Friday, November 30, 2007

The Heartbreak Kid

Who's THE Man?

I'm a fan of Ben Stiller and his brand of comedy, and I rate his insanely good looking (heh) Derek Zoolander as one of my contemporary favourites, alongside his Dodgeball opposite Vince Vaughn, and his Meet The Parents/Fockers combo. But perhaps the most memorable and highly rated laughfest will be his starring in the Farrelly Brothers' There's Something About Mary, with Matt Dillon and Cameron Diaz as the ditzy blonde the two guys are trying to go after.

The Heartbreak Kid brings Stiller back to the Farrelly Brothers' fold, joining forces again to bring in the laughs in a situation that unmarried guys my age fear. While we may be nonchalant about staying single and enjoying the status to sow our wild oats, there's always this nagging thought about what would happen when we seem to have met that special someone who could be just the very person to spend the rest of our life with. Thinking about "forever", that it's a long time, make us go into weighing in the pros and the cons of giving up our freedom, and we just want to be darn sure (and suicidal) to be giving up our singlehood.

And for forty year old Eddie (Stiller), he shares the same sentiments, but on the advise of best buddy Mac (Rob Corddry), who himself is a hen-pecked husband, and Casanova dad Doc (Jerry Stiller, Ben's real father), he marries Lila (Malin Akerman), the blonde akin to Cameron Diaz's Mary in the earlier Farrelly-Stiller collaboration, on a whim after six weeks of courtship. While on the surface, she's physically da bomb, and might seem all nice and dandy inside, little does Eddie know the nightmare is about to begin, as he discovers (say what?) they share very little interests, she's the archetypal dumb blonde always made fun of in blonde jokes, and she's a sexual nymph who likes it very rough (ok, so some of us out there might take this as a plus point).

If there's a moral to the story, that will be to consider very carefully, and to take your time before you commit to that matrimonial vow. You might call me old-fashioned, but I believe that once you walk down that aisle, you'll just have to stick with the woman you marry, for better or worse, and learn to accept her faults. After all, nobody's perfect. But this is a movie, so if anyone is holding onto such real-world ideal notions, then you'll probably not have a good time, and start to frown at every Eddie antic at his horror of discovery, and worse, when he starts to develop feelings for Miranda (Michelle Monaghan, last seen on the big screen playing Ethan Hunt's wife in M:I:III), an equally attractive woman who probably shares more of the same interests as Eddie, whom he met while on honeymoon.

Wait a minute, cheating on your wife during honeymoon? Yes, which is why the conservatives out there will leave with a bad aftertaste. But for the rest of us, it examines the type of dilemma for someone having second thoughts (after all, these are fertile grounds for affairs). The narrative starts to junk the comedy and move into romance-drama gears, but lest you forget this is still a Farrelly Brothers' movie, their trademark sexually vulgar scenes and jokes come and surprise you when you least expect. Body parts (there's this scene involving bodily fluids which you just have to see to believe the insane audacity of it all) and orifices are no longer sacred. Comedy of errors are standard fare, as are the increasing inserts of gay jokes whenever possible. However most jokes were still on Lila, and plenty of that were already included in the trailer, so if you haven't watched it, don't.

As a comedy, The Heartbreak Kid somehow didn't live up to its promise. Sure it has its moments, but they were few and far between, and in reality, you'll probably enjoy the Eddie-Miranda romantic scenes (and those with her family) a lot more than you would the Eddie-Lila comedic scenes. Does it have an ending and resolution to Eddie's dilemma of which girl to choose? Yes, but it turned out to be extremely clunky and unfunny (try as it would want to), dragging out the last act unnecessarily to put this movie close to a two hour runtime. It's still a comedy after all, so don't expect a very powerful and emotional close ala dramatic fare like Castaway, which it tried to ape, with a comedic slant of course.

Deinitely not one of Stiler's, or the Farrelly Brother's best work to date. Stay tuned for the cameo appearance of one prominent TV actress at the close, and stay tuned during and after the end credits. There's a scene involving Lila, which probably isn't in very good taste, showing how she managed to get satisfied, and the other bringing you back to 1975 to confirm a certain event which was mentioned in passing.

[Animation Nation] Moebius Redux: A Life in Pictures

My Life

This is a very short documentary about Frenchman Jean Giraud, aka Moebius the artist, and so my review is going to be short.

Written and directed by Hasko Baumann, this documentary traces the professional life and influences of an artist whom comic book aficionados will have come across one way or another. As a film it's pretty standard fare with the talking heads styled interview with various close collaborators, and folks from the US comics industry such as Stan Lee (whom he worked together with in Silver Surfer) and Mike Mignola, better known for his Hellboy series.

For film lovers, a good introduction to Jean Giraud is that he's the creative force behind the designs you see in 5th Element, Tron, Alien and even inspired the design of the city in Blade Runner with some panels from an earlier comic work. He too had a hand in providing some designs for a Dune movie, whose production unfortunately got canned.

Interspersed with various art pieces from comic books and set/character designs for the movies he's worked on, this documentary remains strictly for the fans, otherwise you'll be clueless and point at Stan Lee each time he comes on screen, saying "did he create Spider-Man?" trying hard to impress your equally clueless girlfriend. At least the couple sitting beside me were that clueless, and I got to shush them from bombarding me with useless trivia.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

[DVD] 881 (2007)

Royston Tan's 881 is one of the, if not the highest grossing local/Asian movie at the Singapore box office this year, and has already been pre-sold to territories like Korea and Japan. In recent memory, 881 probably takes the honour of having a very extensive publicity campaign for a local movie, no doubt benefiting from the financial and marketing muscle of Mediacorp Raintree Pictures, and more importantly, having the director himself and his main leads take to the streets, performing in malls and real "getais" too. Currently in the running with a nomination in Taiwan's Golden Horse awards and is Singapore's nomination for the Oscar's Best Foreign Language Film, I was quite surprised that the DVD has been released so soon.

But horrors! While the visual transfer is relatively pristine, it is non-anamorphic! What you get is a letterbox format, and this is a real pity, given that the performances in the movie should have automatically granted the transfer to be in anamorphic widescreen. Then again, thank goodness it's not in 4:3 Full Frame! No audio selection is available, so your guess is as good as mine.

The menu design is pretty gaudy, perhaps deliberately done to stay in line with the theme, with each section having a different song from the movie playing in the background. Subtitles are available in English and Chinese, but only for the movie proper. A 16 chapter scene selection is available if you want to zoom into your favourite segments of the movie, but take note that the Bonus Features section has a selection of some of the songs which you can watch standalone.

The release certainly has vast room for improvement in the Bonus Features section. I felt that this movie was an opportunity for some excellent DVD features to be included, and given how the soundtrack sold like hot cakes, thought that it wouldn't be far fetched to have 881 released in some collector's boxset edition. But alas this was not the case, as far as local DVD pressings are concerned, thank goodness it wasn't a barebones release. As far as my memory serves, we don't have a DVD movie release with a director's commentary, yet.

[Edit: Thanks to a sharp eyed reader, we do have one. The DVD release of Perth comes with at least the director's commentary!]

The Theatrical Trailer (2:09) is included, and presented in letterbox format. The first feature is the Making Of (23:02, letterbox) which is without subtitles, so for non Chinese speaking audiences, you'll be quite lost. It's a standard Making Of feature directed by Brian Gothong Tan (who served as DoP in Pleasure Factory), containing interviews with the director, crew and cast, where they talk about getai, as well as about the characters they play. While the interviews were short, they did talk quite candidly, about Royston's previous features, and the fear of a wardrobe malfunction. Contains a number of behind the scenes clips at rehearsals and antics on set. Clearly designed for television as there were logical intervals for ads.

The Day in the Life of Liu Ling Ling (6:45, full frame) again comes with no subtitles. We follow Ling Ling who shows us a typical day / life in the getai business, and she shares her experience in the scene, where everyday is a challenge as you need to be quick on your toes, and constantly expect the unexpected. The ability to interact with any audience is a necessary trait, and we see how her stage life has changed (for the better) after the release of 881. She also shares some customs that have to be adhered to, and I thought that was quite interesting to follow. However the audio in this segment needs improvement as her voice over / narration occasionally gets drowned out by the background noise.

Unfortunately, Deleted Scenes doesn't contain any description nor commentary as to why they were removed, though some of the clips were more of extended versions. There are a total of 11 clips here, but there's no option for you to watch them individually as they autoplay one after another for a total runtime of 8:46. Most of them are identified by numbers (eg. Scene 5, 9, 23, 47, 48, 52A, B and C), while "17B Funeral" was taken from Chen Jin Lang's funeral, "Girls in Car" fairly self explanatory, and an Alternate Intro which thankfully was not used. Needless to say, some clips were rough, and some without sound. Again without subtitles.

