Thursday, January 31, 2013

Ah Boys to Men: Part 2 (新兵正传 / Xin Bing Zheng Zhuan)

Passing Out

Ah Boys to Men Part 1 became Singapore's biggest local film box office champion, taking the more than a decade long crown held by Money No Enough. The anticipation for the second installment will undoubtedly build interest, and it's anyone's guess if it can turn in better revenues, though one thing's for sure, this follow up film in what would be Singapore's first two-parter, is a marked departure from the usual cookie cutter that Jack Neo uses. Perhaps we may see a change from this film on, since this is proclaimed as his 20th, and 21 usually marked the dawn of maturity.

For starters, the product placements are more subtle. The obvious one was the use of a food court venue in place of the penchant for coffee shop settings, marking the stage for yet another round of eye popping CG visuals, which involved military hardware being used in a hypothetical Red versus Blue teaming, trying to match the highlight of the Singapore war scene in the first installment, or to put in a fantastical number of wild boars which were obvious digital creations. Other sponsored shots didn't linger more than necessary, and were more blink-and-you-miss types, rather than the blatant lingering shots that were obviously inserted for advertising dollars. The other indulgence that was distinct here, was the use of the K.Kopter, with mounted camera lenses providing those awesome aerial shots of the Singapore skyline, which after a while became one scene too many. I know it's a new toy, and it's apt to show off what it can do, but too much of a good thing may backfire.

Thankfully the narrative was a marked improvement from the first part, although I missed the nostalgic segments of army days from the past. Those who had found issue with its rather scattered narrative then, take heart that this one removed all unnecessary supporting acts, and kept things firmly on the main cast of the army recruits, who have by now gained a cult following amongst teenagers, and building an even stronger fan base to tap upon for box office numbers. If you've wondered why a lot more scenes about army life of today didn't make it to the first film, well, it's more than made up for with the second installment, from the quintessential training portions of field camps, grenade throwing exercises and route marches, to male bonding both within the camp and outside, when the boys get up to their shenanigans as a team.

Being a Jack Neo film, his social commentary on topical issues will be omni-present, and here he took his cue on Ah Bengs discovering the power of digital media with their tit-for-tat bickering, together with the jab on Foreign Talent, with a second generation Chinese being part of the boy's Platoon Section B, there for a handful of jokes centered around his nationality, and lack of English skills. But whatever mean-spiritedness got countered immediately with a balancing viewpoint, which is quite typical of Jack Neo in his style to keep things on an even keel. You got to give him credit though, for that rather spot on metaphor about job availability, with a local fight back to perform a less glamourous job.

Picking up where the last film left off, with little recap on the first installment, we follow Ken Chow (Joshua Tan) with his new positive attitude back to Basic Military Training at Tekong, which provides Aloysious (Maxi Lim) a run for his money in the Best Recruit department, but this does not sit well with Lobang (Wang Weiliang) and IP Man (Noah Yap) et al. Opportunities within training provide for ostracizing one group from the other, until you know the larger themes about friendship, brotherhood and camaraderie enter the picture. Being a film about National Service, there's really no room for anti-establishment behaviour, so you'd come to expect how things would turn out in the end, as it goes through key highlights of a recruit's training toward the passing out parade.

Joshua Tan may perhaps win over new admirers for the renewed direction his character Ken Chow takes in this film, instead of the rather whiny behaviour of a boy finding National Service a chore just because he wanted to follow his then girlfriend overseas for further studies. The unfortunate event that took place in the previous film's climax continue here, although it's really bit roles for Richard Low and Irene Ang as his parents. Maxi Lim continues in his do-gooder, trying too hard role as he constantly finds himself marked by others, and in conflict whether to tell on his misbehaving buddies, while Noah Yap got a bigger role here because the ties with the civilian world centers upon his character's shoulders given an ugly breakup with his girlfriend, which forms the centerpiece of the narrative tying in toilet humour and some gungho fisticuffs which could have been done better if the punches connected properly on film.

Jack Neo has revealed a knack of unearthing new stars in his films, such as Tosh Zhang (as Sergeant Ong) in showcasing his wider talent and contribution with another theme song, or tap on the fan base of yet another popular blogger Mr Brown in having him make an appearance as a sadistic assessor. But I'm hedging my bets on Wang Weiliang being fondly remembered once the dust settles, as he effortlessly steals everyone's thunder in any scene that he's in. The iconic Ah Beng role helped of course given the many madcap ideas that sometimes worked, or disastrously don't, with the actor hitting all the right notes with his pitch perfect delivery, with certainty his star will rocket from this film outing. With some luck we may see him in more local productions given his on screen presence and charisma, although hopefully not in any similar role or capacity, lest they be pale and poor cousins of effort already been put into this movie.

Ah Boys to Men Part 2 provided that adequate companion piece to the first film, and put together they make up Recruit Ken Chow's story through his rite of passage and coming of age, relatable since it's set against the anecdotal backdrop of Singapore's National Service, and the kinds of stereotypical caricatures one inevitably will meet with. It's Army Daze for the 21st century, something uniquely Singaporean, and recommended to any film buff who may want to earmark this as one of the earliest local films to feature extensive use of CG that worked.

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Expatriate

Ooh I've Got a Gun

The Expatriate is one film that had the misfortune of having its trailer tell the entire story. Whoever did this promo clip ought to have taken a long hard look at his or her final work, and wonder how it could have been done without revealing too much. Making it worse is the admiration for Taken with the kidnapping of a daughter with the father in high pursuit, which gives the unfair impression that this is a cheap knock off, which it is not.

Written by Arash Amel and directed by German Philipp Stolzl, The Expatriate is almost like a Jason Bourne movie, with lead character Ben Logan (Aaron Eckhart) exhibiting a particular skillset that surprises his daughter Amy (Liana Liberato), who had gone to Brussels in order to spend some quality Dad time, only for the world as she knows go into a topsy-turvy. They get shot at multiple times by different pursuers, have the cops looking for them, and his dad's co-workers all wind up dead. To make matters worse, they have to discover why they're in someone else's bad books, and have to make it out alive when odds become increasingly stacked against them. But it went from Bourne to Taken with that kidnapping of Amy, though thankfully it was something more of an unnecessary sub-arc just to get Ben to be acting alone in the climax, with the villains using her as a bargaining chip to keep Ben at bay.

In essence, this turned out to be a standard action thriller that involves big bad corporations and covert agencies with sneaky agents who are comfortable with their doing the dirty work for whoever can pay a good price. Not to mention some behind the scenes, under table collaboration and influence that corrupt corporation big wigs have over those in the seat of power, since any campaign requires backing, usually of the financial kind. Here, we see how corporations obtain inside knowledge from those who can be bought, which makes it especially easy when these officials also have a selfish interest to pursue. In The Expatriate, this involves technology, framing, and the need to obtain classified documents so that they can either be altered or destroyed to avoid further implication, especially when something else gains worldwide attention, and further investigation would bring to light many embarrassing points.

Aaron Eckhart remains one of my favourite character actors, but as an action hero, I'm afraid not. The filmmakers tried to cover up using very Bourne techniques of fast edits and quick cuts, but it's too obvious Eckhart is no fighter, and was found a little bit wanting in action scenes. Those that require a little more brains than brawn, highlighting his skill as a black ops engineer, was more believable. And there was a bit on the details gone into assembling a briefcase bomb as well, though not as instructional for obvious reasons. Liana Liberato would likely polarize audiences though, because her character's too whiny, and complains at almost every stage the father-daughter pair find themselves in. Although proving to be useful at times, Liana did her best with the unpopular role of whining for the most parts. And having Olga Kurylenko was nothing more than a coup to have an additional recognizable name on the marquee, her role being pretty small, used to explain some romantic liaisons between Ben and her Anna Brandt, whose loyalty gets severely questioned, and a flip-flopper when it comes to making decisions.

With an ending that depended largely on the bad guys' over-confidence that bordered on arrogance and ignorance, it was a tad too convenient, though one that would leave audiences cheering, as if having watched a feel good film. Production values are top notch for a studio film, with Belgium being used extensively on location to bring about that Europe-chic feel that's fast becoming locations that any self-respective action-thriller must have. Recommend!

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Haunted House


The writing was already on the wall. With paranormal found footage films being all the rage recently, there's bound to be a comedian out there who would amalgamate most elements found in various films, put them all in a comedic spin, and make a feature film out of it. This time, Marlon Wayans beat the crowd to put something out there first, co-producing, co-writing and starring as the lead in this madcap comedy that pokes fun primarily at the Paranormal Activity films, with the usual politically-incorrect, toilet humour all making their way into the story-line, if you can call it that.

Those who are not Paranormal Activity fans may not come to enjoy the loads of silly references made in A Haunted House, where CCTV camera footage, and a handheld videocam, together with VHS tapes and a web camera, provide choice footage in and around the home of Malcolm (Wayans). Against good advice, he welcomes his girlfriend Kisha (Essence Atkins) to co-habitate with him, only for her to bring along her excess spiritual baggage which includes an invisible friend from long ago. Things start to go the Paranormal Activity way with the closing of doors, strange sounds, and the playing with bed linen at night.

