Monday, June 29, 2009



If someone attractive were to flash at you, say in the form of Ali Larter, I guess our eyes will be peeled to what lies under. However, under the hands of director Steve Shill, the minute that happened, you're likely to reel against that awful looking lingerie, complete with granny styled undies. And that's probably the reaction you're gonna get throughout this film, which tried its hand to build suspense, tension and terror when an infatuated girl allows her fantasies to run amok, wrecking the resolve of big time executive Derek (Idris Elba) and his wife Sharon (Beyonce Knowles).

But this is not a Fatal Attraction, because the lust somehow got consummated offscreen, and to much rejection by Derek against the advances of Larter's Lisa, an attractive femme fatale who recently got a temp(tress) job at his firm. I guess they say money, fame and power attracts, so Lisa goes for the kill almost instantly, picking up plenty of intimate tips from his personal assistant with a loose mouth.

The film showed some flashes (pardon the pun) of potential, such as the notion of what goes around coming around to haunt you and provide that tinge of insecurity, but largely wasted by a very verbatim pacing which insisted on showing and developing a lot of back story to build up the attraction between the characters of Lisa and Derek, but this ultimately gave way no thanks to a lot of lull moments. I felt that Shrill could have tightened the narrative up a little, rather than let many scenes just drag on.

Beyonce for once doesn't sing in the film she stars in, but that didn't provide for any breakthrough in performance, as she drew the shortest end of the stick where characterization is concerned. Her Sharon scores an about turn, though some may appreciate it for that bit of unintentional humour, where she becomes this thrash-talking bitch who shows the office slut who's the boss and just who wears the pants in the house. Her confrontation with Lisa would on one hand allow you to enjoy some serious cat-fights, and on the other just make you shake your head in disbelief. Beyonce, given her goody-image, does lapse into being Beyonce at a crucial moment, and I guess this is for the sake of some damage control after the hilarious and ridiculous finale.

Obsessed tried to be smart, but in the end succumbed to just being quite juvenile in its presentation, with a below average story that couldn't really end off with a bang, but with a whimper.

You can read my review of Obsessed at by clicking on the logo below.


Sunday, June 28, 2009

Threads of Destiny (Akai Ito / 赤い糸)

Bound Together

From Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World to Sky of Love, it's almost a given to have a local release of the hottest Japanese teenage romance movie in Singapore. After all, it seemed like the Koreans have fizzled out, while the Japanese are still going on strong in this genre as far as local box office releases are of any indication. Given novels that are churned out and translated for the big screen, there's no lack of new genre material, and with up-and-coming stars waiting in the wings, there's no better way to get them acquainted with audiences through films that paint a saccharine sweet picture of Love.

There are plenty of cliché moments that one would expect from a Japanese romance, and Threads of Destiny is no different, having its title already telling you that Fate is a major player in allowing development of characters and the plot to stick to a formula that manipulates your emotions, from seething with anger, to reaching out for that tissue. Someone once told me that there's no need to have characters explicitly declare their love for each other, as a more subtle, restrained approach that the Japanese ones take, will work more wonders. That's so true of a film like this one.

One would be surprised that the film is actually a “middle section” sandwiched between its television series starring the same cast, picking up from, and trailing off for the TV series to continue, but fret not as the film is quite standalone. I particularly marvelled at the way novelist Mei's internet tale had planted a very simple back story for her characters to build from. In many ways, it's very much superior as a gimmick than local romantic film The Leap Years ever could be, basing it on an event that took place on a leap year, and director Shosuke Murakami's deft handling of flashbacks on that premise that worked wonders, before leaving it to the coda at the end to finally provide a detailed, and full account. The pace was remarkably lightning fast, and yet being able to jam pack the narrative with plenty of dramatic incidents to move the story forward in an engaging manner, being cautionary on harmful drug use, and the nature of a violent relationship, one which will draw some surprises and anger at the same time.

Schools are a hotbed for relationships to develop, and Fate will always have a field day with its messing around with a whole of characters in forming triangles and rectangles. Centering around the affections between Atsushi Nishino (Junpei Mizobata) and Mei Takemiya (Nao Minamisawa) and their group of middle school friends, it soon becomes a web of messy emotions that led to heartbreak, misunderstandings and perceived backstabbing, before one of them is ordered to be out of the equation for the greater good. Just what this is would be saved for a revelation later on, but the narrative will have the star crossed lovers spend considerable their screen time apart from each other, if only for you to root for them to be together as their personal lives begin to spiral a little out of control.

Then again, the notion of true love is not always requiring to be together all the time, allowing room for a budding romance to grow, and is an important lesson that everyone who's in a relationship will attest to, and learn to manage as well. It'll also leave you wondering about things like pining for someone, promises of everlasting love/protection or to go with the next best alternative just because time had presented that bit of convenience. As the saying goes, what's yours will be yours, and destiny has its hand in ensuring that. A little bit contrived (and something I don't really believe in) but that's the mantra you have to buy into. Incidents presented here aren't too far fetched though, dealing with topics such as drug abuse and domestic violence issues, the latter seemingly running parallel to the recent Chris Brown-Rihanna bust up, pat right down to the defense of that act of violence.

One can be thankful that there's no clichéd, staple illness to spoil the works here, though the ending might prove a little unsatisfying given the way it had built up, and the cliffhanger that you're left in. Recommended? Certainly, especially after the trailer had been cut quite haphazardly and unappealing. And given the nature the film is designed, I'm more than curious to follow up on the television series to see what happens next in the lives of Atushi and Mei.

The Brothers Bloom

Gang of Four

I'm quite the sucker for films with con jobs, or about con-men going about designing elaborate ruses to rip off their mark, and then riding off into the sunset with their ill gotten gains. Films such as Confidence starring Ed Burns (and also Rachel Weisz) and Matchstick Men with Nicolas Cage and Sam Rockwell never fail to entertain me each time I watch them, and I'd want to add The Brothers Bloom to that list as well.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson, whose only film credit so far is the excellent Brick, with The Brothers Bloom he proves that he's not a one hit hack job, and continues to showcase his very creative, visual eye for beautiful images, and possession of a very keen storytelling sense in elevating a story about 2 con-men into fairy tale proportions.

Mark Ruffalo and Adrien Brody play the titular brothers Stephen and Bloom, who together with mute-by-choice Japanese sidekick Bang Bang (Rinko Kikuchi) who’s anything but quiet, take on the world as confidence tricksters, milking the rich for some of their spare change by entering their lives, setting up the game plan, executing it to a tee, then disappearing, more often than not with Death roped in so that they could get away scot free. The prologue is most memorable and stylishly presented, setting the stage in which these two orphan boys would eventually find their calling in the world, and shape their characters.