The Special Song Segment is probably the best part for anyone who enjoyed the myriad of songs performed in the movie. Here, you can to select which clip you want to see, however they do play continuously from that point onwards, so you'll have to click back to the menu to select the other if you choose not to listen to them in chronological order. Again they are all letterboxed, and without subtitles, so if you prefer to know what the singers are singing, you still have to head back to the feature film.

8 songs are featured, and some performed by the Durian Sisters too!
1. 12 Lotus Flowers (approx 2:18)
2. Prison Tears (approx 1:32)
3. Send Off Vagabond's Mother (approx 1:10)
4. Bad Times (approx 1:27)
5. Last Breath (approx 2:08)
6. Missing Blossom Love (approx 4:05)
7. Mami No. 3 (approx 1:55)
8. Coffee Seller (approx 1:52)

Code 3 DVD (but I suspect it could be multi-region) is released by Scorpio East, and you can read my review of 881 here. I'm pretty mixed about the DVD release, and quite dissed the visual transfer not being an anamorphic one. Maybe 10 years down the road when there's an anniversary edition will we get that transfer, and maybe some valuable commentary to go along.

881, Huat Ah!

30 Days of Night

OK I Admit. I Farted. Happy Now?

While we're about a month away from the season of good tidings and the new year, what we have lined up for the next 4 weeks or so are 4 cinematic releases that deal with zombies, the supernatural and the undead. We have been teased with Aliens Vs Predators again in a town where the humans stand in their way and become sacrificial pawns. We have Will Smith in I Am Legend being the last man on Earth fending off strange creatures in the night. We have a group of shoppers stuck in a supermarket when Stephen King unleashes The Mist on them. And I actually enjoyed the latter 2 trailers for having adopted some bars off Clint Mansell's soundtrack for The Fountain (will we see more, since Requiem's was used ever so often).

And the competition amongst them starts with 30 Days of Night, adapted from a graphic novel, which tells of the small town on Barrow in the northernmost part of Alaska having to go through 30 days without sunlight in winter, and those who can't stand the cold and the thought of living without sunlight, have opted to leave. It's pretty much business as usual, until a bunch of vampires decide to crash in and feast. And this is the beginning of one of my gripes about the film, as hokey as how the Superman comics team dreamt up of Doomsday - it just appears, with zero thought about justification and the whys and the hows. Um, so we're to believe that this group of super bloodsuckers led by Danny Huston's Marlow have been idling for centuries somewhere on Earth where the sun doesn't shine, before deciding that they have to respond to that rumble in the stomach.

So once you can believe that, and the thought of it dismissed by a one-liner, it's a pretty gory vampire flick on most accounts. They're infused with 28 Days/Weeks styled speed and utter craving for plasma, and as a team, their moves are very keenly calculated. Thinking it's hip to invent languages, we learn Vampire-speak too, though most of the time their fangs get in the way of their pronunciation, so they sound like they're choking on thick clotted blood. Watching the way they dispatch their sorry victims, even though the camera cuts away just at the point of teeth plunging into jugular veins like how rabid dogs attack, you still feel a frightening chill when the view comes back to jolting bodies having their liquids sucked dry, and those scenes are disturbing, even after you leave the theatre. Those fingernails cum talons too provide our vampires with a facial weapon, and how you wish they use it to silence themselves each time they lapse into their orgasmic shrieks.

Director David Slade of Hard Candy fame knows how to create tension and horror without showing you much, and that happens to be a plus point with its extremely patient build up, and the heightening of suspense. You have to tip your hat at him for crafting a very quiet movie at crucial scenes, so much so that the audience lend their "Ssshhhhs" not to tell fellow audience to keep quiet, but aimed at the characters themselves to remain like little mice lest they get detected. 30 Days of Night is a very grey movie in mood, tone and the weather, with occasional white landscapes littered with splatters of crimson, and with Slade just loving to provide us overhead views of the town run aground by rampaging monsters.

The humans here though behave like typical vampire movie fodder. The bigger the ensemble, the more victims it can provide, not counting anonymous folks seen being victims from afar. Josh Hartnett's Sheriff Eben plays hero as he leads his bewildered town kinsman to survive through this 30 days of mayhem before the sun shines again, while trying to work out his estranged relationship with wife Stella (a very pouty Melissa George from Turistas, and I still say she's a dead ringer for Estella Warren!). As usual, you have a team of misfits feeding off each other's strength in a quest for survival, and a theme such as Sacrifice is never too far away from movies like these.

But what I felt was a let down to its build up, was the unsatisfying ending, which left a bitter aftertaste with its abruptness and inability to resolve anything substantial. It also didn't allow for any sympathy for the victims as you would sometimes find yourself rooting for another kill just to satisfy your blood lust, also because little time is given for you to get to know those characters. As the humans learn that guns do zilch to their targets, there goes all hope, and try as they could to get creative in turning the tables, it boiled down to keeping it simple. Oh, and if you enjoyed the supermarket scene, I'd bet it served as a precursor to The Mist.

30 Days of Night could have been a lot more, but unfortunately left some bits to be desired. If you truly want to enjoy this new age vampire movie, then I suggest leaving any inquisitiveness at the door, as the movie offers no answers nor clues to answer your whys. Perhaps a reading of the graphic novel might help.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

[Singapore Writers Festival] Reel Blogging - The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Movie Blogs

Friends, I think you probably know by now the Singapore Writers Festival will be held at The Arts House from 1 to 9 December next month. What's more, there will be film screenings too!

I was invited by Ben Slater to join him on a panel for the following discussion:

LIFE ONLINE: Reel Blogging - The Pleasures and Pitfalls of Movie Blogs
In recent years film blogs have become an international phenomena, introducing a new wave of film critics and writers to readers, blurring the line between professional and amateur critic. Film-makers are also increasingly using blogs as a promotional tool to connect with potential audiences. This discussion between several prominent film bloggers and writers, will highlight the best film blogging, and explore the key issues for movie bloggers.

and besides Ben, who wrote the book Kinda Hot, we'll be joined by Yu-mei Balasingamchow, the managing editor for, and Alexis Tioseco, a film critic from the Philippines who founded and edits Criticine, the only online film journal entirely dedicated to South-East Asian film. Alexis won't be here in person, but the panel will extend to cyberspace where he'll join us via Skype and a webcam!

So here's the Date/Time/Venue: 1st Dec 07 (This Saturday), 1900hrs, The Arts House Blue Room (why does this conjure scenes from Police Academy!)

As Ben mentioned in his post, if you want to talk movie blogs, are interesting in setting one up, or want to discuss issues about writing and film in general, then please come and join us on the 1st. See you there!


Happy With The View?

10 years ago, Philip Noyce directed a movie that was based on an adapted character. He put this character in Russia, and got him embroiled in some political intrigue that's way over his head and should not have involved him in the first place. Naturally, our anti-hero (he's a professional thief by the way) bites back, using skills he honed to perfection, and basically relying on his smarts to escape near misses. His charisma ensured he had a beauty with brains tagging along, albeit reluctantly but given no choice with her involvement in the scheme of things, before forging trust, and possible romance.

His name? Simon Templar, aka The Saint.

Today, we have Xavier Gens taking a character, Agent 47 (Timothy Olyphant) based on an EDIOS game called The Hitman, and scribe Skip Woods' story has this best of the best (they always have to be) in St Petersburg to do what he does, and that's to carry out professional hit jobs at the direction of The Agency (are you quivering now?). He gets embroiled in a political conspiracy given his mark is a certain political figure, and has the Russian military, his own organization and Interpol (led by Dougray Scott's Mike Whittier) after his hide. Along the way, he saves Nika Boronina (Olga Kurylenko) a Russian call girl / sex slave from certain death, and in between finds himself in a very difficult romance.

Notice the similarities? It's The Saint all over again, except this time, Agent 47 resembles more of Jason Bourne, but without the hair, replaced by shiny baldness with a cartoony barcode tattooed at the back. He has a penchant for suits and trenchcoats, but only to hide his mean knives when he chooses to engage in more dignified battles. So unlike the suave Simon Templar, he opts for the obvious, and should have taken a leaf or two in styling and disguises from Templar, rather than walking around being the odd one out of a sea of hairy heads and a barcode that says "Hello World".

Anyway that's the character design from the game, so we can't complain about it can we, just as how Angelina Jolie had to have her ample assets enhanced to match Lara Croft's. But its similarity to the Bourne movies cannot be denied, in the way that both are professional assassins, and probably schooled in the same close quartered unarmed combat techniques, and the similarity even went down to how these action sequences were shot and edited - quick cuts, jerky hand held style.