While the jokes come thick and fast most of the time, they do seem to be focused around the theme of sex, especially when Malcolm thinks having Kisha stay with him is that open doorway to passionate love each night. And that's where the unexplained ghouls come knocking on their door to exhibit some of the most outrageous physical comedy for the screen. When dialogue comes into play, then it goes the direction of poking fun at the expense of stereotypes, from an effeminate psychic (Nick Swardson) to a gangsta preacher (Cedric the Entertainer), and even more sex-laced comedy no thanks to their swinging best friend couple (Andrew Daly and Alanna Ubach).

Don't expect too much from this comedy and it's alright, although I had the niggling feeling that most of the best bits were already included in the trailer, which will leave you with anticipation for more, but didn't get delivered for that ultimate laughing high. This is one film that you'll either love if you're in the mood for nonsensical comedy, or after that hard day's work, otherwise you may find yourself frowning at just about any antics that the comedians start to pull off. Me? Crass comedies are my guilty pleasure, so I'm lapping up A Haunted House already.

Monday, January 28, 2013

The Sessions


It's not difficult to see why The Sessions walked away with the Audience Award at last year's Sundance Film Festival with its biographical tale of Mark O'Brien (played by John Hawkes), a survivor of polio which has left his body contoured at an impossible angle, bedridden most of the time, but immensely filled with the story about one man's odds to experience something which was thought not possible for someone inflicted with his condition. It has a wonderful themes, and a great cast to tell the solid story of one man's remarkable spirit, and fears even, and of those that rally around him.

Writer-director Ben Lewin begins almost documentary style to bring us a quick snapshot of Mark O'Brien's story, we learn of the conditions under which he has been living his life, which is spending most of his time inside what's called an Iron Lung, helping him breathe when he's home, and relying on an artificial respirator when he's out for a few hours tops. Probably one of the worst medical conditions to suffer under, is anything that cripples one's body, but leaving the mind alert, which calls for tremendous mind over matter. As a film, this is one of many plot devices that have been done many times over in various cinema, and I would recommend one not to brush this one aside, or lump everything together as under "seen one seen all", as each has a unique story to tell, and leave their own indelible, inspirational mark.

Admitedly for any fully functional male body, sex is something that's inevitably brought to the forefront, and for O'Brien, it becomes something he has yet to experience, and this is burning inside of him. He has a creative, romantic, and witty mind, but for whatever his mind can conjure, he's ulitmately let down by physical execution. One can almost relate to him in his quest to find emotional and physical intimacy, but having failed each time that it becomes exasperating for him, and sapping at his emotional core. This is that tale of thinking out of the box, humbling oneself even further and seeking external help for an experience. Which brings him the recommendation of hiring a sex surrogate.

John Hawkes deserves all the plaudits for his acting here, having to be physically restraint for the roll, and to focus his performance on what he can do facially, and vocally, keeping himself relatively still to transform believably into the character he embodies. It's a challenge done well, which will leave you to imagine that Hawkes did really become O'Brien. Being a religious man, Mark's inevitable consultation with a man of God, his priest Father Brendan (William H. Macy) who turns into his confidante, were scenes that were as funny as they were moving, where the counsellor had to put aside for a moment, issues about morality and sex, and provide wise counsel. Which comes with some perks of having listen in on the details about the sessions that Mark waxes lyrical about.

But all in all, this is a film about solid friendships, of those who had gathered around the courage, and humour even, of a man whose drawn one of the shortest stick in life, and having to make lemonade out of the lemons Life provided. These provided the story to focus on other enriching tales involving the women surrounding Mark's life, from his infatuation with one of his earliest caregivers Amanda (Annika Marks), to that of his current one Vera (Moon Bloodgood) possessing that mean sense of humour to counterpoint Mark's wit, his future wife Susan (Robin Weigert), introduced more for a bookending epilogue, and then there's Cheryl (Helen Hunt), the sex surrogate.

There's a difference between a surrogate and a prostitute, and Helen Hunt's careful portrayal brings out that clinical, almost scientific approach, in her assistance to help a man fulfill his desires. Like any scientific project, it calls for a systematic approach in understanding one's subject, and the parameters around which to operate. Undoubtedly the star had to shed her clothes for the role, but soon you'll get past gawking, and into the emotions that would naturally get in the way during each titular session.

one thing's for sure, that if he can't experience love in the physical form, he did get his fair share of emotional challenges that come from having to face rejection many times over, before succeeding to finally find someone with whom to share a life with. The chalking up of experience is what makes life fulfilling, whether or not they are positive or negative, and Mark's story when put into the context of any other challenges in life, becomes that inspiration to spur us on. A definite recommend.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Grandmaster (一代宗师 / Yi Dai Zong Shi)


The Grandmaster is many years in the making, which is not surprising for any Wong Kar-Wai movie. With the character of Ip Man being hot property, two projects were announced around the same time, with the Mandarin Films version starring Donnie Yen and directed by Wilson Yip already into two films, and rumours are the making of the third in 3D is in the works. Granted those were the mainstream martial-arts with broad entertainment values, but if you're looking at something with a little more artistry, then The Grandmaster fulfills that yearning at many levels.

The long gestation in the production also allowed for the cast to dabble into the martial arts style that their characters are exponents in, and the result is very telling, since no amateur can execute the set action pieces, no matter how choreographed they can be by the best choreographers in the land, with that certain realism and style in movement. For a Wong Kar-Wai film that's granted to be rich in visuals, this becomes requisite, and the outcome is something that wows instantly, as already seen in some of the clips in the trailer. This marks only the second martial arts movie that Wong Kar-Wai has dabbled in (the first being Ashes of Time), and the battles here between exponents were already miles better.

While the film had started off as an Ip Man biography, that idea got broadly retained as Wong's research into the various martial arts form led him to include many more personalities, and grandmasters in their own right in the different styles of Kung-Fu, from the Northern to Southern fists that fans of the Wilson Yip Ip Man movies would already be well attuned to. As you would expect from the auteur director, this film has a philosophical leaning toward the essence and spirit of martial arts, hidden beneath the broad Ip Man biography used to tell events in chronological order, and the central story of succession to the Martial Arts Association chair, which spun off into seeking a worthy representative for the South, and classical martial arts theme and elemnts of betrayal, double-crossing, sacrifice, and that of vengeance.

And I'm pretty sure fans can identify their favourite Wong Kar-Wai moments and signatures that would inevitably creep into this film as well. Personall, as a fan of In the Mood for Love, I can't help but to have that broad smile when a character had to confess her turmoil to a crack in the wall, when dialogues centered around the availability of a ticket, that couple walking down a darkened street alley, and the notion of unrequited love being played out as the narrative went on, despite not being very strong, no thanks to swirling rumours that Wong had to shave off almost two hours of his original cut for the commercial theatres.

Tony Leung probably have it easiest here, with audiences instantly identifying with his Ip Man character. Those skeptics about his martial arts prowess can take note that personal training, and visual presentation by director Wong, ensures Ip Man comes off as pretty bad-assed when there's a need to spar, and keeping with some established traits that he doesn't need to execute the finishing blow if unnecessary. There's a little smirk of arrogance in this version, but all's good, save for the terribly reduced role that Song Hye-Kyo has as Ip Man's wife. Grossly underused is also Chang Chen, that despite top billing, he doesn't get more than a handful of scenes, with his Razor character the most undeveloped of the lot, and seen more as a sideshow to beef up the number of fight sequences. Then again, being a Wong Kar-Wai movie, characters like these do come and go in the narrative, although this one felt wasted for its potential.

Zhang Ziyi also held her own since her Gong Er character got thrust into the spotlight, which I believe will soon eclipse the other martial arts role she's more famous for in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and credit to her for lending elegance to her 64-hands Ba Gua movement, and inevitable successor to the legacy of her father (Wang Qingxiang) and the Gong Family, proud to keep her heritage intact. Her fight scenes probably stood out against that of Tony Leung's, and the sole sparring session they had together remains what would be the best in the film.

I'm not sure how anyone can complain about the lack of action sequences, because the film delivered as far as action goes, from the get go even to allay fears that this would be a moodier, talky piece. There's Cung Le opening the film with his battle against Ip Man, with the latter sharing his matter-of-fact philosophy, and that sparring session against many exponents in the central location of a brothel being a quick action montage of sorts, and what I appreciated a lot was the care taken to showcase the variation of styles that Chinese Kung-Fu is rich in.

But perhaps the more moving portion of the film, is again the What If moments played to pitch perfection. From their very first encounter and close quartered combat, Gong Er's face saving sparring with Ip Man brings about new found admiration between the two, yet it's something that cannot get onto any next level for her dogged determination for vengeance, which called for sacrifices on her part in order to exact revenge according to established rules. Their scenes together may be limited in quantity, but that's more than made up with the quality between both actors in their on screen charisma and chemistry, and that between their characters as well. It may have slowed down the pace, but probably brought out what Wong Kar-Wai is famous for, and expected in any of his films.