And characters are what you must credit Johnson with, creating two brothers who are as different as the left and ride lobe of the brain. In Stephen he has crated the mastermind, the brains behind the multi-step con game each so succinctly written as one-liners that they are also used as inter-titles to logically slice the film into chapters. To Stephen, the end will justify any means, and he's quite the stone cold one with genuine affections only for his brother Bloom, looking out for him as they defend themselves from the harsh realities of the world.

In Stephen's con stories does Bloom come alive, being the intimately emphatic actor and becoming the catalyst for the duo’s grand scheme of things. Adrien Brody brings about a lot of sensitivity to the role, being the timid of the brothers, yearning to live a richer, more fulfilling life than one which is based on deceit and always a puppet of his brother’s script, manipulated to such an extent that calls for betrayal of trust, and an incident from childhood that forever haunts his memory (that introductory sequence is incredibly sassy too). Undoubtedly it leaves them both with plenty of money, but materialism cannot satisfy the itch for a more meaningful life, and thus his contemplation of quitting, to Stephen’s despair.

The excellent character pieces also extend to the main wildcard in the story, that of Rachel Weisz's Penelope, a rich heiress stuck in her own four walls, spending time collecting hobbies and an innate array of skills, with no plans for the future and just living for the moment. In both Penelope and Bloom, they find an instant connection, being hermits in a cave, and now with each other, finding it all the more worthwhile to emerge from their shells. This story is also of their tale of growing up together and finding common connection, between themselves and the world. It also becomes a romantic movie for a little while, with Penelope’s infectious enthusiasm being rubbed off and onto Bloom, that bit of optimism dousing out the negativity constantly felt by the latter, and get you in the mood to cheer both of them on as well.

One cannot review the film without making mention the production values. Eastern Europe provided much of the picturesque backdrop on which the story got told, jet-setting from one locale to another, while the costumes and suits used in the film, primarily in black and/or white, were simply gorgeously designed, that you'd do a double take at how pretty they look (or is it because the stars have the charisma to carry them off).

The Brothers Bloom is an aesthetically gorgeous movie, and one that shouldn’t be missed for its wonderful cast and tightly woven and witty storyline. In fact I enjoyed it so much, that it ranks amongst my favourites of the year. A pity that it’s only screening at one hall in Singapore, so make it a point to experience a film that’s wildly exceptional from the current crop of stale summer blockbusters.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

New York


Ths spat between the Bollywood producers and exhibitors have finally come to an end for now, and this Aditya Chopra produced film becomes the first off the blocks locally, and what more than a summer film that had its promotional trailer playing since late last year finally being able to see some light, starring some of my favourite Bollywood stars like John Abraham and Irrfan Khan.

I had been impressed by director Kabir Khan's debut feature Kabul Express, which also starred Abraham, and Khan has a knack for drawing the audience into contemporary social issues, given his journalist background. For his two features to date, he has crafted tales around the issue of terrorism, not to glamorize it, but to tell the more human aspects into what probably were the push factors for someone to go off the edge and succumb to the notion that violence is the only means available to justify their cause. And to do so without draping the film in melodrama, or with sympathy in excess.

In Kabul Express, we look at the background of a Taliban soldier who in frequent role reversals, become both the captive and the captor, with a moving story as to what made him do the things he did. In New York, a similar strategy applies in addressing some post-9/11 issues where foreigners were profiled and held in detention, finally being released in months or years because of the lack of evidence. If Bollywood constantly draws inspiration from Hollywood, then the film that had dealt with similar themes would be Rendition, and a smattering of Crash thrown in as well.

The film spent its first act very much closely resembling that in the trailer, which dwells on the lives of three good friends who met at the New York State University, Americans of Indian origin Sam(ir) Sheik (Abrahan), Maya (Katrina Kaif) and an Indian student on a scholarship Omar (Neil Nitin Mukesh). Having two guys and a girl translates to a romantic triangle brewing, where Maya drifts toward the more down-to-earth Omar, but having her heart already firmly set for the arrogantly confident Sam. It's like a teenage college romance with a lengthy musical montage just to cement their fast and strong relationship, until declarations from the heart, and 9/11 come play a part to separate them all.

To tell you any more would be to spoil the fun, because the story takes an interesting narrative structure in keeping you guessing who's turned to the dark side, and who's not; who's lying and who's telling the truth. It has intensity almost close to that in Infernal Affairs, where you wonder just who might turn because of the allegiance to friendship. You can imagine how you would feel if you're asked by the authorities to work undercover for them just because they have something against you, and you're to cooperate for leniency or face the music - what would you do to save your own skin, and if it calls for covert surveillance of your friends, would you do it?

Irrfan Khan's Roshan is an FBI agent because of his roots and ability to connect with his "brothers", and this comes fairly accurately as the US agencies had begun to ramp up its recruitment of non-native English speakers so that they can gain keen insights from surveillance to things like translation. In fact, the Roshan character was dangerously close to being a clone of Irrfan's Slumdog Millionaire turn, especially at the interrogation table in having to fish out the truth. Neil Nitin Mukesh had more of a dramatic challenge with his role as the freshie Omar compared to his action role as a photographer in Aa Dekhen Zara, while John Abraham looked very much comfortable with his self-assured character given his alpha-male persona. Despite being one of the most photographed actresses/models in India, this film would mark my first watching Katrina Kaif in action, and I guess beautiful women get no love from female audiences who are there to root for the two male leads.

New York struck a fine balance between drama and action, devoting time to each primarily before and after the intermission. It may not be the first film that dealt with the terrorism issue on US soil, but it did enough to continue the awareness that sometimes certain policies stemming from acute paranoia just don't work, and may become that self-fulfilling prophecy that would return to haunt you. Between Kabir Khan's two films, I still prefer the former, but that doesn't mean that New York isn't worth a shout out.


Shiny Happy People

It may seem like a joke, where a question was asked "Why are you here?" and the reply went "because I'm not there", but in many ways this film does suggest that you focus your thoughts on the now, no matter how distractingly attractive it may be to allow your thoughts to wander elsewhere, given the many spatial opportunities to do so. HERE is writer-director Ho Tzu Nyen's debut feature film, and it's quite a feat too that it got itself into the official selection of the 41st Directors' Fortnight at Cannes this year. If cutting edge and an unconventional approach is the way to go, then HERE has plenty for those who's game for a cerebral boggle.