It's action set pieces turned out to be rather ordinary, probably because they are rehashes of some classical scenes that we've seen before in other movies. Like the shoot em up with machine guns, the shattering of pillars and plenty of blow em ups with a rock soundtrack blaring in the background that we've seen in the Matrix movies. Or how about "paying homage" to Hong Kong movies like Johnny To's mexican standoffs in recent flicks like Mad Detective and Exiled, but done with less pizzazz and the proceedings and outcome bordering on the ridiculous. Or how about close quartered fisticuffs done while crouching under a platform, ala Jet Li's Fong Sai-Yuk? And how about a Saw's Jigsaw inspired moment to boot?

But truly the scene which took the cake, was one done in extremely bad taste. In referencing the tragic terrorist event in Russia where government forces used gas to literally put friend and foe to sleep before they stormed a theatre, this gets repeated here with cruel aplomb, and I thought it was quite insensitive of the filmmakers to do so, in the manner in which they did so.

If you can put aside all these misgivings, then you'll probably find something remotely to enjoy with Hitman. Agent 47 is bald Bourne, but he's not amnesiac, and having been brought up in an all male monastery, it wrecks havoc on his non-existent sex life, especially when Nika hits on him time and again, sans clothes. There are many sub plots and unnecessary scenes in this movie, but they remained so that this wouldn't turn out to be a short film, or feel part of the video game where you have absolutely no control over. Timothy Olyphant did a rather decent job as Agent 47 as the role calls for little emotion (i.e. nothing to do except alternating between cool and mean) with stuntmen making him look good. In fact, most characters were pretty one-dimensional, and Nika the call girl would have been every fan/geek boy's wet dream come true. If I should praise anything, then it should be the way villains are dispatched without the bullshit lapsing into monologues.

Video game movies rarely are hits, and while Agent 47 never misses a target, I would classify this one under a huge misfire. The story's ho-hum, the action very familiar and mediocre with a lacklustre effort all around. And I'm sure to walk out next time if the male lead tells the hot chick "don't worry about finding me, I'll find you, no matter where in the world you might be". Yeah right.

How Would You Like To Die Today?

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Mad Detective (神探 / Sun Taam)

Watch Me in Action

Mad Detective had been touted as the long awaited re-team of Johnny To and Wai Ka Fai, who together have made Running on Karma back in 2003. The return of Lau Ching Wan to a To-Wai movie (since My Left Eye Sees Ghosts) is also more than welcome, and Mad Detective to me lived up to its hype, despite having certain obvious recycled elements from To's earlier films.

But this doesn't mean that the movie felt familiar. Sure, the iconic elements of a To movie were all there, including the saga of the missing police handgun, and the oh-so-stylish Mexican stand-offs (that we've seen in recent To movies in Exiled and Triangle) and the inevitable resolution, though how this one panned out, deserves the loudest of applause for its edge-of-your-seat-who-comes-out-unscathed revelation. And the end result is both satisfying, for a movie that had engaged through all its minutes, and yet frustrating, though the good thing was that there isn't any cop-out edits just to satisfy censors or sooth faux morals.

Mad Detective tells the story of Bun (Lau), who is termed as the title says because of his extremely unorthodox methods to solve crime - he re-enacts them at the very venues they are committed, getting into the minds of the criminals, and through this manner, able to identify who the perpetrator is. Needless to say his crime solving rate is high and he beocomes a legend, until a crazed moment saw him cut off his right ear to present to a departing boss, and with that, an early discharge letter from the Force.

The story fast forwards 5 years later, with detective Ho (Andy On) investigating a case of a missing cop and his gun, which was found to be used in a series of armed robberies. While suspicion is strong on the partner Chi-wai (Lam Ka Tung), there is absolutely no shred of evidence linking him to the crime. In his desperation, Ho turns to Bun, very much against protocol, and enlists his help in solving the case.

That's basically it, as we see in more detail what Bun's abilities are in depth. He's part profiler, part sage, and to many, all insanity with his constant talking to himself, and banged up attire sans socks. What I thought made it a close to perfect thriller, was that it constantly kept you guessing whether Bun is indeed what the title is, if it had taken a leaf out of Oxide Pang's creation of the C+ Detective with some supernatural moments, of if it was solely a disorder of the mind. If it shows you compelling evidence that you deem is a smoking gun, in no time are you presented with doubts that will cloud your judgement. You're given a glimpse of how the method in the madness works, and more often than not, find yourself second-guessing all the time, just like how Ho does.

And to that effect, I would warrant a guess that some in the audience will be left perplexed and confused, but my advice is not to give up on it. There are many wonderful moments especially when Bun's ability is fleshed out for the audience to see, and as such provided plenty of cameo appearances like Lam Suet and Cheung Siu Fai, playing personalities that were personifications of an inner man's thoughts, desires and fears. A pity though that not all personalities shown were provided screen time to do something more. A cautionary tale too about not judging a book by its cover, as even uncanny abilities to read a person might not be able to sniff out something that's regressive and well concealed, the true intentions of anyone.

Lau Ching Wan took a long hiatus before returning to the big screens here (since The Shopaholics, and the lovely My Name is Fame only made it straight to disc), and this comeback is nothing short of majestic in having him in his element, doing almost a one-man show if you will. You laugh at his antics, cry at his predicament in being so dogged in his persistence, admire his unorthodox methods and philosophy approaching investigations (to use emotions), yet cry along in pity when you suspect he's slowly degenerating into madness. Lau has charisma enough to make you empathize with his Bun, into a character you root for, despite his obvious difference. Andy On holds his own as the greenhorn investigator well enough in scenes opposite Lau, while Lam Ka Tung is just plain menacing as the accused, expressing his frustration in being the prime suspect, being both the cat and the mouse in the hunt for the truth.

What I admire about the movie, is how a simple idea can be branched into something complex, but yet within grasp, so hats off to the writing-directing team of To and Wai Ka Fai. In essence, this is a story that is told with its cards close to its chest, providing great balance in letting the multiple cats out of the bag at the right time. Simply superb!

[I Want See] Homeless FC

James Leong and Lynn Lee's documentaries are nothing short of fascinating, having watched their earlier efforts in Passabe and Aki Ra's Boys. I'm still waiting with bated breath for their latest documentary Homeless FC, which has been making its rounds in film festival circuits, and had a run in Hong Kong. I could have watched its premiere during this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival, but sadly had to leave earlier on the evening that it was screened.

Check out the trailer here:

and this really cool (fan made?) music video featuring Cui Jian's original Mandarin Rock classic "I Have Nothing" and the English version of the song, "I Walk This Road Alone" by Denmark's Michael Learns to Rock, featuring visuals from the movie "Homeless FC".

And please, since this is in Cantonese, do have it screened here in its original language track ok?


Monday, November 26, 2007

The Substation Moving Images 10th Anniversary Celebrations

Most of you will probably already know that The Substation's Moving Images (MI) programme is Singapore's only year-round programme dedicated to local, independent and short film. And it's hard to imagine that 10 years have already flown by!

To celebrate its 10th Anniversary, MI is throwing a big party, so it's one long weekend of film fun, with screenings, talks and even a Movie Paraphernalia Market, from 7th to 10th December (Fri-Sun), all around The Substation premises. And in the tradition of the programme, most admissions are either free, or by donation/pay as you wish.

Fans of local short film maker Jacen Tan (of Tak Giu, Zo Peng and Zo Gang fame) will be pleased to know that The Substation had commissioned him to do a new short film capturing the essence of independent filmmaking in Singapore, and "Zo Hee" (the sequel to "Zo Gang") will make its premiere on 7th Dec 8pm. If you'd see what Jacen had done with his previous works, I'm sure you'll be as excited as me to see how this one will turn out, starring "Merlion Tan" from Zo Gang too! Don't Miss This!

What are you waiting for? Click on the event logo above, or hit this link for details on events and their specific timings. Those of you on Facebook (I know you do) can click on this event link to set yourself a reminder, and to invite your friends along.

See you at The Substation!

Sunday, November 25, 2007

[Animation Nation] The Pixar Story

To Infinity and Beyond!

Pixar has made so many blockbuster hits, each just about being almost better than the last in terms of anticipation translated to box office receipts, that it's tempting to speculate whether an upcoming movie will be the one infamously credited to bringing the juggernaut to a temporary halt. Going by what The Pixar Story presented, so long as the team stays hungry, focused and passionate with transforming their ideas into films stemming from the heart, then it's probably a formula that would be difficult to break, and computer animation fans will be in for a treat, for a long time to come.

The Pixar Story is a documentary charting the meteoric rise of the company we all have probably in one way or another, come to love, with its groundbreaking effects and animation taking the world by storm with each new release. It's tough for any studio to build upon and better the success of its previous release with the new one, but somehow Pixar always managed to come through unscathed. But as the documentary reveals, it's never plain sailing, and thank goodness most of the cockups, especially weak stories, get junked and reworked, rather than the company crossing its fingers that a mediocre work could cut it. Technological advances also meant that animators get constantly challenged to break new ground, and the film systematically presents these challenges so that we the audience could take a step back, and appreciate the efforts.