The Grandmaster is a gorgeous effort, chronicling the story of Ip Man from his prime 40s in the 1930s Foshan, his subsequent flight to Hong Kong and major events until his death in the 70s, with the Gong family saga playing in parallel to Ip Man's documentary-like story. As a fan of the director I would have preferred a longer cut to fill up the obvious narrative gaps in the timeline, but like most of the auteur's films, you're left to your own devices for that.

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters

Bad Asses

It's a little strange why this film wasn't given advanced press previews in the US, and for territories like ours there was a review embargo to comply with, signalling the lack of confidence the filmmakers and distributors have on this film update of the Hansel and Gretel storyline. Perhaps they're taking a leaf out of recent updates to fairy tales such as the two Snow White movies, and Red Riding Hood, that they want to be a bit deaf to criticisms, and to allow audiences to judge instead. But Hansel and Gretel as witch hunters followed the mold of Blade, and proved to be quite the mass market entertainer, with no pretences in wanting to be more.

Written and directed by Norwegian Tommy Wirkola, this story had all the right ingredients for the kind of film it wanted to be, taking the familiar folk lore, and putting a creative, not necessarily new, spin on it. We see how the two kids get brought out to the woods, only this time there isn't a trail of crumbs to follow home. The iconic house of bread and sweets, and the wicked witch who wants to fatten Hansel as food later on are all included, as do their defeat of the witch by burning her alive in the stove. This forms the prologue, and the What If scenario that Hansel and Gretel were to build on their initial success, and form a career out of hunting, and destroying witches anywhere, bounty hunter style.

As you would already have seen in the trailer, this is but one of their adventures shown in helping a village deal with the menace of the witch Muriel (Famke Janssen), who together with her posse of like-minded witches have kidnapped children in preparation of a ritual to be performed under the blood moon. And there's no other better for the job than for Hansel (Jeremy Renner) and Gretel (Gemma Arterton), engaged by the mayor thanks to the widespread news of their successful witch hunting exploits played over the opening credits. The rest of the story is nothing but set action piece after set action piece, paced frantically without any pause longer than necessary, with a story that ties it all in to their origins, and going full circle.

clocking in at just under 90 minutes, the movie has two surprise acts and characters best kept under wraps, one to reverse the mantra that the witch hunters adopt to their methods, and the other a fine character introduced that shed clues to their origin story. Jeremy Renner continues in his sharing of the limelight in roles he had chosen of late, preferring to be the team player from the Impossible Mission Force to the Avengers, and continues as one half of the brother-sister team. Gemma Arterton is perhaps best known for her role as the Bond girl in Quantum of Solace, with her dramatic roles having never made it here. And having another Bond girl in Famke Janssen in yet another villainous role also helped, although every character in this film is pretty one dimensional.

But this is an action-adventure taking a well known fairy tale and giving it a license to thrill with blood and gore. While most of the effects are CG laden, it doesn't flinch from wanting to showcase burning at the stakes and various forms of dismemberment and beheadings that increases its body count in very gory terms. It's a story about witch hunting in a fantasy setting, and it exploits this setting perfectly. A definite recommend for any action junkie.

Zero Dark Thirty

Seal Team Six

Let's get a key sore point out of the way. There are those who take offense and have genuine concern about the torture scenes in the film, which had actually opened the movie, and have a few more going in various interrogation scenes given threats, and veiled ones, aimed at enemy combatants in order to try and elicit useful information from them. I suppose it is tactically naive to deny that torture, in its various forms, and as loosely used a term, does not exist. Otherwise there would be no need for black sites in locations of allies who condone such a practice, and frankly speaking, depravity is something quite expectedly used as a tool, because humans are susceptible to using any method to force or coerce co-operation. It's hypocritical to deny the propensity of evil within us.

After having run around with the big boys and their various operations in The Hurt Locker, director Kathryn Bigelow now opts for another aspect in the theatre of war, and that's of the intelligence community, working behind the scenes to obtain credible information, where content is truly king. It took almost a decade to hunt down what would be the most elusive man on the planet at the time, with his closed network of associates and trusted inner circle, to shield him from everything that technology can be used to track him down. It is this hunt, based on gut, instinct and sheer hard work, that forms the basis of interest in a film like this, and worked as a capture of key milestones that had gone to this monumental effort.

And for a film spanning a decade, Mark Boal's story managed to weave in the various iconic terrorist incidents that had taken the world by storm, starting with September 11 recapped without visuals, then the recreation of others such as the London bombings that followed, the attacks in camps, and the blowing up of the Marriott hotel in Pakistan, amongst others. Perhaps the bit of a stretch would be to weave Jessica Chastain's lead character of Maya into some of them, because it's almost a statistical stretch to have someone at the right place at the right time, if not to lend an almost personal objective to Langley's mission to get their man.

For characterization, we can look no further than Maya, whose hard nosed determination we see being developed from the days of being a rookie where we start, to a seasoned veteran in the field unwilling to make compromises, and almost always demanding her ways because as part of the rank and file, she's there to see through changes, rather than to be air-dropped into the ivory tower. Politics also comes into the fray, and just like The Hurt Locker, Bigelow throws on some uncredited roles played by famous faces, that you'd be looking forward to just about who she'd throw on next.

But it is Maya's story and development that makes Zero Dark Thirty compelling to follow, one who is void of emotion, with very little personal life, deliberate in clue us in on her immense dedication to the cause and mission. Not only as the noose around Bin Laden and his hideout get closer, but to observe Maya's change as an intelligence analyst in a world where it's black versus black, with real and present danger set amongst them even though they're in office most of the time, especially when complacency sets in, and enemies use that as leverage when games are played against each other.

Action junkies will take heart at the key action sequence in the film, which is that full scale assault on a rather conspicuous three storey building by the Seal Team Six. It is presented in almost real time, lending some authenticity to its version of the event, although not without its own controversy since nobody can vouch for accuracy given the cloak of silence surrounding this operation. So it's pretty much left to the filmmakers' discretion in how it all went down. Those looking for more development behind the Seal Team Six preparation can perhaps view Code Name: Geronimo, which provided that army preparation that's missing in Zero Dark Thiry, offering a different take as well on the final assault, something that this one is clearly steering clear from in order not to distract from its cat and mouse focus amongst the think tank involvement.

Still, Zero Dark Thirty proved to be immensely engaging and gripping as it unfolds, even if artistic license got liberally applied to tell this tale of a determined manhunt in recent history. A definite recommend!

Friday, January 25, 2013

Race 2

Who's Playing Who?

The directing duo of Abbas-Mastan created Race back in 2008 that deals with the twists, turns, and double/triple crossings between two brothers Ranvir (Saif Ali Khan) and Rajiv (Akshaye Khanna), against an ostentatious backdrop that included the requisite flaunting of material wealth, horse racing, romance, and shady characters that included the likes of femme fatales in Bipasha Bashu and Katrina Kaif in one of her earlier Bollywood roles. The sequel boasts no less, although with only Saif Ali Khan and Anil Kapoor as the now ex police inspector Robert D'Costa returning, but adopting a similar formula that focused on the con.

You don't really need to watch the first film because everything pretty much moved along in standalone fashion in this follow up, which spent a considerable part of the first half hour cementing the nastiness of brother-sister team Armaan (John Abraham) and Elena (Deepika Padukone). One's a street fighter who has never lost a fight, and brought out of the scene by Elena, the brains of their enduring and successful partnership, dabbling into various cons from casino tables, to just about owning an empire both in the light, and in the shady underworld. They form a formidable team, and individually, Shiraz Ahmed's story shows just how bad ass each can be, never batting an eyelid if they have to rely on good old fashioned murder or seduction to get at what they want.

We're soon introduced to another new character played by Jacqueline Fernandez as Omisha, a thief who soon hooks up with Armaan not only because of his good looks but more importantly, his wealth and wicked demeanour, while Ranvir enters the picture to try and gain trust from the ruthless siblings to take on a larger con together, with Elena sending out her foxy signals right from the start. For a Bollywood movie, this covers the romance angle where the leads have their counterparts to woo, or in this case accelerated into the expected song and dance sequence in lieu of something more kinky that can't be shown on screen.

But really, things just aren't that simple, where soon Ranvir gets involved with both women, though for different reasons, and has an objective and motivation that ties in with a key character from the past, as well as to answer the rather open ended prologue in this film. To say a lot more is to ruin the surprises that Abbas-Mastan have in store for audiences. This is a Race movie that has qualities to be expanded into yet another Bollywood franchise of rotating villains played by a top star for each installment, going along the Dhoom route. So expect that things will never be as they seem, and there's almost always a motive behind what someone will say and do, where loyalties can shift at will, and one-upmanship is the order of the game.

Which happens to be the film's weakness as well. Sometimes the flip-flopping extracts a chunk of imagination, coincidence and stretches one's belief that the con actually began many steps beforehand, like a chess grandmaster playing against an amateur, that surprises spring out from the blue, with constant smirking that one got on top of the other, only for that smirk to be wiped out by an even larger wink. It can get tongue-in-cheek at times, and opened up loopholes that would be best glossed over for the entire narrative to work. Heavy reliance on sleight of hand techniques also called for plot convenience, with its fragmented narrative style forced to hide, and then present details of the con.