Set in a mental institution known as Island Hospital, the film plays out like a docu-drama, where talking head styled interviews are done with the patient characters, providing the groundwork for the meshing of reality and fantasy. To some, having a film set in such a promise would mean having the artistic license to do anything you want, since you can easily get away with almost everything by pleading insanity, but there's a method to the madness here, and it isn't all that arthouse that it alienates the casual viewer from having a good time sitting there in self-reflection.

For the most parts, we follow new ex-patient He Zhiyuan (which I believe is the romanised Chinese pronunciation of the director's name) played by John Low, who in the first few minutes we observe examining the cracks in his home, before snapping, killing his wife and losing his voice. He gets sent to Island Hospital for rehabilitation, and here's where the fun starts. Not so mcuh in having characters do crazy things and filling up the screen ala Park Chan-wook's I'm a Cyborg but That's OK, but in seeing that the patients are quite normal and very much like you and me, save for their uniformed white t-shirts. In time we get introduced to most of the main players, from doctors to the patients, such as Beatrice Tan (Jo Tan) the kleptomaniac, who would play a significant part and be a soulmate to He Zhiyuan.

Then there's the strange, in part due to the nature of the much touted "videocure" for the patients, where it is believed that they should enact that moment of their lives that had condemned them to the hospital, and become their own actor, director and editor of the video created, for mass screening amongst the other patients. From time to time I felt that we could have fit hand in glove into the situation, where we're the ones sitting amongst the patients and having bear witness to their uncomfortable past, no thanks in part of course to the pseudo-documentary look and feel of the film. Then there's also a homage paid to Michelangelo Antonoini's Blowup, replacing the tennis game with that of badminton. For what effect I fear I do not know, save for the fact that these guys are playing it within the four walls of Island Hospital, which for all we know could serve as an analogy for the state of affairs within our little island state.

Love is quite obvious as a theme here, but "Amor Fati" also gets thrown into the mix no thanks to one character having to preach this concept to the rest, where some of us would like to relive our lives again as they are, including every sweet and especially bitter moment, without contemplating that we should change those bits of our lives if we could. This especially so when we're given a choice for change, but conscientiously stick to the tried and tested, rather than plunge into the unknown. Other more self-conscious aspects would be the use of repetition, with the interviews, scenes at the medicine counter and the indemnity form signing, which is actually quite ingenious in the way characters get introduced, and some aspects of their personality coming through in the form of their signatures. See if you can spot AWARE president Dana Lam in one of the roles here, and Ben Slater as one of the board of directors of the hospital, in a scene where the most promising patients fit for release would have to attend a "tea party" with those in power to convince of their sanity for return to society.

Given Ho's background in visual arts, this film deviates from the usual narrative structure, and relied on plenty of imagery to tell a story, as well as an excellent sound design which takes over when the camera remains still, or faded to long periods of black. It may be modestly paced and you may struggle with some scenes, but don't let the naysayers discourage you from experiencing a very different Singapore film from those that have been made thus far.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Sunshine Cleaning

Partners in Crime

With the last cinema outing being the obnoxiously loud, logic defying and a disgrace of the summer blockbuster genre in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, what a pleasant trip it was to bask in Sunshine Cleaning, scrubbing away the rubbish and all remnants of a forgetable, mindless movie, and trading it for something more intelligent, and with plenty of heart to boot.

It's relatively easy to dismiss this as a chick flick, given that the story's by Megan Holley with Christine Jeffs at the directing helm, and stars what would possibly be the female up-and-coming stars in Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, but you'll be doing yourself no favours should you have any preconceived notions that it should be light and chirpy. There are some easily identified emotional issues here that would strike a chord in you, and there's plenty of real world sensitivities built into the characters that make them an absolute delight to follow and spend time with.

We would probably know about some good looker who would probably be expected to get ahead in life as doors would be opened without great effort, and from then on how everything in a fairy tale would likely be unfurled as per societal perception. Then again for Rose Lorkowski (Amy Adams), being the school's hottest cheerleader didn't prep her for a life amongst the working class, juggling a modest housekeeping job, and being the single mom to a precocious son Oscar (Jason Spevack), born out of wedlock, and having a knack for getting himself into trouble at school.

As if that's not enough, she has to find real cash fast to put Oscar into special school, while also nannying around her kid sister Norah (Emily Blunt), someone who drops out in life and every single thing she does, besides getting high, relying on Rose and their dad Joe (Alan Arkin) to look out for her. And to top it all, she's in for a romantic disaster as she enjoys a sexual relationship with a married cop (Steve Zahn), who provided her the lead that crime scene cleaners do earn a more than decent wage per assignment. That could prove to be her breakout from a rut, of being stuck in a vicious circle of a career, and promises that are heading nowhere.

One might find the subject matter a little morbid, and the characters too have their apprehension prior to making that career switch. But then all the corpses have been removed, and their job is to scrub down the designated premises. Simple as it may sound, it does involve a bit of a know-how, and a pretty good scrubbing brush to get rid of stains, remnants, and even the memory of someone who once was there.

There are plenty of small story arcs that swirl around the characters, each drawing substantial development rather than being introduced for the sake of. It boils down to shrewd and witting writing in having excellent dialogue bringing out plenty, never relying on the thought that it's essential to have everything verbatim and on screen. It's paced very evenly and doesn't count on gimmicky big moments, instead choosing to unravel itself little at a time without making you anticipate something that will throw everyone into a frenzy. You could be one step ahead, and part of the narrative magic is to elicit a sense of satisfied joy when the story hits all the right notes.

In particular, I loved the Mum arc, about searching for that distant memory to hold on to, and having to invest a lot of effort for that perennial needle in the haystack. How this developed, from a puzzle to its revelation, is nothing short of moving, especially when it had repercussions on the Lorkowski family. And the other arc on Norah trying to befriend a stranger, with bittersweet result. Ultimately, it's a story on the building of self-esteem and self-belief, a thread that concerned all characters, and make them matter. The sprinkling of comedy never for a moment detracted the audience from its intended message, and from cleaning supplier Winston (Clifton Collins Jr.) to Alan Arkin's Joe, it reinforces the notion that one shouldn't give up and must persevere, as only the tough gets going when the going gets tough, physical deformity notwithstanding.

while promotional materials might scream Little Miss Sunshine, this film is only remotely similar with family members, Alan Arkin, a young kid and their collective problems that they have to deal with. It's its own movie, and has a thoroughly enjoyable, heartwarming story that will wow you with its honesty, and a definite breath of fresh air amongst this summer's noisy blockbusters. Highly recommended and a contender too to be amongst my favourites this year.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

[Trailer] Blood Ties (還魂)

Some years ago a group of friends and I dabbled with short film making, plunging ourselves headlong into an insane 48 hour competition. That same competition had yielded Nicholas Chee and Randy Ang's short film which clinched top honours, and they had gone on to make the feature film Becoming Royston.