Most history buffs will already know that Pixar has its first origins from Lucasfilm (and you can sense George Lucas reeling from letting this opportunity run away), where a division with a mixed expertise of computer scientists and animators spun off to do what they love, and that's to explore the possibilities of combining their skills to make animation. And with angel investor Steve Jobs providing seed funding and despite the studio being in the red in the first few years, one short clip lead to a short film, and with Disney on board in an initial uneven partnership, Toy Story was born, and as they say, the rest is history.

The first parts of the documentary devoted quite a lot of time to John Lasseter, who's credited with making things work with his direction of the first crop of movies coming out of Pixar. It traces his professional start as an animator with Walt Disney, the run ins and the unfortunate firing, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise on hindsight. We see how he, and the rest of his co-workers, had to undertake pressure to perform, each pouring in copious amounts of personal sacrifice to turn their dream into reality. And with each success, the director taking over the reins for the next movie, will no doubt feel the pressure of its predecessor's success, especially Pete Doctor coming off Lesseter's impressive track record, and others like Brad Bird coming from outside the company culture.

We take a sneak peek into the facilities at their swanky company grounds, admiring the grounds in which Pixar creations are conceived, but what is of extreme value here is the tons of archived footage, most of which are unseen because they never see the light of day, be it rough storyboard sketches or skeletal computer animation, most of which contain early stages of the characters with whom we've been acquainted with. The Pixar Story spent significant amount of time on Toy Story (since it's the first movie), and you can witness how the early Woody character and storyline was rejected because they didn't seem right. And it seems that Pixar doesn't compromise on quality - that plans do get trashed if they don't measure up, even with a fixed deadline looming. Talk about grit, determination and perfectionism all rolled into one.

With plenty of interviews with the creators, big name CEOs past and present, and the stars sharing their experience with providing the voices for their digital counterparts, director Leslie Iwersk also provided a brief look into the political wrangling behind the scenes, just for completeness sake, making The Pixar Story well suited for anyone curious to know how it call started, and how the energy is sustained until this very day. There'll be a second screening this Thursday at 9pm, so don't miss this.

2 Days in Paris

Heard About Your Vienna Fling

I actually did spend two days in Paris, back in August 2004, and did all the touristy things one could do in those short 48 hours, like visit the unmissable landmarks such as Le Tour Eiffel, visited babes Mona Lisa and Venus at the Louvre, tried to look for the hunchback at Notre Dame, paid my respects at Napoleon's casket, and ended the night partying after a dinner watching a French revue.

But no, I didn't have a Julie Delpy to romance, or to hang out with. Written and directed (and edited!) by Julie Delpy, comparisons to the Richard Linklater twin combo Before Sunrise and Before Sunset are inevitable, because firstly, they star Delpy, and secondly, the charaters hit off into interesting chatter that grabs our attention, albeit this one takes place over a longer period of reel time over 48 hours versus the combined 24 hours that the Before movies offered. But before you shout "rip off" and discredit Delpy's effort as another Linklater clone, I can safely say there are distinct differences between the movies, and that while Linklater's had a kind of dreamy romanticism to his, Delphy's 2 Days in Parissomehow had a more realistic, grittier, down to earth look and feel (no offense to Linklater, whose movies I mentioned I just adore too), tackling a key issue in relationship, and that's honesty.

In fact, you'd wonder if honesty (100% no holds barred revelations) can offer you less headache, particularly when your partner has to discover some parts of you that you want hidden away, either for reasons of being ashamed, or just because you want to protect him/her from possible hurt when they find out the truth. Truth usually has a funny way of getting back at you, in presenting themselves usually at the less than ideal situations, open to being misconstrued, and misunderstood. Kind of having a negative vibe to it all, doesn't it?

Adam Goldberg plays Jack, who's into a two year relationship with Delpy's Marion. While enjoying a whirlwind holiday in Europe, they decided to make a pit stop in Paris to visit Mario's folks Anna and Jeannot (Marie Pillet and Albert Delpy, Julie Delpy's real life parents playing her reel ones in the movie), before flying back home to New York. That's the basic premise, with Jack being brought around Paris by Marion, as well as to catch up (or rather providing the opportunity) with Marion's friends, which inevitably involves ex-boyfriends. While at first being quite magnanimous, Jack will confront his fears and ego-busting situations when he starts to realize in his own warped perception that Marion may well be the village bicycle, having ridden with/on/by every male they come into contact with.

I never thought I'd laugh my way through the movie, as from the get go, 2 Days in Paris contains extremely witty dialogue in rapid fire, and almost every character gets into the act, either intentionally (like Jack and his constant sarcasm), or through various situations the couple get into. Cab rides aren't like Linklater's Before Sunset where the lovebirds take the time to understand each other, gaze and whisper sweet nothings. Cab rides here means opportunity for insane dialogue, insults, and even being hit upon! It was so much fun that I'd actually wanted the couple to take more cab rides. Bringing on the laughs too was Marion's/Delpy's dad, a Frenchman who cannot speak English, which provides cross-cultural / language barrier comedy with Goldberg's Jack, and being the old man that he is, peppers his conversations and actions with so much sexual innuendo it'll probably make you blush. That scene in the art gallery is just to die for, if you pay close attention to the art pieces. Dad definitely stole the show each time he appeared on screen.

But fun and laughter aside, this movie as it turns out, is a very keen, and introspective look at modern day love and relationships. That voiceover by Delpy towards the end, somehow struck a bell within me, and I'd think most of us who have been hurt in the same way, may share the same thoughts too. And for that bit of sincerity and recognition of a probable perennial issue of the cycle of love-lost-found-is-he/she-the-one-pondering, this Julie Deply movie is a definite winner. Kudos too to Adam Goldberg for being a likeable unlikeable fella providing ample, believable repartee to carry the movie through. Highly recommended, don't miss this movie! And book your tickets early too, as it has been playing to full houses!

Saturday, November 24, 2007

[Animation Nation] Freedom Project

Rogue of Eden

"Freedom Project is a Japanese promotional project by Nissin Cup Noodles for their 35th anniversary in 2006. As part of the project, a 6-part series titled Freedom, was commissioned with Katsuhiro Otomo - of Akira and Steamboy fame - serving as the character and mecha designer"

And it's therefore no wonder that the vehicles and the bots featured in Freedom, looks similar in form to Akira, in my opinion anyway. But that's the least of anyone's concern. I'll state it upfront, Freedom has your classical mainstream appeal, despite its science-fiction setting. It's simply amazing stuff with the beautiiful animation that carries the movie, and more importantly, it contains a story that engages, one full of action and comedy, with characters that you actually care about and root for.

In today's screening, we were shown an unsubbed version of the Prologue, not that I'm complaining (translation though was printed out and provided at the door), Episodes 1 to 3, and the actual ads that were used for Nissin cup noodles. And it's undoubtedly well received by the audience tonight, and left me, and I'd bet almost everyone in the hall today, clamouring to want to see more, as the collection of ads presented at the end had whet our appetites and provided a glimpse of how the story would continue to its conclusion.

Freedom is set 300 years into the future, where a cluster of humans are living on the moon in domed environments. Earth has become uninhabitable due to environmental breakdown, and the humans in the lunar Eden have thrived in a lifestyle that calls for constant contribution to society, where punishment is met out as voluntary work in maintaining their lunar enclave. We follow the lives of Takeru, Kazuma and Bisu just after their graduation, and journey with them through their adventures in Eden, until they inadvertently discover, as with most utopias under extreme authoritarian control, there's always a sort of a cover up, and witness for themselves, that Earth may not seem like what they are told.

Takeru is the key character here, with his reckless attitude, and infatuation for the female of the species. It is his easy "falling in love" that leads him and his friends from one adventure to the next, which paves the way for excellence par none action sequences in a tube race (akin to Star Wars pod-race), a lunar trek, and a tunnel chase by persistent bots (in the mold of Matrix's and Star War's). With the help of an old fogey Alan who holds the key to many old trinkets that the trio require, and knowledge o the past, Takeru has all the help that he requires for his mission, with the ever reliable best frined Kazuma (the later episodes concerning this character will be worth the watch), and cowardly tech-wizrd Bisu.

Alas we've only experienced half of the series, but what a blast it was! Given it's Nissin produced, I thought the filmmakers were rather creative with the necessary blatantness in having to put the product in, and making it all too visible so that they'll not be missed. No doubt drawing the most chuckles, especially in Episode 3's, this is but a necessary evil. The ads did show a different look and feel of the animation and characters though, with its very 3D look, and it was revealed later by Vong Yonghow that his job was actually the lighting to make it look 2D. I agreed with him that it doesn't matter whether effort was unnecessarily expended to make a 3D product look 2D, and what mattered most was the story.