Heavy reliance on CG is also telling, but here the CG still seemed rather cartoony, which suited the hyper-reality style of the world that the characters in Race exists in. It's entertainment for the masses, so Abbas-Mastan waste no time in plying implausible stunts in every death-defying escape, although a parkour sequence was expertly handled. Set action pieces get bigger as the film moved along, culminating in a really nutty climatic showdown thousands of feet in the air. It's one thing presenting large set action pieces, but another in presenting them well no matter how cheesy it would be. Someone forgot to tell the filmmakers to ease up on the cheesiness, but perhaps they had comedy in mind as well, with a key unintentional one given gossip rags on the John Abraham-Bipasha Basu relationship that will have audiences in stitches.

John Abraham's hulking frame got put to good use, and in what would be the usual Salman-Khan style, there's built-in opportunity here for clothes to be shed in a stylized MMA caged fight, for some brawn to be added rather than to put him in a role whose character is only interested in whatever it takes to make money, and horde cash, in what would be a major negative role since his turn in the first Dhoom. Saif Ali Khan continues with the swagger and poser requirements as Ranvir from the first film, playing the ultimate conman now with a more personal vendetta at hand, and paired up yet again with Deepika Padukone for the umpteenth time. If anything, Deepika's role as Elena fit into the typical Bond girl role, in having little to do, little to add to the story, but there for the eye candy. And she carried off the lightweight role really well, as does Jacqueline Fernandez in yet another sequel of her career. Anil Kapoor is grossly underused here, if only to serve as the plot's conduit between characters, and spending most of his time with his character's secretary Cherry (Ameesha Patel), leering and spouting sexual innuendos.

If movies with twists and turns at every other instant is your cup of tea, then Race 2 would be that popcorn entertainer you're looking for, with a good looking cast providing eye candy to wild away those two and a half hours. It doesn't take itself too seriously, and neither should you.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

The Tower (타워 / Tawo)

Black Friday Sale

You can't help but to think of and compare this to the 1974 movie The Towering Inferno, given the many similarities between the two films. One of my favourite big budgeted spectacle of a disaster type movie from the 70s, this Korean version written by Kim Sang-Don settles for similar set action pieces, from the parties, to the incidents, to some of the solutions, while adding some of the inherent melodrama from Korea, coupled with a very stark, and rather there for laughs, portrayal of those with religious faith. It is a decent attempt, but one that wasn't out there first.

Director Kim Ji-Hoon had crafted a decent film that's paced right for a disaster epic of this scale, balancing the ensemble characters with scenes for each to shine in, while priming caricatures for certain death, as you would expect for the body count to rise. Set action pieces were commendably designed, from massive fire fighting, to rescue missions, and moments where characters find themselves in dead end situations, given the set up from early on within the first ten minutes outlining areas where challenges would be dished out, from non-working sprinklers to weather advice that goes defiantly unheeded. Naturally, there's the usual karma and retribution elements being weaved in, with room to showcase heroism and sacrifice. And given the subject matter there's also the educational element when criticizing mass panic that leads people to do the most irrational things, rather than what's right in the various scenario presented.

And this film is no less star-studded than its Hollywood counterpart too, spearheaded by Song Ye-Jin as Yun-Hee the restaurant manager making her rounds in preparation for a Christmas Eve party, as does the single dad and tower operations manager Dae-Ho (Kim Sang-Kyung), who also forms the complimentary beau for Yun Yee, with daughter Ha-Na (Jo Min-Ah) in tow that lends that father-daughter angle especially when the two loves of his life get stuck in the building, leading to a sort of rescue objective of sorts. Then there's the play up of the fire department, from courageous captain Kang Young-Ki (Sol Kyung-Gu), to Do Ji-Han playing a rookie fire fighter and Kim In-Kwon as another unlikely fire fighter here to provide some light comic relief.

But while this film has a number of characters rotating through the scenes for their individual spotlight moments, the characterization's much left to be desired, and ultimately you don't really feel nor connect with their plight that much. Unlike the Hollywood version where you really feel for the various characters, and get your adrenaline pumping with each death-defying situation they have to face and overcome in order to survive, Kim Ji-Hoon didn't manage to elicit the same genuine feelings. You hardly root for the characters nor feel a tinge of sadness to those who had to fall, and for those who deserve some just desserts, they get largely forgotten in the thick of things. Lee Han-Wi who plays a church elder celebrating Christmas with his mini congregation was also a character played for laughs, where every moment of prayer becomes answered not by divine intervention, but intervention through coincidence nonetheless.

In order to differentiate itself and pose a larger challenge, the tower here refers to the fictional Tower Sky buildings, with two massive skyscrapers reaching for the sky, reflecting on the obsession of architects who pander to the competition of having the tallest building in whichever modern city, and linked together through a glass bridge that you know is nothing more than a set up for something later on in the movie. Even though it's fictional, with reliance on CG to provide the illusion of scale and mass, the tower does become a character in itself, though in less successful terms if compared against the Hollywood original. CG was also obviously used in many of the disaster scenes, such as having choppers crash onto the facade and through into the building to become the catalyst. But CG cannot be used to replace solid story-telling, which is that little trip up that The Tower had suffered at various points where scenes felt disparate and transitions didn't gel too well.

But The Tower has its moments and would thrill the new film goer who hasn't seen The Towering Inferno, but to those who have, this Korean version hardly throws up something new nor surprising, coming off as a shallower knock off that could have done a lot better with the material and resources at its disposal. Still, it did good business at the Korean box office, and

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

10 Years

Down Memory Lane

I love class reunions. It's a time to catch up with those who have disappeared from the radar, and discover just about almost everything about everyone in those few moments that you have together, as you go from friend to friend, acquaintance to acquaintance, reminisce about the good ol' days, confide precious moments with trusted few, open up to those whom you have not, and basically letting your hair down and having a great time. There's so much material possible for a movie to be centered around this, that writer-director Jamie Linden did just that for his directorial debut.

And he managed to rope in a star studded ensemble to deliver his myriad of characters both male, female, central to the plot and supporting ones to lend some weight to a story that's made up of individual stories, encompassing just about every spectrum of emotion one would feel from going into such a reunion, especially one organized after a decade of absence. Features change, some of us have weight issues that are uncontrollable, while others have personality traits that are just overwhelmingly annoying, and continue to be so. There's always the one who got away, or the relatively low key one who continues to come and go quietly. Or how about those who had come to inspire us, while we see green at those who become more successful? Curiosity enters the picture when we see someone whom we haven't met for a long time, to want to know what's the latest in their lives.

Obviously there will be some scenes and moments here that some may deem Linden of being overly sentimental, or probably expected in the way things pan out in the end, where unlike Life, there's proper redress and closure of outstanding issues faced. But therein lies this charm of a second chance, even if it's on film, to play out that What If scenario on our behalf. Things such as swallowing one's pride to apologize for transgressions in the past, or to come to terms with the one who had gotten away. There were the expected natural awkward moments that are common with every reunion especially when there's open business left since the last meet, and there's a chance to seek that opportunity to heal as well.

Channing Tatum and real life wife Jenna Dewan-Tatum (his co-star in Step Up) open the film as Jake and his girlfriend Jess, the former being a little bit unsure of attending his high school reunion because of the possibility of his ex-flame Mary (Rosario Dawson) turning up as well. They congregate first at his friends Cully (Chris Pratt) and Sam (Ari Graynor), the married couple's house, together with musician Reeves (Oscar Isaac), best of friends Marty (Justin Long) and AJ (Max Minghella), and Japan-nut Scott (Scott Porter) with his Japanese wife Suki (Eiko Nijo), before making their way collectively to the reunion venue for more get togethers. With Jake still apprehensive about asking for Jess' hand in marriage, more married couples enter the picture such as Garrity (Brian Geraghty) and his straight laced wife Olivia (Aubrey Plaza), and other singles such as Andre (Anthony Mackie), Elise (Kate Mara) and Anna (Lynn Collins), the one time school flower.

The narrative spans primarily between the venues of their high school, and the bar Pretzels, where Linden has full control over the direction, with the camera panning quite freely around table to table, couple to couple, to allow the audience to listen in to conversations, and make notes that all may not be so well for those who let their true colours reveal themselves, especially after a few drinks. We see how social lubricant leads to some to self destruct, while providing courage to others in making that first move to try and reconnect. Music also sets the stage, and having Oscar Isaac star as a famous singer helped to introduce one of the most memorable developments in his character's story arc that makes it one of many love stories that pepper the movie.