Chai Yee-wei was one of the participants in that very same contest, and a few award winning shorts later, look where he's at today, with a feature film under his belt too, waiting for a 3rd quarter release. As for my friends and I, well, erm, that's another story for another day.

I've followed Yee-wei's shorts film in recent years, having seen them either online, or at local film symposiums and festivals. While most of them were genuinely funny comedies, one short film stood out - Blood Ties, which was screened in 2007's Asian Film Symposium. It was mentioned during the Q&A then that there were plans to expand the short into a feature, so fast forward to today, a release date has been set - September 10!

The synopsis is currently somewhat thin, and reads
Many people believe that when a person dies, the spirit will return home on the 7th night. After Shun was brutally murdered, his spirit returned to possess his 13 year old sister to exact his revenge. On the 7th night, blood will flow and just deserts will be served.

And if a picture can tell a thousand words, then this recently released trailer has already piqued my interest with its excellent production values, being such a tease with promises of the supernatural, gore, and a murder-mystery wrapped under a tale of revenge. What more, it stars Asian veterans such as Kenneth Tsang and Cheng Pei Pei! Take a look:

I'm waiting for September!

Related Links
Official Website
Facebook Group (with movie and production stills)
Link to YouTube Trailer

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

I Feel Cheated

This film felt like a slap in the face of US President Obama's message of peace to the world, if things in Michael Bay's Transformers world were to be taken literally at face value. It is nothing more than American military propaganda from start to finish in a huge 2.5 hour commercial, championing their military might showcasing every conceivable weaponry from deep sea submarines to spy satellites and right down to a classified laser beam known as the “rail gun”, and marching into “enemy” territories like China and the Mid-East to take out terrorist targets called Decepticons, piling on civilian damages with total disregard. National monuments and natural wonders of the world become collateral damage for good measure too.

Yes, you might say this is only a science fiction movie, but one wonders what kind of contacts Michael Bay has with the US Department of Defense to allow such blatant exploitation to be incorporated into what could have been a roller coaster ride of a summer action blockbuster. We don't need militarism to be creeping into what's essentially a movie made to sell lots of toys, and while scribes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman have hit the high point with their reboot of the Star Trek franchise, they seem to fall very short here in their story treatment with input from co-writer Ehren Kruger, with plot loopholes abound, and a film that took leaves from films like Terminator 3 (with its female T-X equivalent), The Matrix (for those cheesy I Love Yous), National Treasure in which the run up to the finale became, and plenty more which I do not bother to list down.

The story, if it's any excuse to call it one, involves Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) and his girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox) facing some teenage existential romance issues, quite petty amongst the world's concerns that the Decepticons are not yet a done deal, with the Autobots joining forces with US soldiers forming NEST, an operations unit with jurisdiction just about anywhere in the world, because the world does not have soldiers, or competent ones at that – Jordan only has 2 choppers being swatted down like flies.

Throw in more bureaucratic nonsense like a rehash of the first film, the return of Josh Dumahel and Tyrese Gibson giving a collective to soldiers on the ground, John Turturro for some weak linkage to the previous movie while demonstrating it's possible for a civilian to order a naval commander around, and a highly irritating, immature Ramon Rodriguez in a nerdy roommate role who got caught up in situations he never bargained for. If it's allowed to show this Rodriguez's character shit in his pants tastefully, trust me it will be done. In fact, there are so many frat boy situations (interrupting a lecturer, having a cute chick come up to you sexually, owning a cool car, plenty of sexual innuendos etc) and lame jokes tossed around, that it made it seem that the scriptwriters and filmmakers all had some repressed teenage fantasies they needed to play out on screen. Needless characters, just like the Witwicky parents, just bloat the screen and the runtime, just to have more human presence in the story, but serving little purpose other than to elicit some cheap laughter.

Sure, Michael Bay had responded to fans clamouring for more robots in disguise, but that had translated to a load of nameless, faceless robots either created just for laughs thanks to a renegade allspark fragment, or introduced so that they can be blasted to smithereens. Even the final assault of Decepticons were made up of unknown, generic looking robots that were there for cannon fodder. As for Devastator, what a big let down and a cop out. That on screen is not the composite giant robot I had known through the years, and reeks like the Americanized Godzilla where its orientation became severely changed, here to serve nothing more than a huge vacuum cleaner.

Nameless, faceless robots extend to the Autobots too, with Optimus Prime and Bumblebee taking up most of the screen time being obvious fan favourites, with others being Ironhide, the newly created and bitching Twins (childish and unfunny by the way, some saying even racist in Jar Jar Binks terms), and supporting acts like Arcee and Sideswipe, together with loyalty flipfloppers like Wheelie (whom I thought all along was supposed to be an Autobat) and Jetfire (this stays true, in a way). The biggest let down of all would be the Fallen, supposedly one bad-assed transformer with a huge axe to grind, becoming nothing more than a lazy bastard whose threats he made get forgotten about totally, in between snarls.

If there's anything of merit here, then yes, hats off to the CGI folks who have upped the ante with their numerous detailed transformations of robots to vehicles, and vice versa. There were action sequences intricately crafted, but alas some dodgy camera angles sometimes get in the way of their creative genius. There were a handful of action sequences which fell prey to extreme close ups and resulted in a huge mesh and mess of clanging metal being welded together and thrown about onscreen, where you can hardly tell who's who, made all the more difficult when the Decepticons aren't as brightly coloured. The finale is some 30 minutes, but largely reminiscent of the old cartoon series where you have two opposing combatants occupying one side of the screen each, and firing everything at one another, and missing a whole lot. Then wash-rinse-repeat, or cue heroic Autobot who rips apart the enemy without dripping engine oil.

Fans of the history of Transformers might feel a little mixed with the origins of the Transfomers explained here in a little bit more detail, a continuation of the allspark artifact seen in the previous film, with biblical elements like the fallen angel with the featuring of an important element such as the leadership matrix. Even a moment of the Transformers animated film found its way here, though I will not reveal what it is since it's a huge plot point and fuels pretty much the entire 2nd half of the film. And if there's one major gripe I have to make, it is this – Bumblebee is a four-seater Camaro (and we're reminded about this time and again), but to Sam, he'd rather pack his folks into the car, while opting to run some 4 miles in the desert dust to a common destination amidst a raging all out war. Right, yay to illogical heroic moment misconstrued to be sacrifice.