And Utada Hikaru's This is Love is mighty catchy, being used as the opening theme for each episode (frankly I was waiting to hear it again, and again).

Yonghow was present today for a short Q&A session, and explained that he had to take leave to come back from Singapore as they're still working on Episode 6 and 2 commercials. Despite working long hours in the company, it still took about 2.5-3 months to produce one episode, and while the DVD is already for the earlier episodes, I did a quick check on Amazon and they are really expensive. Perhaps I'll wait for a proper DVD release which contains all the episodes and the commercials, rather than buying each episode individually.

And to a question posed as to why Nissin would want to commission such a project (hey I don't mind, keep them coming!), Yonghow's guess was perhaps cup noodles are convenient, and one can bring them everywhere, so it's freedom in that sense. Ha, perhaps that's true :-)

For those interested to follow through to the end of the series, you might want to pop by Yonghow's blog Halcyon Realms for an indepth look at the development of Freedom, and other anime titles.

The Tattooist

Got Licence?

"He needs a doctor."
"No, he needs a tattoo!"

And with that comes the chuckles when the latter line is uttered by Singaporean actor Gerald Chew. The Tattooist is the second New Zealand horror movie to hit our screens here this year (the other being The Ferryman), and this one marks the first Singapore-New Zealand joint venture, with others like Kelvin Tong's Maid sequel being rumoured to be some collaborative effort of this nature as well.

Starring Jason Behr, who resembled Lorenzo Lamas in his previous big screen movie outing with the Skinwalkers, he ditches the long hair and beard for a closer crop, and takes on the titular role as a tattooist who is in Singapore for a Tattoo Exposition, held at the Capitol area. Locals will know that no such area exists (Capitol is just waiting to be refurbished/demolished), and the first 20 minutes of this movie actually had a very sexy vibe to how night time Singapore is portrayed, with its beautiful skyline, and many shots that would have made the Singapore Tourism Board give it its stamp of approval.

Some believe that tattoos give its wearer some mystical properties, as explained in movies like Spider Lilies, and perhaps that's why more than often the creatures drawn on people include fierce ones like tigers and mythical ones like phoenixes and dragons. Rarely, or never at all, do you see a pussy cat, or a rat (if you do, let me know!). Behr's Jake Sawyer earns a living giving tattoos that he hawks as tattoos that can "heal", although being a disbeliever of such prowess, and at the Expo, gets his interest piqued by the Samoan tradition of the art.

OK, so actually he's more interested in Sina (Mia Blake), whom he saw at the Expo, and prior to his journey to New Zealand to learn more of Tatau, he had "borrowed" an old tattoo tool, which to the audience, spells trouble - such stuff can only contain curses, spirits and what-have-yous. And when blessed accidentally with fresh blood from Sawyer's palm, it seems that Sawyer's customers thereafter become victims of strange deaths, spewing tattoo ink and experiencing death by tattoo art. Nonetheless it's up to Sawyer to find out the root cause in a race against time, especially when his lady love is also put at risk.

To add some depth and contribute to the reasons necessary for things that go bump, the theme of shame is examined in the rituals of the Samoan people, which is similar to the value of "face" to the Chinese. Things that bring dishonor to the family is widely frowned upon, and this discrimination brings about unhealthy relationships, especially amongst blood relations. Ultimately, it boils down to interpretation, and the selfishness of man to preserve what is deemed socially acceptable, and the measures taken to preserve mindsets and individual honor.

Director Peter Burger doesn't deliver an outright horror movie, but it seemed more along the lines of a mystery thriller. You don't get the usual tricks like shadowy figures, creaky doors, sudden slamming of furniture, bellowing winds or musical crescendos. In fact, you don't get much of that at all, only the occasional figure seen in a reflective surface, and even then done so low key, it surprisingly doesn't even raise a goosebump. The way the narrative played out was in the vein of horror movies like Shutter, but without the unexpectedly frightening bits. It was as if the movie was in self-censorship mode, reeling back from full gory details, choosing to let the mind imagine what horrible fates have befallen the unfortunate victims.

And speaking of censorship, I booed at the badly butchered sex scene. Instead of bowing to box office pressure of an NC16 release, I thought the distributors could have submitted it for a higher rating, thus keeping the movie intact for its inaugural Sin-NZ production, but sorry. The movie boasted excellent production values, so it was a pity to have the experience marred by a bad cut. There were some off-moments in the movie, like the kid-medium and his homies, but taken as a whole, The Tattooist is a surprisingly entertaining mystery thriller that will probably pave the way for more quality (hopefully) collaborations to come.

Fred Claus

Stop Look and Listen

What if Santa Claus, aka Saint Nicholas actually had a family, and a brother who hates him to the core because of a high degree of envy? The first 10 minutes spend time establishing its version of this "What If" scenario, even offering the notion of how immortality comes to play a part in freezing their ages so as to transplant Fred (Vince Vaughn) the older brother, to Today, while Santa is already operating his Santa's Workshop delivering presents to nice children in time for Christmas Day.

To a bitter brother jealous of the attention and success of his sibling, Fred hating Christmas and Santa is an understatement. He despises everything that Santa stands for (of course the true meaning of Christmas takes a backseat here, in case you're wondering), but when run into trouble, no doubt calls the only kin he's still on talking terms with. In order to better his lot and be able to pay off a rental for his dream shop, he takes up his brother's offer to work at the Workshop for 50 grand, thinking it's a piece of cake, until of course the unexpected appearance of Kevin Spacey's Clyde Northcut, an efficiency expert brought in by a mysterious Board to access Santa's operations, and if need be, shut it down - he's already proudly claiming credit for booting the Easter Bunny and scaling down the operations of the Tooth Fairy.

This is not a comedy, contrary to how it's being marketed. Sure there are funny moments, but none to warrant any genuine ho-ho-ho's from you. Instead you can see the laughs coming from a mile away, and the delivery is a little tired. You get the same old Vaughn styled verbal barrage and cynical wisecracks, only that they're more of the same and you'd wish Vaughn would either summarize or come up with something new. Paul Giamatti as Santa looks the part thanks to the excellent make up and costume, but really, he's a tad underused in his role as Father Christmas.

Plenty of recognizable supporting extras get thrown into the mix, but there's a strange pattern to their not being utilized to their utmost potential. It becomes almost like Spot the Stars, with Ludacris as DJ Donny, Kathy Bates as Mom Claus, Miranda Richardson as Mrs Santa Claus, two shy lovers in John Michael Higgins' Willie the Chief Elf and Santa's Little Helper (Elizabeth Banks), but the surprise of them all has to be Rachel Weisz - just love her Brit accent! Kevin Spacey plays a Lex Luthor type with hair, and I can't help but to groan at the forced reference to his Superman Returns stint.

Other than that, the only good bits come from a truly hilarious sequence involving Frank Stallone, Stephen Baldwin and Roger Clinton in a Siblings Anonymous self-help group, and the gorgeously sounding Christmas Carols. The Silent Night heard towards the end of the movie, will be a tough one for the sentimental out there to hold back the tears. The special effects too were well done, especially Santa's sleigh zooming into the night skies of countries around the world (I could've sworn I saw the Singapore Skyline too), in a montage sequence that allows Fred, and the audience, to just take a step back to wonder should Santa be true, then it's a heck of a tough job, especially when the success of a single day hinges on how much you can do in the night before - going around the world, breaking and entering through the chimney, leaving wishes and presents behind, and not forgetting to munch on the cookies and milk left for you.

It's a Christmas movie that doesn't offer much, with the last act saving this movie and giving it some credibility to qualify as a feel-good movie for the holiday season. No doubt it starts off quite nastily with so much drumming on rivalry and the green-eyed monster, but it redeems some moments with its take on brotherly love. Definitely not Vaughn's or Giamatti's best work, and on the whole, an average movie. Don't hold your breath if you're keeping the faith that the movie somehow turns out better than what its trailers suggest. And one thing that got on my nerves, was the constant reminder in the narration that this movie is about Fred. D'uh!

Friday, November 23, 2007

[Animation Nation] Tekkonkinkreet (Tekon Kinkurîto)

This is My City

Tekkonkinkreet opens this year's Animation Nation festival, running from today until 1 Dec 07, showcasing a selection of animated feature films, shorts and documentaries from around the world. Last year, the festival scored a coup in having Paprika screened just after its Japan premiere I believe, and had the noir styled Renaissance screened too. This year, both Tekkonkinkreet and the highly acclaimed 5 Centimeters Per Second were sold out in days when tickets when on sale, and it's a pity I may not be able to catch the latter due to conflict in schedules.

