer from being dubbed versions, and it's especially irritating when you read the subtitles, and what's being said doesn't tally at all with what's being heard, emoted, and expressed.

So the verdict, and my vote goes to I Love Hong Kong 2013. Not only does it feature a more substantial storyline, its treatment of nostalgia triumphs, in addition to having a good balance between its young stars of today with those from a generation before.

Thursday, February 07, 2013

A Good Day to Die Hard IMAX

During My Time I Did This Barefooted

It's been more than two decades, and some things just can't change. Bruce Willis became an action icon when the first Die Hard film burst onto the screen in 1988, giving rise to his John McClane character who was always at the wrong place, at the wrong time, and a trouble magnet. Since then, we've followed his adventures out of the Nakatomi Plaza onto the Washington Dulles airport, before going back to New York City and saving his country in the two follow up films, with good old set action sequences balancing his character's wit and sarcasm, plus that unmistakable Yippie-Ki-Yay cheer, as he grows to become quite the indestructible super-hero.

Director John Moore takes over the helm of this Die Hard film, and transports John McClane into an even bigger action adventure outside of his comfort zone of New York City/America, albeit with just a little bit of the fish out of water syndrome. Some would likely point to the fact of Americans poking their noses at other folks' domestic issues, creating a mess and wrecking mass havoc, involving none other than its spy agency and a clueless NYPD cop who's repeatedly telling us he's there on vacation. Yes John, for the umpteenth time, we know! I wonder what had gone into writer Skip Woods' mind when he found it necessary to have John McClane repeatedly try to make a one-liner joke out of his vacation woes, because they fell flat right from the start.

So the trouble with the capital T came courtesy in the form of a Russian political prisoner Komarov (Sebastian Koch), who has some vague file that the CIA wants, and wants badly enough to spend years on an operation involving John's estranged son Jack (Jai Courtney) to perform an extraction of sorts when it boiled down to it. But things are never as they seem, and with John's unexpected visit, and getting in the way, it provided father-son some hasty and necessary male-bonding opportunity amidst the mayhem either of them brought to the table. Making things worst is half of Moscow's thugs looking for Komarov, which provides plenty of chances for massive shoot 'em ups. No prizes for which side coming out on top though.

The story's fairly simple despite some twists involved, but nothing you won't see coming. What this installment does is to perhaps set up further adventures with father-and-son, which in a way worked miles better than the Indiana Jones franchise which tried to so the same thing - introduce a descendent, and possibly having him carry on the series. With the Die Hard films, you know it's about the mayhem one, and now two, McClanes can inflict, from large scaled car chases involving a Unimog (brownie points here, since I've driven one for years), to pitch perfect shots blending CG and practical stunts especially those involving the McClanes' retreat to safer haven, done slow-motion style that's action poetry in motion.

But what's more enjoyable in this guilt trip of a franchise that I've followed while growing up, is the little things that flies by unless you're paying close attention, such as little events happening in the background where John puts his street smarts to good use, and those cheeky instances that snuck in unexpectedly. Watch carefully when everything blows up on the screen, and you may call me shallow, but I chuckle each time John McClane manages to flip the birdie while you're admiring the mass destruction he brings onto screen. Also, never had I observed a cheeky car produce placement rivalry since The Peacemaker starring George Clooney, and the Pierce Brosnan Bond series that was a tit-for-tat between Mercedes and BMW. It seemed like this rivalry got ignited again with Mercedes vehicles being shown how sturdy they are, while the beemers get blown to smithereens (as seen in the trailer) fairly easily. One can guess which movie will serve as retaliation for BMW.

This may prove to be my favourite of the series other than the original given that it is grossly over the top, deliberately done so, and indeed from his children being pawns in an unscrupulous reporter's ambition in the first Die Hard, it showed how fast time flies with Jai Courtney having to play McClane's son Jack, while Mary Elizabeth Winstead returns in a small supporting role as his daughter Lucy. But alas there's an unfortunate thorn here in Singapore (and everywhere else stuck with the international print) for all John McClane's fans which may prove to be the ultimate letdown. You'll never hear our hero swear, nor complete his Yippie-Ki-Yays, because for the sake of a lower rating, he got unceremoniously muted. And that's utter disrespect both to the character, and the fans. Motherfucker!
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