While the stories told are nothing new, it is the delivery by the cast that will connect and move you to root the characters on. You will be drawn in, and identify with various moments in what would be a reunion you'd like to partake in as well, or wish that yours would be just as fond when you take that look back. It's guaranteed there's something for everyone here, with the end credits rounding up additional sequences that couldn't make it to the film proper. Recommended!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Cloud Atlas IMAX

Clone Wars

The Wachowskis, with help from director Tom Tykwer, are back with a vengeance after their previous film Speed Racer underwhelmed at the box office. This time, they adapt from David Mitchell's award winning book Cloud Atlas, which tells of six inter-related tales spanning different eras from the 19th century to a post-apocalyptic future that brings humans back to the primitive times. It's almost three hours long, and a sprawling epic from start to finish, with a star-studded cast roped in to assist in the creation of the film's philosophy of how life interconnects through seemingly disparate events.

But perhaps the best way to enjoy this film is to treat them as separate short stories and nothing more. The original stories in the novel had the various segments lead in to one another through texts found by various characters in their individual story arcs, with a built in cliffhanger each, before delivering the respective payload in reverse chronological order they were introduced to the reader, and rounding it all off. It could work as a structure for the film as well, but that meant having to wait for some time for the later arcs to appear, and make this really look like a series of short stories being artificially stitched together.

So while the directors helmed different segments, the decision to sequence through all the six stories into one linear narrative was perhaps the right one, and through this fashion ring home the point of the inter-connectivity between the lives of characters in various story arcs more effectively, since scenes which were thematically similar at a point were edited to blend into one another rather seamlessly, rather than to get the audience to hold on to that thought for a later time application. Lines of dialogues also became memorable quotes across different story arcs, as do the character element of a comet-like birthmark that some of them would possess.

However, don't get too caught up in trying to link the stories together through gestures like the ones mentioned, or to even consider whether the characters the various actors play, are connected or have links when they appear in the different stories. Forget about how the stories serve to link up beyond what got produced on the surface, because it is stuff of required, repeated viewings. Instead, what you can choose to appreciate, is how the actors gamely took on various roles in the different stories, where in some they would anchor as the lead, and in the others they would lend support, or cameos even. Make up and special effects were top notch to disguise the actors to play different characters, and part of the fun is to do a double take when you discover just who is hiding behind heaving prosthetics, makeup, or even something as simple as a moustache. Tom Hanks and Halle Berry took on no less than six roles, while the rest chipped in with five or less multiple characters, allowing an exercise of their individual acting chops.

Technical brilliance made this film, with makeup as mentioned, costuming, art direction providing the canvas of the different eras, and special effects piled on as and when required, especially the futuristic segments, to make the worlds as separate and different from one another. Direction, despite being handled by different directors, was seemlessly integrated and consistent that you won't be able to tell them apart unless you sneak a peek at the production notes. The score also became a highlight, rendered by Reinhod Heil, Johnny Kilmek and Tom Tykwer, since it served as a centerpiece element for one of the story arcs.

It's pretty fun watching the actors in their various roles, and those who particularly stood out were Hanks as Zachry, the man who had to defer to Hugo Weaving's devilish character before suffering the pangs of karma, and Doona Bae who may seem to have walked through yet another Air Doll role as Sonmi-351. It was surprising to see Zhou Xun involved in this film too, as was Hugh Grant being the most unrecognizable of the lot. Cloud Atlas is a mammoth of a film, that will demand you rewatch it again, not only to continue in your spot-the-star moment, but to give connecting all the dots another go, after you've come to savour the stories individually at first. Recommended!

P.S. I'm not sure if the non-IMAX versions shown here has subtitles, but it certainly helped with the multitude of accents, especially those deliberate ones involving vocabulary and grammar for those post-apocalyptic scenes.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Akko-chan: The Movie (Himitsu no Akko-chan / 映画 ひみつのアッコちゃん)

I'm Old!

The Japanese manga and anime universe have more than enough content to be adapted into their respective film version, and it's quite the even playing field with those geared for predominantly male, or the female crowd, get made. With the latter there are films like Paradise Kiss, and the more recent one is Akko-Chan, which if my memory serves me well, was something that was on telly during the days of growing up. It's female fantasy stuff, where a young girl with a magic cosmetic compact, get to be whoever she wants to be, in grown up fashion, each time she chants a slogan, which is reversible once she delivers help, and goes back to being a 10 year old girl.

Riko Yoshida plays the young girl Atsuko Kagami, who's a fan of cosmetics, and quite the vain pot. When her compact got broken, she got visited by a Mirror Spirit (Teruyuki Kagawa) who grants her a magical compact, and the rest is history. She can transform to just about anyone in any profession, something which is advantageous to anyone who cannot decide just what they want to be when they grow up. Haruka Ayase takes over the older Atsuko aka Akko-Chan character, and soon enough finds excuses to skip winter cram school, to intern at a cosmetics company under young executive Naoto Hayase (Masaki Okada) who had seemed to lose his passion and enthusiasm given the various bureaucratic red tape he has to deal with on a daily basis, especially under the doom and gloom of an unpopular takeover by the Yakuza-ish led Kito (Takeshi Kaga).

Being a mainstream Japanese film adapted from a separate medium for fans and non-fans alike, Akko-Chan the Movie is pretty self contained, following a formula with a story that contains the origin, a primary adversary or situation to address, before a finale that's usually heartwarming or poignant. Romance usually gets thrown in somewhere, as well as a good message or two about life in general. But before you balk at the romance bit, where there's a 17 year gap between Akko-Chan and Naoto, not to mention the little girl being a minor, let's just say that things stayed rather platonic, but never groomed in any sense of the word. How this developed was something close to yet another Haruka Ayase film Cyborg She, and I felt was an extremely nice touch to get all the morbidity out of the way.

One may dismiss this from the onset being a fluffy chick flick, but surprisingly the story contains strong sub-arcs, like the great divide between management and the rank and file workers, of mergers, acquisitions and the threats of loss jobs when the board decides to take unpopular tough stances on policy, and how one should excel in one's job, and keeping the faith, inspiration and enthusiasm going. Comedy during this film's central corporate struggle theme comes in the form of Akko-Chan's methods in achieving her aims, or doing what she thinks is right, through the use of magic and impersonation as other characters. While it's manipulation and cheating, this again goes full circle to the lessons that the kid learns at the end of the day.

Haruka Ayase piled on the kitschy-cuteness starring as an immature girl stuck in a young adult's body, with jokes that naturally played on this fish out of water concept with a student being overwhelmed by the adult nature of work, office politics, as well as being caught up with conversational pieces that are too complicated for a sixth grader. Ayase continues to bring about innocence to roles that she tackles, and Akko-Chan fits her perfectly like hand in glove, bringing the character to life with her chirpiness and hyperactivity. Fans of Handsome Suits will also note the supporting appearance of actors Shosuke Tanihara and Muga Tsukaji in bit roles as a spineless executive and a security guard respectively.

It's formula but full of heart, and that's coming from someone who isn't the intended demographic target audience, with a clear message of not forgetting the simpler values learnt through elementary school that we can apply in life. A definite recommend!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

[SFS Talkies] Shame

Don't Go There

You'll probably know about studies that reveal how man thinks about sex every few seconds or so, and while there's probably some statistical truth in this, Steven McQueen deep dives into the world of a man's sexual obsession, a story about how such unhealthy fixation takes its toil into the daily functions of living, and ultimately stripping one of emotions and the ability to connect, with the unhealthy view of seeing the opposite sex as nothing but just another digit on the conquest list.

Michael Fassbender plays Brandon, a man who lives and breathes desire and sex, spending most of his hours with pornography in every conceivable form, and doing the deed with just about anything that moves, from strangers, acquaintances, colleagues, and those paid for. If all else fails, there's always self-gratification. And his introduction is nothing more than being pared down to his birthday suit, with a striking sequence of repetition to hammer that Brandon's life is nothing more than a repetition of an obsessive habit, in a sparsely decorated apartment, minimal and stark, to personify his lack of connection, feeling, and emotsex, animalistic and

With Fassbender carrying the film single-handedly most of the time, one does not doubt his perfect portrayal and performance of obsession in the flesh, that we're drawn into his world, and given allowance to feel for his lack of feeling, of a man trapped and finding it near impossible to get out of a self-created rut. His Brandon is a successful, and lucky at times, corporate executive on the outside, with a dark and hidden soul that he shuts off to anyone from the outside, even his sister Sissy, played by Carey Mulligan.

Fassbender portrays shame to the core, earning plenty of acting accolades from around the world through his powerhouse performance of gross addiction. And you can feel his struggle even without first hand experience, of someone ashamed to let closed ones into his life, and living one without getting emotionally attached to anything, since intimacy gets stripped to become something more primal, and raw. He moves through the story with plenty of opportunities to get together with the opposite sex, either physically, or attempts at emotional engagement, and you'd just feel pity for the chap when he's unable to break out of his habits. We may frown at his need to continue to find pleasure within his comfort zone, which is just about threatening to expose him professionally, where personally within the privacy of his home, we see just how far his addiction goes.

While there are those who can watch Fassbender gaze at a wall all day long, the rest of us would need a little more variety in the narrative, although writers McQueen and Abi Morgan don't make it easy with yet another troubled soul who enters the scene. Carey Mulligan's Sissy has her own personal demons to battle when it boils down to life and relationships, and gatecrashes into her brother's house, hooks up with his married boss, and is just about the train wreck she has a reputation for. In a way she mirrors the emotional troubles experienced by her brother, and between them their relationship is estranged and compromised, though the story is kind enough to throw in that little light at the end of the tunnel for these two siblings. Mulligan's soulful and depressing rendition of the song New York, New York, is her highlight, and is something not to be missed.