Nonetheless, Tekkonkinkreet lived up to its hype, although I found the story to be a little too perplexing for my liking. I guess with Japanese anime, some come with a huge dose of the fantastical, and you might not catch all in one screening, leading to longevity as you discover something new each time you view the movie. The story centers on 2 orphans, Black and White, who are essentially the Cat clan, guarding their city Treasure Town from perceived external threats. But they soon find that the big boys such as the Yakuza are slowly muscling their way in to establish money spinning business in the form of theme parks (heh), and inevitably discover they are within the crosshairs of a major turf war.

The attention paid to detail is simply amazing, as it seems like not a pixel on the canvas was wasted. Treasure Town itself is a sight to behold, with its dizzying levels that don't seem to end, and the camera playfully whizzing through buildings, bridges, nooks and crannies giving sense to claustrophobia. It's like Gotham City, only brighter, messier, and of course, without the Dark Knight, now instead, having Black and White play vigilante, Batman and Robin style. Being just boys, they possess (and here's where its fantastical) superhuman skills, putting martial arts swordsman to shame with their ability to scale buildings with the ease of a simple leap.

Yes, our boys have skills like the Yamakasi, only that it's magnified ten thousand times. The set action pieces are excitingly crafted with excellent sound effects and design going into overdrive. The action pieces are spaced out quite well, starting with the satisfying chase sequence with Dusk and Dawn, with the flight-for-your-life battles with robotic assassins, and topped off with the urban legend Minotaur justifying his status. In between the fights are the quieter moments of course, with subplots that put the spotlight on the myriad of Yakuza characters, and the brotherly love shared between Black and White, who share a dream of an idyllic life at the beach house, where they can live in peace from the unnecessary bustle of the city, and from the trouble that comes looking for them.

Based on the manga by Taiyo Matsumoto, I suspect there being a need to read up and do some research in order to appreciate this movie more. Akin to a cyberpunk movie where you can read its multiple layers, Tekkonkinkreet is first and foremost a visual spectacle, hands down, and doesn't fail in providing a Wow factor with its presentation.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007


It's Me, Charming!

How does she know, you love her?

Probably by bringing her to watch Enchanted, a movie with the words "chick flick" rubber stamped all over it. I've got to admit my friend offered to hook me up on a blind date with a hot chick because she wanted to watch this movie, and I had unsuccessfully persuaded him to bring her out on this movie date himself. Anyway if you're reading this, you should, because it has a winning formula!

The trailers would have suggested that this was going to be a madcap time, with a Disney movie poking fun at most of its classics, drawing inspiration from, and then taking a mickey out of it. You have a princess-wannabe Giselle (Amy Adams), an animated character modelled quite generically from beauties like Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty et al. Thrown in too are a Prince Charming type named Edward (James Marsden), and his evil stepmother The Queen (Susan Sarandon), with evil hag disguise to boot. And with her greed to hold onto the Kingdom, she prevents the love-at-first-sight/song couple from marrying, and banishes Giselle to The Big Apple.

With zero help and all the wrong moves and polite demeanour, she finds herself in the unlikely friendship of Robert Philip (Patrick Dempsey) and his daughter Morgan (Rachel Covey). And here's when the movie starts to come alive with its inane scenes drawn from the Disney archives to bring on the chuckles, down to full blown musical numbers that are just plain charming. If Disney animated movies of yester-years have lovey dovey songs (listen carefully to the background music to spot some recognizable Disney tunes), poisoned apples, dragons, henchmen, magic mirrors (ha!), witches, glass slippers, gorgeous costumes and cute furry animals, this movie has them all. But aside from the predictable elements that make a Disney cartoon a Disney cartoon, it boiled down to what's core in such fairy tales:

True Love's Kiss. The one thing that every Disney female character yearn for from their hero. It's a typical fairy tale plot, but in its fish out of water storyline, it offered a clash of two different worldly views on the notion of love. For Giselle, it's always been happily ever afters after a shotgun meeting - boy meets girl, girl loves boy, they get married and live in a huge castle. In the real world we're so familiar with, Robert epitomizes the modern day notions of long drawn courtships, the trying to find out everything you can about the other half, for compatibility reasons, the contemplation whether you can live forever (which is such a long time) with the other half, and the option to divorce always hanging overhead when things don't work out. It's a clash of two different perspective from different worlds, and needless to say opposites do attract, henceforth providing a sort of dilemma as both parties are to be married to their respective partners.

Amy Adams is Enchanted, without whom the movie will fall flat. She sings the songs, dances the joyous dance, squeals in delight at every new experience, and is the typical bambi-eyed beauty who finds positivity in everything, even when they are heading south. I guess I'm attracted to optimism, and no doubt, her character of hope had naturally struck a chord in me (same thing goes for Kirsten Dunst's Claire in Cameron Crowe's Elizabethtown). When she opens her mouth and sings to invoke the innate powers of all Disney heroines, the ability to charm animals from afar to do her bidding, you've gotta see this one as it just cracks you up with the type of beings she conjures in New York. In her own ditzy manner, her Giselle will undoubtedly find a soft spot in your heart.

Playing her two leading men are Patrick Dempsey as the world-weary divorce lawyer whose pessimism is soon to take an hard knock from Giselle's infectious attitude towards love, and James Marsden as the very himbo-like Prince Edward, all brawn, a naturally glib tongue, and perhaps a hint of an airhead (Is it me, or are female characters these days becoming more Alpha-typed?). Susan Sarandon got top billing too in this movie, and while she looks quite the part as the evil Queen, it's a pity that her screen time had been severely limited, lending more of her voice instead rather than appearing in the flesh. Throwaway characters include Timothy Spall as the no good henchman Nathaniel, and an animated chipmunk Pip (noises by the director Kevin Lima himself in the NY version) which seems to be the precursor to more of the same once Alvin and the Chipmunks hit the screen next month.

In true disney fashion, Enchanted goes back to basics with its message, that there must always be hope that one day you'll meet your true love, whether they drop in from the sky, or crawl out of the sewer. Almost a no-brainer choice for dating couples looking for fluffy chick flick entertainment.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

[The Periphery Strikes Back] Perfumed Nightmare (Mababangong Bangungot) (1977)

Screening History: The Periphery Strikes Backis the National Museum’s 120th Anniversary film programme which looks at colonialism and the different ways the East and West view and influence each other through the medium of film.


Filipino filmmaker Kidlat Tahimik calls Perfumed Nightmare his "magic carpet", as over the last 30 years, his first film is still bringing him to countries and film festivals around the world, reintroducing the film to new audiences and film students when it's screened in universities. An unconventional film, it is quite hard to believe that this monumental effort is a first film, having captured life in the village, before going overseas to Paris and Munich for the latter half.

Kidlat Tahimik stars as himself, in a semi-autobiographical way, that traces the life of a village boy, and his journey to the outside world. It's like a coming of age story with relevance to today still, with the impact of globalization more keenly felt as the modern world feels more like a global village, and with the almost inevitable assertion and influence of dominant popular cultures over traditional values.

Kidlat (the movie character) is a Jeepney driver, who is an aeronautical buff, having hailing himself as President of the Werner Von Braun club in his village of Balian. A fan of the Voice of America radio show, he gets offered to go to Paris by an American on a botched jamboree (which was then, and still is now, a very keen inclusion of the said country's foreign policy style), to work in the gumball vending machine business. That basically forms the gist of the outline as imagined by Kidlat the filmmaker, who worked on this without a prepared script.

The opening shot where a vehicle crosses to and from a narrow bridge, set the mood of the film - fun, eccentric, unpredictable, almost a mirror of Kidlat's character. Shot on Super 8, the special effects that he had included, and the various narrative techniques incorporated into the movie, makes you marvel at the rather innovative ways a filmmaker with a shoestring budget, gets his story told. I liked very much the fantastical sequences he had put in to tell the back story of his father, as well as the very horrific, almost documentary like style of capturing a village circumcision ritual, which must be seen to be believed, how it will actually would make you reel and feel pain (and you thought the Hard Candy one was bad enough).

There is no doubt that his passion and exuberance shone through this charming, imaginative film, which won him the International Critics Award at the 1977 Berlinale Forum of New Cinema. For those who missed the screening tonight (on 16mm film projection), you can cross your fingers as to a DVD release, possibly as early as next year!

Kidlat himself was present to grace the screening today, and shared quite candidly how he came to be a filmmaker, which was quite by accident, given that he's an economist by training, working in Paris. In a summarized account, it was in part a failed attempt in his trade during the 1974 Munich Olympic Games, where tragedy struck the Games and rendered his trinkets of the mascot unsold. Then he met an American film student, and began to tag along the student's film shoot, from whom he mimicked and learnt some tricks of the trade.