And how can I not mention the luminous Megan Fox? While the first film had entrenched her character to be quite the Ms Fix-it, here she's relegated to a flower vase role and has to do a lot of running away, while finding time for some tender moment to bigger about who has to profess their love for the other first. A girlie-girl now whom Bay had directed with his eyes closed to “act hot”, and we get constantly reminded just how smoking hot her character is by every bloody male character in the film. Yes we know, now can you all please move on?

I will unabashedly say that I've enjoyed the first Transformers live action movie, but this sequel is obviously churned out to milk the fanboys of their money, together with so many blatant merchandising opportunities with variations of toys. But that's what the fans want, and that's probably what they got and lapped up, given the reaction of the audience who laughed at every single unfunny moment, cheered at every robot death, and roared with approval with every shot of a military vehicle put in just because Bay could. One should be offended by what went on screen in a total waste of time and budget, and this goes down in my books as an over-hyped and stale summer blockbuster that's pure junk, and should have headed straight for the scrapyard, not the cinema.

More Entertaining Than Bay's Shit-piece

Sunday, June 21, 2009

[DVD] Taste of Cherry (Ta'm E Guilass) (1997)

This would mark my very first venture into the world of Abbas Kiarostami's cinema, and I had to pick the Taste of Cherry based on its Palme d'Or victory, totally unaware of that mind boggling video coda at the end, and a highly debatable and analyzed one at that.

Homayoun Ershadi stars as the protagonist Mr Badii, who has such a morbid request that he's driving around looking for volunteers to fulfill, with a car load full of cash to serve as a reward. But he's not looking for any Tom, Dick and Harry to complete his wishes, which we learn to involve his suicide, and for the chosen one to return to the location to call out his name twice. If he was to respond, then the helper is to assist him out of a self-dug hole. Otherwise, 20 shovels of sand is needed to bury Mr Badii, and the helper can make away with his car load of cash, with absolutely no strings attached thereafter.

Shot mostly within the interior of his vehicle, and rarely, if not never do we see the characters interaction within the same camera frame, the narrative's punctuated with plenty of solitude and contemplative silence when Badii is on his own in search of his mark, and then filled with plenty of dialogue depending on who's making the case – Badii in trying to convince those whom he had conned into hopping into his travelling vehicle, or those that he had roped in to help – a Kurd, an Afghan and a Turk, attempting to either escape, or trying their best to talk him out of his thought. During those moments the film becomes a an extremely talky one within the close confines of the car, and leaves you constantly wondering who would finally have the upper hand.

I appreciated the last one best, from which the title is sort of touched upon. The Turkish taxidermist who once shared the same thoughts about ending his own life, and it becomes a moving piece on life itself, how with all its problems and troubles, is still something worth seeing out properly. We see the extremes of characters just amongst those three in Badii's car, where one is frightened enough to pretend that he seemed indifferent, and wanted to bail out and go back to the safety net of his routine life, uninterrupted by life's sudden challenge, and the other extreme that one preaches why he would not support Badii's quest, but does not go beyond mere words. Then there are those who are stuck in the middle, where money plays a key into covering one's heart, because it's needed to facilitate a personal gain. Life and Death concerns for a stranger seem distant compared to the immediate need to support a love one.

Given my continuous curiosity of the landscapes in Tehran, Iran, where this film was shot in, it doesn't show you much beyond the brown-orange environment of a construction site that Badii frequently uses, going almost to the top where he intends to end his life at. It seems as bleak as Badii's mission can be, with Kiarostami never flinching into giving you additional clues as to the background of this man with the singular passion, which admittedly does waver a little, leaving the ending open ended, with the coda making it all a little more complicated. To me, that little scene looked more like a making-of documentary that couldn't find its proper place in a DVD extra.

In any case, if time and the National Library permits, I'm likely to be picking up more of Kiarostami's works to see if indeed they're my cup of tea, or otherwise.

The region free DVD by The Criterion Collection is presented in letterbox format with a pristine visual presentation of the film in its original 1.66:1 aspect ratio. Audio is monoaural in its original Farsi language with English subtitles available. Scene selection is over 14 chapters which includes the much talked about end coda.

The extras here are pretty limited, with a text based Filmography and Color Bars section to fine tune your display with. A grainy looking Theatrical Trailer (1:16) is also included, but the gem here is the Kiarostami Interview (18:40) conducted by Dr. Jamsheed Akrami, Professor of Communications at William Paterson University, where Kiarostami talks about Censorship, the Reception in the West on his films, and his Directorial Style, all of which are worth a listen to. It then rounds off with relatively shorter segments on Quentin Tarantino where he shares his thoughts on the American filmmaker, and on the inspiration from Children.

[DVD] 50 First Dates (2004)

We Meet For The First Time Again

Call me a sentimental fool, but 50 First Dates, which reunites Drew Barrymore and Adam Sandler after their successful pairing in The Wedding Singer, actually worked for me as a romantic comedy, balancing some hilarious situations and characters with a tragic romantic drama where the girl suffers from a medical condition (yes, quite staple in romances actually), except that this condition isn't life threatening, but life frustrating!

Like Leonard Shelby and Sanjay Singhania in Memento and Ghajini, Barrymore's Lucy suffers from short term memory loss, in not being able to make new memories. She wakes up each day in Groundhog Day fashion, no thanks to her father Marlin (Blake Clark) and steriod-taking bodybuilding brother Doug (Sean Astin) who relive their lives day after day in the same day of her car accident (which led to the condition), and also with help from friends at a diner to recreate that perfect morning before that tragedy. And to Lucy, each day seemed like a brand new day, oblivious to changes around her, until she meets Sandler's Henry Roth, who intends to ditch his old womanizing ways, to spend the rest of his life with this new girl of his dreams.

So you can already see the problems here. How do you ensure you get remembered, by someone who cannot make new memories? For someone as commitment phobic as Henry, and to Lucy's protective family members, this is the kind of guy whom they are wary of, because it's wham-bang-thank-you-ma'am opportunities abound, and it's far more easier to take off without the victim knowing just who you are. Henry has that reputation of taking advantage of, and in quite comical fashion, shaking off his victims since they are all from various states, only that this time Lucy proved to be a little more than savvy in reproaching his advances, and therein lies the chase, the unavoidable pity, and the falling in love.

It's Memento gone romantic, and a touching one at that, with Henry having to be at his innovative best to woo the same girl all over again, to comedic effect of course with the multiple techniques employed, undoubtedly with Sandler being at his best without resorting to too many risque moments like his recent Zohan adventures, and Barrymore complementing his effort seamlessly with great ease and chemistry. As far as recent romantic comedies go, none seem to be able to touch this one in terms of hitting the mark with its comedy and bringing out those tissues for its drama, and despite being made some 5 years ago, it still packs quite a punch for fans of the genre.