McQueen has both actors to thank for painting this portrait of the damaging ways obsession can bring. Harry Escott's music is hypnotically engaging, while I find Brandon's minimalist, stark white and bright apartment something that mirrors the owner's state of min and emotions, being plain, simple, and none too fussy with the need of having to share anything with anyone else, where relationships are transactional at best. The littlest of glimpses in his humanity that came through, ultimately made the story quite a winner.

It's a welcome surprise to have been able to watch this on the big screen uncut, and what more on 35mm, since the local censors had initially found issue with a prolonged threesome scene that required a snip to pass at R21, which the filmmakers obviously refused. But the Singapore Film Society managed to push through an appeal to have this screened uncut, and you can do so again on Sunday at The Arts House Screening Room. You can get more details about the second screening here.

Code Name: Geronimo / Seal Team Six: The Raid on Osama Bin Laden

Final Briefing

The killing of Osama Bin Laden after a decade long manhunt, surprised most people since it came quite out of the blue, and known only after the fact, in a military operation shrouded in secrecy that involved boots on ground, and a downed Black Hawk helicopter. And it's not without its own controversy as well, for what would be tantamount to an invasion of a supposed ally, the lack of photographic and videographic evidence to the mass public, and a quick burial at sea. So with the lack of facts, filmmakers now have the liberty to paint their own "What If"s, and come up with versions of a narrative of what could have been.

While waiting for Kathryn Bigelow's Zero Dark Thirty to hit the screens here, I suppose one could opt for this alternative film by John Stockwell, meant for television, for that quick synopsis on what to expect, and setting the baseline as well since its narrative encompassed the end to end series of events from years of surveillance and casing on the grounds in Pakistan, to the board room politicking amongst agencies and analysts, to the final execution of the operation that will appeal to action buffs. Not having an obscene budget meant creative use of resources to pass off the real things, from office rooms to real army equipment, but these were functional enough to allow the story to continue.

Code Name: Geronimo can be split into three different narrative threads, with the first set in Pakistan involving two CIA backed Pakistani operatives who are tasked to case a highly fortified abode, performing surveillance from across the street and reporting it back to Langley. Strict protocols are to be adhered to, and this arc is one of the highlights since it dealt with trust issues, corruption, and what I felt was the most delicate discussion on the fallout and aftermath once it's mission accomplished. The solemn discussion shared by the Pakistani agents with a doctor they had recruited, plays on this fear, and the importance of those who decide to stand up and be counted especially when knowing what lies beyond the horizon.

The other narrative thread deals with the politics behind the analysis provided, board room maneuvering, and the moments of deliberation over credibility of intel received. I am guessing that Zero Dark Thiry would have more of this, but despite its relative simpleness in design and delivery, it doesn't try to overload you with too much jargon, but allowing you to appreciate the mammoth tasks behind seemingly open and shut decisions. There's also a Jessica Chastain character equivalent here in Vivian (Kathleen Robertson), playing the analyst who has to convince her skeptics that their high value target is indeed who he is.

And lastly, the attempt to paint a picture behind those faceless grunts in Seal Team Six who executed the entire operation on the ground, putting life on the line as they force their way into a fortified compound. We get to see plenty of training in mock ups, and how the filmmakers try to provide some needless characterization and drama amongst these men, even that of infidelity thrown in for good measure to provide some adversary from within, and having its commander carry some emotional baggage stemming from 9/11. But for all intents, all these become meaningless, once they don their gear and form the highlight of that ground assault. Nobody knows exactly who these soldiers were, from since then we've got books written about their exploits, and now some films being made as well.

Everything's pretty basic for this modestly budgeted film meant for television, but it is no less gripping than any polished blockbuster, especially in its build up toward its inevitable crescendo. Everyone knows the outcome, but what was of value was the epilogue, which accounted for what had happened to those who had decided to help "the enemy" on home soil. Whether true or otherwise, what's compelling is the filmmakers decision to paint a somewhat negative picture on how those who were no longer useful, or have been milked dry, got discarded to a corner, whether to sink or swim was no longer anyone's business or interest. Zero Dark Thirty can't come soon enough.

Friday, January 18, 2013


Not Your Average Mama

The title may be tacky, but this Canadian-Spanish co-production, with Guillermo del Toro lending his name as producer, is one of the better horror films to have come out from the West in recent years, despite being filled with the usual cliches, actually contain a proper story, and delivered really well in terms of chills, thrills and everything that's necessary to creep you out and make you jump at your seat. Co-written and directed by Andres Muschietti, Mama shows how it boils down to story, building upon his short film of the same name some 5 years ago, and a solid cast to gloss over the expected bag of tricks.

Many of the cliches were put to good effect, which in some ways you'd come to expect certain things to happen in a certain way, and they did. While it may be blunted in terms of anticipation and build up, it didn't shy away from delivering that sucker punch when required, and kept good work in framing and editing for maximum impact when the moment called for the unabashed dip into tried and tested elements. One thing you'll note is how assured Muschietti's direction is, as if doing it all for the very first time, with the aim of wanting to stir up its scares really well. Liberal use of CG also helped, but never done in slip-shoddy fashion, which added a layer of positive production values to the film.

I mean, there's creepy children, a ghoul that gate-crashes a reunion of sorts, and the usual spooky house no thanks to noises during strange timings, and the rote blinking of lights. All ingredients that you've seen utilized to the death in various horror film productions, but coming together really well in Mama, playing to the strengths of these elements while fiercely ignoring the negativity associated with lazier filmmakers who just slap these elements together, expecting them to work. It's not a special effects extravaganza when it's not required, and Mama showed just how its story and characters were allowed to lead, rather than to have strangely illogical moments, even for a horror film, fall coincidentally into place.

Jessica Chastain may be the latest IT girl in Hollywood, and it's encouraging to note she's really going all out to take on various roles in different genres, despite her more recent art house leanings of late. Here, she's the quintessential scream queen, albeit only just, given her role of Annabel being a rock star wannabe, sporting almost full body tattoos that betray a rather soft demeanour, when her maternal instincts get called upon to look after the nieces of her boyfriend Lucas (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau). They were found after having disappeared for five years, which the opening sequence and credits would have pointed to an unnatural upbringing under the hands of the titular Mama ghoul. Battling for custody, it is with reluctance that the couple take the children under their wing, probably because Annabel knows she'll eventually be dumped with the kids, which did happen.

And the entire middle act is when the fun begins, for fans of horror films forking out good money to be entertained with the roller coaster ride of scares. Muschietti and his story collaborators Neil Cross and Barbara Muschietti managed to keep an entire back story up their sleeves, to reveal them in teasing fashion, which worked to keep you engaged throughout. And credit must go to Muschietti and his DP Antonio Riestra for having framed the initial introduction to the ghoulish elements that went for maximum WTF surprises, especially with sleight of hand techniques that didn't jar the narrative, nor relied on the necessity of a jump cut edit to hammer home its creepier moments. It grows, slowly, and that's one master stroke Mama had that worked wonders.

This is the second film in a row that had its child actors provide top notch performances. Megan Charpentier and Isabelle Nelisse play sisters, who with the aid of CG move around complete with unnatural mannerisms, having it in term to creep you out, before having to develop their characters into emotional cores that added a lot more depth to this film as it steamrolls its way to the finale. Andres Muschietti is the name to watch now for taking something that's expected to be cliche in a horror film, but fulfilled more than you'd bargain for. A definite recommend!

Thursday, January 17, 2013

The Impossible

Brace for Impact

One of the largest earthquakes in the region sparked off one of the worst ever tsunamis to hit our planet at multiple geographies, I still remember the relative calm back in that December of 2004 just after Christmas, until reality set in with the first images of the chaos that's to come through. Disasters have always proven to be fodder for filmmakers, and the challenge here is not to make them overly sentimental, or worse, seem exploitative in treatment.

Clint Eastwood's Hereafter had the same disaster form the premise of his film, but in this Spanish production, we get the narrative centered around the incident proper in Phuket, where a holidaying family get caught up in this unfortunate moment in history, and we go through their respective struggles to battle fear, confusion, shock, loss and root for their reconciliation, forming just but a snapshot of most of the emotions that survivors would likely have gone through. With a true story of a family's experience forming the inspiration behind Maria Belon and Sergio G. Sanchez's story and screenplay, The Impossible boasts both technical brilliance as well as wonderful acting by its leading cast to draw you into those fateful days, putting you smack where the action is.

Husband and wife Henry (Ewan McGregor) and Maria (Naomi Watts), and their three kids Lucas (Tom Holland), Simon (Oaklee Pendergast) and Thomas (Samuel Joslin) are spending their Christmas week in Phuket, only for the ocean to come up and swallow a lot of land. And by now we would know the devastating effects a tsunami would have as waters sweep inward, gets drawn outward back to the sea, before the next wave comes in again. This gets repeated, with each cycle having the waves becoming smaller, but still bringing about plenty of debris and whatever it had uprooted and moved, making the undercurrents extremely fraught with danger.