The film was shot in a shoestring budget of $10,000, and he recalled that when Francis Ford Coppola (who released the film in the USA) told an audience it was made with that amount, Kidlat joked that it was probably the amount spent by Coppola in Xeroxing his scripts! In fact, the low cost was also attributed to Kidlat having used expired film stock(!), bought from a friend (at 25% of the cost) who kept them in the fridge because it was expired and didn't have the guts to use it.

Shot in 2 months in the village, it was done without a script, and only with a 2 page treatment of sorts. Kidlat shared that most producers wouldn't go near him with a 10 foot pole, that making films without a script was probably his method - he had only scripted once, and that was for a film for German television. Kidlat had loads to share, like how originally the idea was for Kidlat to be driving his Jeepney in Paris to ferry the American, now an advertising agent, and encounters the many sexy ladies going for shoots, to becoming a gumball vendor, having been extremely curious about who and how these machines actually got refilled - he had staked one of them out until late at night to witness it, but to no avail!

But the highlight of Kidlat's presence tonight, absolutely had to be that little epilogue that he presented after the end credits rolled (which was a creative use of postcards), where he appeared as a "film graduate" hauling his wares consisting ofan array of old film cameras, to shedding his toga for traditional village garb, and showcasing his treasure for the night, a film camera made from bamboo, complete with music and dance! Wish I had recorded that performance :-)

Sunday, November 18, 2007


I've Lost My Silk Robe

If Fate would have it, I would have the opportunity to go to Tokyo for this year's Japanese International Film Festival, and watched this as the closing film. Initially I had mixed this up with Atonement, also starring Keira Knightley in a period romance story, except that this one had shades of The Last Samurai thrown in, with the love triangle moments with the involvement of a Japanese girl.

Based on the novel by Alessandro Baricco, Silk takes its name from the Silk trade, where a French village looks to having its economy hit, if not for Alfred Monlina's Baldabiou who ventures into opening a silk mill and employing the townsfolk. However, in need of untainted silkworm eggs, free from an epidemic striking Europe, he sends overseas one of his staff Herve Joncour (Michael Pitt), whom is indebted to him for arranging his marriage with Knightley's Helene, and off he goes on the arduous journey first to Africa, then to the land of the rising sun, now in the impending stage of internal strife.

The journeys are probably the best bits in the movie, with lush landscapes filling the screen in all serenity of the turmoils that are yet to come. I thought director Francois Girard tried to ape Terence Mallick's direction, with lush natural beauty punctuated with voice over narration of the character's inner-most thoughts. We learn a lot of what's going on in Herve's mind, as he tells us the story of his being, and the conflict he faces when he gets tempted to committing adultery, never forgetting about his tryst overseas when back home he has a lovely wife to go home to.

While the movie has that central conflict that provides the fuel to propel the movie forward, somehow it never gets utilized, having the story and characters dance around on the sidelines of the issue, never to take it head on. This adds to the frustration of watching the deliberations that they have, made worse as the movie chooses to unfold itself extremely slowly, taking too much of its own sweet time. Fans of Keira Knightley would have watched this movie solely to see her performance after the Pirates double bill, but sadly, even though she's given top billing, her screen time is limited, as the spotlight falls on Michael Pitt's Herve and we are told of this story through his eyes.

What adds to the annoyance as well, is that the movie is sans English subtitles. Having it set in France but the characters speaking in English is understandable (after all, Pitt is American and Knightley is English), but having the Japanese speak in their native tongue, and not providing the subtitles, removes a layer that would have provided probably a deeper understanding of the movie. Yes, granted we are supposed to feel the pain of Herve in his inability to connect with the people and the one he loves, but I don't feel that this should be done at the expense of understanding, especially for non-Japanese speaking folks.

However, despite its obvious flaws, the movie redeems itself with a powerful end, packing quite a punch especially when you think it's headed nowhere and probably into mediocrity. Suddenly you discover that things are again not always what they seem, and wonder just who the bigger fool is. But the bottomline, if there's a message to be taken away from this movie, is again never to give in to temptation, and truly treasure your loved ones. Tried and tested, cliched but true.


Everybody Wants To Rule The World

Movies based on successful television series are natural progressions to make a quick buck, mainly because of the more instant box office dollars it gets translated to. But what I apprehend the most, is when the approach is to not worry whether non-television series followers would be able to get it, so it decides not to afford the time to explain matters, expecting the bulk of the audience to be coming with background knowledge from the series. When you are one of the series' followers, you'll make camp on the side to forgo previous cinematic time on explanation so that the pace does not get slowed, but if you are not, then you'll probably cry foul, not that you don't get to enjoy the movie though, but are lusting after a more complete experience.

For example, the X-Files movie requires pre-requisite knowledge, as did the Japanese movie Mushishi. But there are some which still managed to only require the most basic level of understanding, and to use a Japanese reference, I enjoyed the Bayside Shakedown movies tremendously. Did I enjoy Hero? Sure, but there were enough moments in the movie where you can't help but want to pull your hair in frustration, especially when it comes to bit appearances by minor characters, whom you'll most certainly deem important enough to warrant significant subplot time in the narrative.

Hero is similar to structure with Bayside Shakedown, in that on the surface, it contains one major plot, with the rest of the supporting subplots inevitably linked to the one big one, thereby giving reason for the ensemble cast to exist. Takuya Kimura, whom we last saw as a samurai in Yoji Yamada's Love and Honor, returns to his 2001 television role as Public Prosecutor Kohei Kruyu, a devoted go-getter who is unorthodox in his ways (aren't they all?). Assisting him is his trustworthy legal clerk Amamiya Maiko (Takako Matsu), and together they take on a rather routine open-and-shut case involving manslaughter, especially with a written confession provided. But there's more than meets the eye to the supposedly simple case, and soon enough, they find their legal battle spiral to involve scandals of government officials, and have to go up against a top legal eagle who used to be on the payroll of the Public Prosecutor office.

Bayside Shakedown provided some criticisms to the police system, highlighting the struggles and battles between the bureaucrats in the department, and those on the beat handling day to day, routine and sometimes mundane police work. I thought Hero could have upped the ante if it debated on the judicial system, providing some insight on how things work rather than just a basic introduction. It lapsed into moralistic viewpoints should this be a perfect world with perfect systems, and very often reminded the audience that Justice is Blind with the frequent shots of a statue of Justice holding up the scales.

But not everything's serious and full of legal jargon and mumbo-jumbo. Credit has to be given in weaving a more than compelling investigative and legal drama, with romantic tension between Amamiya and Kohei, as well as plenty of comedy. Those television sell-a-vision ads are so funny they are a highlight in the movie (I'm not sure if these are regular features in the television series?), and it managed to work into its narrative an explanation of its absence for 6 years since the television series ended, and the characters naturally being aged. Familiar to me in this movie are the actors Hiroshi Abe and Korean actor Lee Byung-hun, who has so minor a role (combined screen time of less than 5 minutes), I'm not sure why the trailer had to hype about it, rather than to keep it a guessing game (is he? or isn't he?).

However, that is not to say that Hero is a bad film. It still offers decent entertainment, especially for those who are fans of the many stars it has in its ensemble, and for those who like this genre of legal investigative movies. Recommended.

[VCD] The Sperm (Asujaak) (2007)

It's been some time that I've laughed at a movie, and not along with it as it's supposed to be. With a title like that, you'd come to expect some raunchy sexual scenes, but what it had instead turned out to be a whimper. Not too funny, not too sexy, and with a storyline that seemed to cross all sorts of genres - sex comedy, romance, horror, science fiction, etc, that you just have to switch your brain off, and enjoy the ride (pardon the pun). The only saving grace however, are the two incredibly beautiful female leads - Pimpaporn Leenutapong and Dollarous Dechapratumwan.

To read my review of The Sperm at, click on the logo below:


Saturday, November 17, 2007

Om Shanti Om

Fate Found Us

Om Shanti Om and Saawariya premiered the same time as the offerings for the Deepavali holiday, and to see how Hollywood money had influenced a Hindi production, I opted for the latter first. In its opening weekend in the UK, Om Shanti Om had trounced Tom Cruise's Lions for Lambs, so OSO went straight to my must-watch list this week. Moreover, while I have watched movies starring Bollywood King Shah Rukh Khan, I have yet to see him in action on the big screen, so this provided the best opportunity to do so.

And he's not called The King for nothing. Here, his roles of Om Prakash Makhija the junior actor in the studio system, and Om Kapoor the superstar, allowed for plenty of room to put his acting chops to good use. For his stature, watching him play a lowly rated actor with big dreams was a hoot, especially when teaming with good friend Pappu (Shreyas Talpade) in sharing those dreams of stardom, and hamming it up for the camera. In a tale of two halves, the first is set in the 70s in a major movie studio where Om Makhija works, and Fate has it that he will become romantically tangled with the hottest starlet of the era, actress Shantipriya (Deepika Padukone in her debut, going head to head with Sonam Kapoor's debut too in Saawariya). But of course the star crossed lovers (aren't they always) are dished a cruel hand, and the movie lunges into the second half, which I should avoid specifics, suffice to say that Shah Rukh's new character Om Kapoor (nicknamed OK), is now a bastard of a superstar, full of arrogance and standing for everything that Om Makhija isn't.