If there's a little hiccup, that will be Rob Schneider's overacting as Henry's horny best friend, but that was balanced by the very limited cameo appearance by Dan Aykroyd. For scene stealers, look out for Allen Covert's Ten Second Tom, one whose exaggerated role of a man with an extreme memory problem providing enough wicked laughter at the condition. For fans of sea animals, there's enough penguins and walruses to tickle your funny bone as well, complete at times with complimentary toilet humour.

At its core for the die-hard romantics out there, I guess it calls for a lot of effort in trying to craft opportunities to speak to someone, be interesting enough to engage and hold that attention, and generally have a feel good time at the end of the day. Try repeating that day after day and you'll probably appreciate the extent of the kind of tenacity required. Although it sticks to formula after boy-gets-girl (which calls for tissues), nothing beats being rewarded for all the hard effort, and it's a good thing too that the narrative didn't get plagued by the usual Hollywood miraculous ending.

Oh, and don't watch this film before you watch M Night Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense, as it reveals the ending.

Review of the DVD to come soon!

Saturday, June 20, 2009

[SFS] 4 Months, 3 Weeks & 2 Days (4 Luni, 3 Saptamâni Si 2 Zile)

Help Me All The Way!

Expectations can be such a bitch sometimes. Having won the Palme d'Or at the 60e Cannes Film Festival and Romania's official submission to the Oscars (well, that has to count for something right?), I went in with a lot of hope that I would be blown away, and blown away I was, except that the anti-climatic ending left me a bit wanting, not that it didn't serve its purpose, which allowed you to feel a little bit emptier akin to the weight on your shoulders given a massive lift, just like the characters'.

And expectations is perhaps the biggest bugbear to haunt Otilia (Anamaria Marinca) and her pregnant friend Gabita (Laura Vasiliu), who is looking into an illegal abortion to rid a fetus of the titular age. Otilia expects that as a friend to someone, she should assist Gabita in every way that she can, and the fact is she does, going a bit overboard too in my opinion, doing practically everything except being pregnant herself. If you need a project manager, then you'd expect Otilia to be a godsend with her plethora of skills. In Gabita, we see a girl who expected that Otilia would always be there to guard her rear, and in this respect, we see how someone would take somebody else for granted, and as the film progressed, see how this is so true, and so selfish of her as well with her unannounced movements.

Amongst the two friends, it is clear I prefer Otilia over Gabita, not that one's blonde nor that one has more screen time which enabled her to endear herself a lot more, and to share some common problems with the audience. What I like about her, is how street smart she was, quick thinking and innovative, having what is necessary to survive in a communist state of black markets and under table benefits. And her self-sacrifice (having little qualms with doing what has to be done, with absolutely no benefit to herself, and a lot to lose) knows no bounds as well, which left you wondering whether it is indeed plausible to find a friend as her, risking her neck just to ensure that you get to do something illegal and below the radar, and covering everything up.

Gabita on the other hand deserves to be slapped as the perennial stupid girl who got herself into a situation that can possibly be avoided with proper consideration. Then again she could be at her wits end, but that doesn't mean being absolutely selfish, and so ditzy and absent minded that the dangerous plan she has concocted had to involve higher risks. One things for sure, nobody should be leaving a person like her in charge of logistics, because nothing gets done, at all. And being a terrible liar too doesn't help her cause.

There's a sense of danger throughout the narrative, and Christian Mungiu's direction coupled with Oleg Mutu's cinematography never lets you forget that with frenetic pacing, and its grittiness, especially when Otilia has to leave her friend for a moment to attend to personal issues, and probably the entire 2nd half of the film where the clock gets ticking toward wondering if the plan has been executed successfully, and then leaving you exasperated when they hit potential roadblocks. You get worried for the two girls, in case they get found out, and the filmmakers eased you into those emotions almost effortlessly.

There are other issues thrown in as well, such as an examination into the relationship between Otilia and her boyfriend Adi (Alexandru Potocean) which also plays on expectations of their roles on each other, once in a meeting in varsity and another in Adi's home, where they launch into discussions into the concerns of their sex life, which takes an unexpected toil on Otilia having to run an entire illegal operation on her own for her friend. Conflicts, responsibilities and blame get tossed around in their emotionally charged dialogue in a darkly lit bedroom. The scene at Adi's home with his family members and their friends also play in great contrast to the scene at the beginning in Otilia and Gabita's quarters, showing the state of affairs in the country, as well as that between the Haves and the Have-nots.

Much of the kudos of the film should go to Anamaria Marinca's performance in the film as well. As much as she is charismatic in her role, she brought about a sense of realism, of a woman at a crossroads wondering just how much more the distance she's willing to go for her friend, over and above that for herself, and willing to put her own personal issues on the line. She becomes almost like the benchmark for us to re-evaluate how we would assist others at their wits end, and how much would we expect from others when in distress.

Friday, June 19, 2009



The fastest way to induce an audience's nausea, is perhaps to throw up plenty of thick crimson blood and splatter loads of internal organs on screen, and there's just something about having a ready made premise in hospital mortuaries where there are dead bodies ready to be exploited for some horror and gore, playing into the consensus that these places are just those that you wouldn't want to linger for a second longer.

Autopsy here didn't refer to any post-mortem done on bodies to discover death, but rather plays out like a typical formulaic horror film of recent times where the human bodies go through extreme, mindless torture which torture porn flicks have been trying very best to go one up against one another by upping the ante, either by body count, death by strange tools, or some insanely crafted violent sequences. A look at films such as Body #19, Pathology, Unrest and even Saw IV would give you an idea of what you're in for, should you opt to give this film a shot.

Told in relatively low budget terms, it centers around a group of teenagers, all drunk and high on dope, getting into a car crash, and checking themselves voluntarily into Mercy Hospital, run by two unconventional looking ambulance drivers / helpers, the receptionist Nurse Marian (Jenette Goldstein) and Dr. David Benway (Robert Patrick). I suppose if one's not drunk, a hospital run by a crew of four would have raised eyebrows, but to some traumatized teens, it seemed like a godsend being able to be medically looked at before they get on their way.

Only for things to go bump, with scenes crafted with little logic and flow, plenty of repetitiveness (climbing up and down the same stairwell for example) and cheap tricks out to elicit cheap scares. While you'd appreciate what writer-director Adam Gierasch is trying to get at, especially with the build up toward the end under lead protagonist Emily (Jessica Lowndes), what was ultimately a let down was the plot loopholes that you could pilot a 747 through, poor, choppy pacing, and plenty of throwaway, useless characters in hospital patients just shown on screen to boast what good make up artists they have.