While Hereafter had some cheap special effects for sequences of the disaster proper, director Juan Antonio Bayona had a more incredible design and experience for the audience, with models being key to his presentation, and knowing exactly just how to keep tension, and the transmission of fear, vivid through the survive, sink or swim perspective of Maria and Lucas. This goes on for minutes, and it's extremely harrowing. Sound design is also excellent, with the roar of waters overhead perfectly contrasting the muted underwater scenes, which in itself is in ironic sync given its busy undercurrents with debris smashing into one's body, and the need to get onto higher ground, dry land, or just about any flotation device or tree up above. And Bayona doesn't just end it here, knowing that his money shots in this sequence becomes yet another perfect metaphor for Maria later on as well.

It's a tale told in two parts, with Maria and Lucas' storyline highlighting the chaos that ensued after the waters subside, and the assistance rendered by good Samaritan villagers who do what they could in order to save lives. Bayona doesn't shy away from the more difficult shots of both showing the devastation of property, and the loss of human lives, and with an excellent make up team to bring about a vivid portrayal of those injured, or at the brink of death. Whatever they put on Naomi Watts made her look genuinely sick, and undoubtedly helped in her performance, nominated for various awards to date. But it's Tom Holland whom I thought stole the show in their arc, as the young boy faced with fear and uncertainty, both on the condition of his mom, as well as that in the chaos in hospital, with a little bit of humanity weaved in as he goes about reuniting strangers, albeit treated quite lightly, and coincidentally, given the more perplexing and frustrating time where the lack of records for obvious reasons hindered, and sapped emotional strength as hope faded with each passing day.

The other storyline deals with Henry, his other two boys and a family's search for their remaining members, expanding upon Lucas' experience in one location, to that of hitting multiple hospitals and shelter locations, in addition to the difficulties of moving forward and ahead to abandon places already searched. Bayona kept it rather safe here with only fleeting shots of bodies and body bags, never lingering more than necessary. McGregor's character moves with survivors in their respective searches for family, which gives rise to opportunities to showcase how strangers come together, pulling resources and lending morale support, with some who had to hardened their hearts and understandably seeking to consolidate whatever they have in a me-first situation. Again the children Samuel Joslin and Oaklee Pendergast, while not having as big a role as Tom Holland, were the highlight here, stealing McGregor's thunder easily, and you'll be hard pressed not to find your eyes a little damp from time to time.

Some may find fault with its convenient wrap, or take issue with the family's resources at the finale, but these happen to be what's available as resources at the time, and it's not too far fetched to finish rather strongly. After all, this is a film about the human spirit in times of disaster, and an account of their experiences in pulling through their ordeal. For sure there are countless of stories centered around the same event, but I suppose these are stories that would be told by other filmmakers. For now, Juan Antonio Bayona's film stands out as one of the best efforts both technically and creatively, capturing the horror and celebrating triumph in the smallest of ways, with all round fine delivery by its cast both well known, and young. A definite recommend!

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Runway Cop ( 차형사 / Cha Hyung-Sa)


Our desire to improve ourselves, especially in the physical sense, is fodder for Asian comedy films these days. It's no denying we'd generally like to look better and weigh lesser, and these are ready made premises that allows a comedy to be built upon, clearly taking a swipe at these flimsy wants. Japan had a restauranteur don a Handsome Suits in order to gain model good looks, while Korea played on the weight and plastic surgery issues with 200 Pounds Beauty. Here, we deal with poor hygiene and the lack of etiquette, conditions found acceptable by the sloth-like Detective Cha Chul-soo (Kang Ji-hwan).

From the get go, Kang Ji-hwan's titular character is primed for physical comedy, with excuses painted to explain why any man would degenerate into a helpless situation like his, being the ridicule of fellow policemen. His clothes stink as much as his mouth, and his ultimate weapon in interrogations torture is his socks. Be warned though, even though you're seated in front of the screen, these sequences are shot in such vivid terms, you'll probably be feeling just as nauseaus as the unfortunate characters caught in Detective Cha's gunsights.

An undercover mission to pose as a male model will change all that, and job requirements meant transforming himself with great pain into a sculpted Greek god, unbelievable of course given the timeline, but this is movie fantasy after all. Given intel that the drug cartel had infiltrated the fashion industry, the cops enlist the help of rookie designer Ko Young-jae (singer Sung Yu-ri) to turn their only 180cm tall hope into a believable model for infiltration and investigations, with the latter using her launch showcase as a front for this purpose. And to add some value on the romantic front, both Cha and Ko turn out to be one-time classmates.

The movie is what you would call an inconsistent screwball comedy where everything goes, be it smaller, nonsensical moments being played out to fine effect, or larger scaled comedic sequences that felt overly long, losing its intended impact and effect on the audience. Director Shin Tae-ra seemed to have yet to find the knack to craft punchy scenes, and the middle section somewhat sagged due to unnecessary repetition of audition scenes, and the fish-out-of-water moments.

If compared to films like 200 Pounds Beauty and Handsome Suits, Kang Ji-hwan's character began as quite the lout, and didn't possess as much pahos as the lead characters in the other films, which makes him lose out in terms of getting the audience to sympathize with his predicament. More so as the challenge at hand didn't stem from deep, personal reasons, but more from a professional one. Jo-hwan did well as the sloppy looking detective, but didn't have much of a personality shine through when spending more time in the film as the slimmed down male model, relying on supporting caricatures to help lift the film through its limp stages. Yu-ri was equally culpable as the lead actress that wasn't really the best of roles, being average and generic for the most parts.

Runway Cop has an interesting premise and sets itself up for a rip-roaring fun time in the cinema, but ultimately got undone by sticking to a formula that allowed it to go all over the place narratively. It's understood that the nonsensical comedy style is a draw, but this requires skill to craft, that director Shin hasn't manage to possess yet.

Runway Cop opens in cinemas from Thu 17 Jan.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Rust and Bone (De Rouille et D'os)


Stellar performances by Matthias Schoenaerts and Marion Cotillard makes Rust and Bone a delightful watch, especially since the story by Craig Davidson dwells on the darker parts of people's lives, plagued by the lack of responsibility, or the resignation towards one's fate from an accident. It deals with the despair and hope from the strangest of sources, from strangers who become friends and then more. Perhaps the last act offered a glimmer of hope and reprieve for the leading characters, but to get there, we bear witness to the kind of rut they find themselves stuck in, that the only way to go from there would be up.

Rust and Bone is essentially two separate arcs dealing with the issues faced by its two leading characters, before converging them together when they reach out, becoming the crutch in each other's lives, and while this story has been told many times, director Jacques Audiard had two wonderfully crafted characters to work with, and delivered by pitch perfect performances. It's nothing to scoff at in terms of its drama, allowing the characters to grow on you as they overcome various obstacles in their lives.

Matthias Schoenaerts plays Alain, a single dad who almost had to beg relatives for a small abode to call home, while he works the odd jobs that included one that would bite him back later on. He's not much of a father as well, perhaps due to circumstances, that his kid is almost always looked after by someone else. Extra income to keep him alive, ironically, comes from beating up, or getting beaten up, in underground fight matches which puts his brawn to good use. But before you condemn him as someone who cannot get his act together, Davidson's story showed a more compassionate side to him, with his stellar and assured assistance rendered toward Stephanie, although it could be argued it came with perks.

Stephanie by Marion Cotillard is the larger story here, about a woman who lost both her legs in a killer whale incident that should have been routine since she's one of a few trainers dedicated to the mammals in their Sea World type facility. Stephanie has this extremely beautiful sequence where she stands outside the tank, and communicates with one of them through trained hand-signals, which is probably the sequence that piqued my interest in the film. But it is more than that, where Cotillard's performance wins you over and draws you deep into the plight of someone who has to forever be reliant on others for mobility, at least until prosthetics are ready. The friendship developed with Alain becomes the essence of the story, especially when juggled between one that's platonic, physical, a combination of both, and more.

I have to admit though I became somewhat of a voyeur, each time we have Stephanie in the scene, because I would be wondering just how the filmmakers managed to craft scenes that realistically removed Cotillard's legs. I know CG has advanced, but it would be one heck of a job since there were that many in the movie, and I can imagine just how meticulous scene design could be, either to creatively frame it, or physically have Cotillard tuck them in.

In honesty I would have loved to like the film a little bit more, but I can't seem to scratch beneath its surface. Sure it's about life, love, friendship and the likes, but oddly something seemed to be missing, that would really hammer some of these emotions in deeply. Powerhouse performances yes, but to touch the heart sincerely to allow empathy with the characters, probably not.

So Undercover

Newbie Welcome

Once in a while we need a teeny bopper chick flick to update us on the lingua franca used by youths today, so from Clueless which led the contingent in the mid 90s, we now have Miley Cyrus doing the same with her new film So Undercover, which is based on the cliche laden premise of a cop of sorts, because of one's still youthful attributes, getting assigned as an undercover on a mission back in school, and taking to it like a fish out of water, having to relive bad memories and experiences, encounter romance with either a fellow student or teacher, and get to save the day.