Naturally there is a running theme connecting both portions together, along the lines of the circle of life, karma, retribution and reincarnation. Having two characters essentially allowed the audience a fun time in comparing and contrasting which Om one would prefer, offering a glimpse of what Om Makhija could possibly become if success went to his head. What I always liked about Bollywood, is its run time allowed for plenty of songs, dance (which of course are the enjoyable bits with the colourful sets and costumes all put to good use), and while certain plot development might be cliche, it does take its time to properly develop the characters, or the leads at least. Om Shanti Om is no different, though there were some overly melodramatic moments, sometimes tongue-in-cheekily offered courtesy by actress Kirron Kher as Bela Makhija, Om's junior actress mother.

The song and dance again take centerstage, and they were nicely composed for specific purposes in the narrative, one of many reasons why I admire Bollywood. Om Makhija's fantasy sequences with many beautiful costume changes during his scenes of courtship is memorable, but even audacious was Om Kapoor's superstar-like performance with entourage of scantily clad blondes (yes, you read that right) in Dard-E-Disco, where you'll get jealous watching Shah Rukh's well toned abs, and remind yourself to hit the gym more diligently.

Those Abs Sure Pay Off!

But what made Om Shanti Om truly enjoyable and stand out, is its almost self-deprecating jokes that it cracks on the industry, the movie it makes and the studio system, but then, it's really a celebration of their cinema and how far they have come. For those well versed with Bollywood, there are tons of references and inside jokes that you can't help but to chuckle at, including very well known stars all being very sporty about their cameo roles (hats off to Abishek Bachchan, hahaha!). There were the obvious self-indulgent moments like the post-awards ceremony party, where you'll realize why the opening credits had a huge Thank You list to the Who's Who in Bollywood - having appearances by the stars in one 10 minute segment, is a real treat and a good introduction to rookies like me, who become interested in trying to figure out who they are, besides the recognizable few from movies I've watched before. Performing to Deewangi Deewangi, I thought the other scene that was equally fun, was the Filmfare Awards Ceremony, which was almost laugh-a-minute. Thinking about it while writing this still brings back the laughs!

As usual, you'd come to expect some moments of familiarity in the movie, and I don't deny that the storyline does seem deja-vu, but again what makes it a delight, is primarily Shah Rukh's magnetism. Director-writer Farah Khan managed to string together comedic moments and balance them with a tender love story that I thought was pretty sad, given its unconventional (but not unpredictable) treatment. Sometimes Bollywood movies are guilty of having set pieces which resemble Hollywood, just like Krrish had a set which looked straight out of John Woo's Paycheck, and here, adopting the special effects sequence for Confession of Pain is hard to deny. But what I thought was a full circle, was the finale song-dance sequence which had the proceedings mimicking screen life, just as how Moulin Rouge had theirs resemble the doomed love affair between Christian and Satine, which in itself had heavy Hindi influences during its own musical sequence.

Om Shanti Om has everything - romance, drama, mystery and the supernatural all rolled into one, and if I had just one word to describe it, it will be "Remarkable". Do yourself a favor, and watch it! While I don't usually include (pirated) clips from the movie itself, I thought I had to include this particular favourite. If this doesn't put your bum in a seat watching Om Shanti Om, I don't know what will! Feel the energy, feel the groove! If you need someone to accompany you just because you are interested and not want to go alone, hey gimme a buzz!

Friday, November 16, 2007

The Kingdom

Sister, Do We Look Like We Packed Kotex?

The Kingdom here refers to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, the world's #1 producer of oil, a commodity that almost every country depend on in fueling their economy. While there are whispers about the Kingdom's role in today's security climate, it itself is not immune to the violance that extremists dish out (the Riyadh Bombings), and here's where scribe Matthew Michael Carnahan adapts from, and makes it the key catalyst in having an action adventure set in the oil rich sultanate. While his Lions for Lambs was mainly a talkie picture painting his current perspective of the war on terror from and on US soil, here he crafts a companion piece for those lusting for action.

There are a number of hits, and expected misses to some though, and you can expect to be fairly clear where those misses are. For example, one will certainly frown at the USofA being yet again trumpeting their expertise and imposing their will on cultures vastly different, or worse, frowning upon the need to go in with guns ablazing, although granted, they didn't shoot first. Some might also want to find fault with the number of cliches commonly found in cop dramas, with policemen from the two countries finding themselves in a clash of culture from the lack of understanding, to finding common ground and similarities through, what else, American pop culture. But of course it is almost without a doubt which culture is slowly influencing which, and there's some really well placed irony with cyclic violent attitudes each side has for the other.

And this is one violent film, not that I'm wincing from it. It tries to be as realistic as possible in the deadly deeds of the terrorists, and that includes random drive by shootings, suicide bombers, vehicle bombs, kidnappings, beheadings, you name it, The Kingdom covers it all, showcasing the common modus operandi terrorist group adopt in their violent agenda, all performed with meticulous planning. I've no doubt if this picture is given the 3D treatment just as Beowulf was, you'd find yourself knee deep in a perpetual war zone, and ducking at your seat each time some explosion happens in your face.

Which brings me to the one of the plus points of The Kingdom. While not being an advocate of violence, sometimes you have to dish out eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth when you run out of options, especially when dealing with adversary who don't negotiate and only answer to the law of the gun. And The Kingdom really gets down to the quick and dirty when it calls for killing with extreme prejudice, some scenes which you will do a double take at with its realism. I recall Heat having an excellent urban shootout, and the one in The Kingdom could give it a run for its money.

But there is no doubt some repetitive action sequence of non-stop shooting in the veins of Black Hawk Down (remember those pesky RPGs?) does make it seem a little lazy, especially when you have masked up goons taking potshots from every conceivable street corner, that it becomes too much like a video game. Those who find no peace with the "unsteadicam", will naturally hate the way the movie is filmed, with the constantly shaking camera that, coupled with the rapid fire pace of editing, will induce some nauseating feeling to those with low tolerance to bouncing cameras. But I thought that the narrative justified the use of this technique though, with the characters constantly peering over their shoulders, being in hostile territory without knowing who to trust your life with, and without doubt, a now frequently adopted technique for filming "realisitc" action, whether you like it or not.

Jamie Foxx has cut his teeth with (para)military roles before in movies like Stealth and Jarhead, and here, he revisits Saudi Arabia as FBI special agent Ronald Fluery, who has assembled his own renegade team of agents to investigate into the suicide bombing and killings of American citizens living within a safe protected zone. We have Chris Cooper's (again a return to The Kingdom from his Jarhead days) bomb expert Grant Sykes who's stuck deep in mud, Jason Bateman as IT specialist Adam Leavitt, and the token female around to present challenges to customs and tradition, Jennifer Garner's forensic specialist Janet Mayes. Naturally in the hunt for those responsible for the attacks, they go up against protocol and culture, in the form of their host Colonel Faris Al Ghazi (Ashraf Barhom, who himself played a terrorist in Paradise Now). But the movie does cast some sympathetic light on Faris, and in a broad stroke, the Saudi Arabians as well, being caught in a situation that they'd prefer not to be in if given a choice.

So while it's Follow the Law for some, it's time for the Americans to break certain taboos and persuade their new friends through respect, to allow them to go all the way in their investigations, with a trade off for teaching them a thing or two in Crime Scene Investigations. There are moments where Royalty is shown to be slightly inept though, with interest only to shore up good press and publicity for themselves, and the feud between the police and the National Guard, at first being ramped up, then totally forgotten when it comes to the crunch - yep, the conveniently forgotten backup firepower to call upon. But you can't deny some scenes which stick to the back of your head, like armoured SUVs cruising the highways at top speed, with an Apache shadowing overhead.

At certain points, the narrative lapses into teasing the possibilities of expanding the movie into a commentary on the politicking back home on US soil, with agencies at loggerheads with one another, ultimately not getting things done when at a stalemate (hence needing mavericks to have a go at it). It seemed to want to suggest that action should be taken promptly without dragging one's feet to suck up to politicians, but the screentime didn't allow for anything other than a cursory mention at such themes.

But the first few minutes more than won me over. Yes, having an opening that arrests my attention more than does it for me, with its slick documentary feel and animation which provided a quick history of The Kingdom, from the time of its founding to the current climate, and that alone, is well worth the ticket price, every penny of it.
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