And the make up and art department deserve some credit in coming up with some really mind-numbing, gory looking wounds, parts, decapitations etc, in order to keep you somewhat engaged in looking out for the next big gory scene. While you don't expect Oscar winning performances, I can't help but chuckle at some very wooden, amateurish acting amongst the cast, and even Robert Patrick seemed like he's parodying his Terminator role here, being deadpan in expression, and persistently hard to shake and get rid of.

Autopsy is a poor man's cousin of flicks like Hostel, where things just aren't quite they seem and victims get compartmentalized in some divide and conquer strategy. In most cases, you're going to laugh at the scenes for being implausible, or clumsily executed, so while I won't recommend this film as a horror flick, I definitely would do so as a comedy of errors, and how it contains some of the pitfalls that one should consciously try to avoid when making a horror film.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

Trail of the Panda (Xiong Mao Hui Jia Lu / 熊猫回家路)

The New Teddy

Once the black and white penguins were the rage, now the pandas have taken over the mantle, thanks to Disney in China in producing yet another film about this reclusive, iconic animal that's been the focus on preventing its extinction. Filmed in picturesque Wolong, Sichuan, it mixes documentary-styled footage of the pandas at play, with an extremely simple story (it's Disney after all) about a lonely young boy's friendship with an injured panda he nurses back to health.

And as far as kids movies are concerned, all adults have the propensity to become villains, and in this film, young orphan Xiaolu (Chinese-Japanese child actor Daichi Harashima) has to protect his animal friend from the clutches of his foster father Lao Chen (Zheng Qi) and a visiting panda researcher Feng (Feng Li), who is adamant in capturing the young injured panda christened Pang Pang (erm, Fat Fat) in order to bring it back to the research centre for studies. Lao Chen sees this as an opportunity to make money from his hunting skills, but to Xiaolu, both adults cannot be trusted since they were the ones who caused the near fatal injury to Pang Pang.

The film comprises of three simple acts, the first of which showcases more of the documentary footage of the pandas in action with Pang Pang (in reality more than 1 panda) running away from its pursuers, then Xiaolu stepping in as a guardian and striking up a deep friendship through some diligent nursing, and that both human and animal share similar traits in having lost their natural parents, hence a kind of unspeakable bond that exists between them. The last act is relatively more "action-packed", with a large dose of sentimentality thrown in, and a moral and environmental message that gets hammered home.

It's a known tactic I guess, if you have an actor who isn't well versed with the language the film is shot in, make him mute / refuse to talk. In that way, the actor won't feel too burdened by a speaking role, and is able to focus on delivering what's necessary. Here, Daichi Harashima's Xiaolu stays mum most of the time, being practically the child who has a life-sized bear playmate to hang out with, and I was even half-wondering if animatronics were employed for some of the wilder stunts that the pandas were put through, some of course obviously shot in front of a blue screen.

As mentioned, this is a simple film rated G for the family, and it's really geared for the kids. Amongst the slew of animal-centric films made in recent years, this is more like The Fox & the Child in narrative style, but with none of the sophistication in story-telling. You can read more on the production here.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Nobody to Watch Over Me (Dare Mo Mamotte Kurenai)

Coming Through

For all its orderliness and politeness in Japanese society, if what Nobody to Watch Over Me portrayed is accurate, then there's the other side of the same society that we on the outside would seldom see, and that's how they would react to serious crimes committed by minors. While you would expect identities to be kept secret in order to aid in the investigations and to offer some protection to the perpetrator and/or the victims, there's this constant digging to fish information in order to inform, ridicule and condemn, and compromise any police protection programme.

Things like family honour might sound strange to some, but as the opening prologue explained, in a proud society where "face" is of a premium, family members may feel compelled to commit suicide in order to atone for, and apologize to the victims and the general public for gross misdemeanour of fellow members. Or in fact, it is expected by society at large which doesn't exactly subscribe to the mantra of innocent until proven guilty, or debunk guilt by association. They're likely to bay for blood and expecting everyone related to be hung out to dry.

Hence covert operations carried out by the police to assign cops to family members, not only to protect them from those looking to exact revenge, but to prevent them from hurting themselves as well. Such is the pressure, and the shame, and eyebrows would be raised when you realize that changes to identities such as Family Names, are made legal, and on the spot, amongst splitting everyone up to throw the media off their tracks.

The film's initial minutes are sheer brilliance, in setting up a confused state and a whirlwind of disbelief swarming the family members of the accused. The parents in a state of shock, and cannot believe the media circus already passing judgement just outside their doorstep, and their home filled with cops eager to ask questions, and bureaucrats pushing their paper to get the administrative requirements out of the way.

Storywise, it's deceptively simple like another version of The Bodyguard, with detective Katsura (Koichi Sato) assigned to protect his charge, the 15 year old student Saori Funamura (Mirai Shida), whose brother was arrested for the senseless murder of 2 young girls. The two don't hit it off instantly, given that they're on opposites, one resenting the case as being in the way of his own family vacation and reconciliation with his estranged (and offscreen) wife, while the other just doesn't trust cops because of the way they conduct themselves in that one confusing night.

You would expect them to bond at some point, but this long and arduous journey to regain trust is one of the highlights of the film. The main characters are flawed in their own ways, with Katsura harbouring some aged old guilt which he tries to exorcise and redeem himself with this assignment, while Saori has this albatross hanging around her neck on her guilt in the investigations. But both actors Koichi Sato and Mirai Shida have excellent chemistry as surrogate father and child, with the latter at her best when she utilizes her icy glares to flesh out that perfect emotion of contempt.

But the film is rich enough and made plenty of room to explore other thematic elements as well. Additional situations the characters get put in bring out so much of their personality, espcially when they converge at a ocean-facing B&B inn, where themes of forgiveness and to find strength in moving on, rather than crying over spilt milk, become gentle reminders on the need not to bear grudges, which is an extremely tough practice.

Director/writer Ryoichi Kimizuka, with his background on the Bayside Shakedown series, also couldn't resist not adding elements such as police bureaucracy, public perception of their ineptness and political games into the picture, albeit only slightly touched upon, and putting Katusra in sympathetic light too. Some of their processes will undoubtedly cause you to roll your eyes in disbelief, where on one hand they preach the need to protect identities, while on the other just acting in direct contradiction of orders, intent and objectives, such as walking out in the open, and letting the mark get out of sight.

The other element that ran wild here, is Kimizuka's statement on the proliferation of information in the internet age, where netizens tend to mouth off under the guise of anonymity, and make victims out of innocent parties through their very quick display of condemnation. With the traditional media offering the other perspective of a relatively more measured and reasonable approach, it soon became a glaring press versus internet debate raging, where speed of information flow is of the essence, and the lengths anyone would go to make their message heard.