Making things worse is having to be assigned to a sorority of sisters in the KKZ sorority house, being amongst yet another group of cliched characters who are the usual vain pots, bimbos, back stabbing rich kids who dream of Bentleys and having to marry scions of senators, spending time dolling up than actually studying in school. Is it the Hollywood cliche now that the nerds in writing departments actually get back at their high school or college nightmares through film in this fashion by painting everyone in sorority and fraternity houses as such? One can only guess.

In any case, Miley Cyrus plays Molly, a rather tom-boyish go-getter of a private investigator in her dad's small firm in Dallas, before getting hired by FBI agent Armon (Jeremy Piven) to assist in a case involving the mob, a key witness, the witness' daughter Alex (Lauren McKnight) and some ledgers. Needing the money to bail her dad out of trouble, Molly accepts the role, gets transformed into college student complete with wardrobe, accessories, vehicle and weapons, to investigate into anything that's out of the ordinary. Nothing is out of bounds when required to use her skills to break into fellow sisters' rooms and rummage through their belongings, for clues of anyone being a suspect waiting in the wings to get at Alex.

Expect the usual episodes complete with the quintessential bimbo (Megan Park) written into the story just for weak laughs, the easily envious head of the sorority house (Eloise Mumford) ever looking over her shoulder for threats to her power, and well, the rest of the forgettable actresses in thankless roles that you won't remember much of once you step out of the cinema hall. Romance comes in the form of Cameron (Cameron Deane Stewart), being probably the only guy in college who rides a Triumph motorcycle, together with tons of red herrings that pop up now and then to keep one guessing in this tired tale of who-could-be-whom, and for Molly to show off some deducting skills every now and then, while frequently tripping up over the latest girly lingo, which isn't too funny nor going to be included in the Oxford anytime soon.

There's a neat plot development in the film for the final act that finally lifted the narrative from its lacklustre slumber, but that was too little too late, and unfortunately didn't hold up to scrutiny because it introduced a gaping plot loophole involving resource issues. I'm not quite sure who the intended demographic is for this film, because Miley Cyrus fans would already get it that she's trying to move further away from her Hannah Montana days by taking on roles that are less saccharine sweet, but skirting around characters like this one won't do her film career any good. She probably needs to tackle stronger dramatic roles if given a chance to really break out of her stereotype.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Silver Linings Playbook

We're Crazy Like That

One of the films that received the largest number of Oscar nominations for this year's edition of the Academy Awards, Silver Linings Playbook is one uplifting film in a long while, centered around a bipolar disorder sufferer released from an institution after eight months, to reunite with family and friends. Director David O. Russell trades the boxing gloves in The Fighter for romance, keeping the triumph of the human spirit as one of the themes in this film filled with hope that all good things come to those who persevere.

While some may balk at the lead pairing of Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Lawrence for their age gap, they blow away their critics sharing great chemistry and acting craft opposite each other, that you'd root for their characters to overcome several obstacles placed in their way that threatens to tear apart the good things they share, despite spending most of the time bickering with one another, sometimes due to the fact of their bluntness and directness

Bradley Cooper plays Pat, who suffers from bipolar disorder and got into trouble with the law when he discovers his wife's infidelity, Now out of a mental institution, he has a loose strategy of gaining back his life based on constant exercise and therapy, while finding himself having to spend time with his dad Pat Sr (Robert De Niro) who is trying his best to reconnect with his son through football, and Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence), the sister of his friend's wife (Julia Stiles), who has the means to serve as his conduit to wife Nikki (Brea Bee), who had served a restraining order on him.

Much of the scenes here naturally gravitate toward the broken souls of Pat and Tiffany, which forms the main bulk of the story given their awkward nature toward each other, that slowly grows on you. With Pat, we witness his manic attacks when the right buttons and triggers get pushed, trying his best to keep some sane semblance of a life without inconveniencing his family, while Tiffany battles from depression, as well as a rotten reputation of being the village bicycle of sorts after losing her husband. It's a tale about two broken people having to find strength in each other, and to continue identify and acknowledge the good in the people who have hurt them, and it grows on you emotionally.

What made David O. Russell's work stand out, boiled down to the excellent casting, and eventual delivery by the actors involved. Bradley Cooper shows off his acting chops here without needing to be overly melodramatic, playing a man obsessed with getting back at his wife, and may be missing the forest for the tree if continue to be obviously blindsided to the attention of another. Jennifer Lawrence had proven before with Winter's Bone that she can handle smaller, more personal roles rather than the commonly rote, big budgeted blockbuster ones from First Class to The Hunger Games, and continues to show why her star is rising, and is one of the best actresses of her generation.

The rest of the ensemble also chipped in with wonderful performances of their own. Robert De Niro is probably the go-to man to play fatherly roles these days, and he doesn't disappoint with his Pat Sr having shown favouritism to his other more successful son. Trying his best to re-connect with Pat Jr, he does so in the only way he knows how, through that of a football game, with stakes raised when he becomes the bookmaker in order to save enough for the opening of a restaurant. Chris Tucker also came in now and then to work his motor-mouth and spew some of the best comical lines in the film, while Jacki Weaver as Pat's mom brings a little touch as any mother character would toward the son, wishing for him to be better, and playing the key role in getting him discharged, to be taken care by family instead.

Cinematography by Japanese Masanobu Takayanagi made Silver Linings Playbook seem a little bit like a documentary with plenty of handheld scenes, while the soundtrack boasts an eclectic selection, with a score thrown in by Danny Elfman. Then let your heart be charmed by troubled people each seeking out a renewed chance to pick up the pieces in their lives, as well as the underlying romance in the movie. A definite recommendation, and clearly one of the highlights as best film.

Seven Psychopaths

This is Madness

With Seven Psychopaths, writer-director Martin McDonagh proved to be no flash in the pan with his well received In Bruges, reuniting with lead actor Colin Farrell in movie that the trailer didn't manage to show off its brilliance. This is something that deserves to be watched, pronto, with fantastic stories to tell of its characters, and has drama, comedy and action all rolled into one, presented in a manner that perhaps even Tarantino would be hard pressed to follow.

It's extremely self-referential and self-deprecating at times even, with McDonagh as the writer breathing life into one of three leading protagonists in Colin Farrell's Marty, a screenwriter facing a writer's block in trying to flesh out his latest idea revolving around seven psychopaths. Keen to help is best pal Billy (Sam Rockwell), an bit actor who's finding it more lucrative to be in the dog-kidnapping business together with their associate Hans (Christopher Walken), and provides Marty with directions and ideas to who the other titular psychopaths could be in his screenplay.

Which allows McDonagh to run riot with the various fantastical elements involving gun-slinging, battles, revenge, religion, and just about every noir and exploitation elements that he can think of. These little episodes of flash backs, or references, proved to be hits in taking the audience out of the present, and embracing these episodes as exaggerated tales spun out of real world references in the lives of the story-teller, protagonists or antagonists. There's a Jack of Hearts serial Killer with a penchant of leaving behind his calling card, inspired by real world incidents, an Amish parish out for vengeance on the killer who did the unthinkable to his daughter, a violent Bonnie and Clyde styled tag-team, and a Viet Cong out to seek revenge in the soil of the US, involving explosives, a hooker, and some crazy communication jokes.

All these centered around Billy dog-kidnapping Bonny, a shih tzu belonging to chief mobster Charlie (Woody Harrelson), and here's where all hell breaks loose. The violent nature of Charlie, usually involving shooting people without remorse so long as he can get his gun to work, trails the trio of Marty, Billy and Hans, inflicting personal damage as he gets closer to retrieving his dog. Here's where McDonagh's writing shines, in creating memorable characters put into memorable episodes with even more memorable dialogue to move the story forward. The conversations between characters are rapid fire, containing a wealth of information, anecdotes, and black comedy that will fly by extremely fast, making it well worth a second viewing.

What more, McDonagh ups the ante by making this extremely self-referential, almost coming close to parodying itself toward the closing stages, primed with graphic star-gazing into what could have been a ridiculously hilarious gun-blazing finale that has to be seen to be believed. Colin Farrell clearly got outshone by his co-stars, probably also because their characters were more flamboyant compared to his relatively muted one. Sam Rockwell is fast becoming a character actor to sit up and take note of if you hadn't already, tackling what would be a multi-faceted role as Billy, playing off the charisma of Christopher Walken really well, with the latter's character adding some soul to the film, with more than one gripping scene in the movie when he stood up against those out to get him.

What you can infer from the trailers and promotional material hardly scratched the surface of McDonagh's wonderful and brilliantly played out film, with its self-deprecating undertones and veiled criticisms, complete with sharp and snappy lines delivered by characters that you'd surprisingly care about, no matter how small their role are. Even McDonagh's own acknowledgement of his inability to craft strong female characters got a comical mention as well. A definite early shoo-in as one of the highlights of the year thus far with its great concept, so whatever you do, don't miss this!
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