Nobody to Watch Over Me is an powerful two hours of drama that will engage you from the get go, sometimes even making you feel exasperated by the way society behaves, and how the police force took things easy and for granted. It goes without saying that this film also stands a striking chance to be amongst one of the best I've seen this year.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Land of the Lost

Nice Dino!

This is one of those movies marketed with the children market firmly set in its sights, and my money is that parents will be appalled to have given their little ones a family outing to the cinemas only to realize it's a nightmare the first few minutes into the movie. It's a one of a kind slap to any film ratings board (here included) given the number of innuendos, f-bombs and hallucinogen use in the film, that parents would likely be flabbergasted by a PG-rating. The two kids sitting in front of me were laughing for a while, before being awfully quiet, disoriented by some really adult moments.

While I have not seen the original 70s television series of the same name, I guess it's supposedly very much tamer than its big screen interpretation, though of course having Will Ferrell in a starring role would mean that one might be expecting a riotous time. Unfortunately not, and it's a film without a plot, throwing about random scenes now and then either just for laughs, or to display some digital effects for the sake of. While there be some attempts of dreaming up a plot with aliens in distress, saving the universe, the repair of one's reputation and the likes, the randomness of events more than destroys any semblance of a logical plot.

Not that science fiction needs to anyway, but like an early remark in the film goes, it's very much non-science (read: nonsense), with Ferrell's Dr Rick Marshall designing a time-warp device for lateral time travel, meaning not forward or backwards, but laterally through parallel universes. You see, it saves meticulous design and planning, since it provides a lot of leeway to throw everything including the kitchen sink together sans realism or logic, just to provide some messy platform for Rick Marshall to either exhibit his intellect, but more so to showcase his buffoony.

Aiding him in his trip willingly is a graduate student from Cambridge who studied his work, Holly (Anna Friel), and an unwitting extra in kooky theme park ride administrator Will, played by Danny McBride who's in it just to become the punching bag of laughs, physical comedy and sparring partner of vulgarity with Ferrell. Expect plenty of the usual toilet humour too, complete with piss (seriously, an extended scene here) and dung that brought on more dread than mirth. And you know there's a new low when one actor (Jorma Taccone) has to be dressed up and act the horny monkey throughout the film, speaking an indecipherable tongue that only Holly can understand. And isn't it too cliché and passe already to be using yet another T-Rex as a villain?

Will Farrell has been unimpressive of late, with a string of dubious, unfunny films such as Step-Brothers, Semi-Pro and Blades of Glory. OK so the last two still managed to get by with a handful of hilarious scenes, but the last funny film for me starring Ferrell would be Talladega Nights. I suppose he's doing himself no favours if his films continue to rake in poor box office and reviews, and perhaps a blast from the past in Anchorman 2 just might be his saving grace. We shall see.

One wonders how the filmmakers managed to get away with a film like this one, since it's all over the place, and definitely as lost as its title already prophesied. It may look like Planet of the Apes meet Stargate, but the result is neither funny, nor did it bother with crafting exciting set action pieces, and definitely a misadventure. You have been warned, and to make your money's worth when you managed to sit through this, sit through the end credits for a stinger mid way of the roll.

I Love You, Man

Sweaty Pals

I Love You, Man is a delightful film not just for its brand of humour which worked almost all the time, nor because it stars the bunch of contemporary jokers who have taken Hollywood by storm, but because it had a meaningful story to tell, and has translated that key insight of friendships and relationships for the big screen effortlessly, wrapping up some deep, intrinsic behavioural observation deceptively behind a curtain of laughter.

Like the 40 Year Old Virgin in its quest for a woman to get laid with to pop his cherry, this film works on the reverse in its protagonist's quest for a male friend, since Peter Klaven (Paul Rudd) has no problems with female friendship as he's the quintessential ladies man, only that he's about to marry his fiance Zooey (Rashida Jones). Since the bride has a maid of honour, it's up to Peter to find a balance in a best man, only that he hasn't really had a man friend for the longest time, and so begins a crazy montage of hooking up with casual friends in the hope of striking gold.

It might seem like a hypothetical situation, but as the film progressed, it brings to mind how many of us have friends (male or female) that we sometimes take for granted in knowing that they'll always be there for us. Only a reality check brings up the fact that everyone has their own personal lives to lead, and it wouldn't be nice to impose (mid-life crisis singles, hands up here), especially not with an ulterior motive. Some of us too when having a girlfriend, tend to allow male friends to fall on the wayside as we skirt chase, and depending on whether you get someone who provides that much leeway as Zooey, you can kiss goodbye to those male-bonding sessions.

Then there's the difference between the premise of a girl's night out, and a guy's, and the dynamics of what happens within the groups. It can be somewhat stereotypical here in the film, but you get the drift as the film lays it all out on the table, with the girls talking about the boy-stuff behind their backs, and the worst bit being that cause for comparison, and the guys, well, talk about what else, sex! There are some lines clearly drawn here in what can, or cannot be discussed, and how much of that you can bring to the table, and how much you can take away from. A secret's a secret, and should stay that way with clear segregation in order to prevent upsetting anyone. Talk about compromises and "truth" and honesty which is an essential ingredient to a healthy relationship.

If what you're saying is that it reeks of hypocrisy, then yes, sometimes it does, and the married couple played by Jaime Pressly and Jon Favreau (yes, he who directed Iron Man) epitomizes the crankiness of a marriage with its idiosyncrasies, and the hypocrisies that come with presenting a united front, and worse of all, trading favours in both directions. They have some of the best lines and insane moments in the film, and poor Jon has got to suffer two verbal abuses (for you to watch and find out).

Many of us who have remembered Jason Segel's comical turn in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, and here he cuts his Sydney Fife both ways, one an alpha male type who seems way cool with his frat boy sensibilities, which is actually a facade for a lonely life he leads in his garage where he can be the man he actually is. As the friendship between Peter and Sydney grow from their numerous hanging out sessions, from short drinking sessions to weekend rendezvous just to jam to their favourite tunes, so too does the strain in Peter and Zooey's relationship, because as the saying goes, two's a company, and three's a crowd. This aspect serves as an adversary in the film, though it doesn't come unexpected when it suddenly dawns upon Peter that he can't have two birds in one hand. Being the novice in this aspect of a man-friend relationship here, there are many times Peter trips up, and the experienced us would know that it's perfect danger territory to find yourself in.

And who would have thought friendship and relationships could be such a chore, especially when expectations start flying around being that spanner ready to be thrown in the works. As a comedy, this film hit plenty of right spots in eliciting laughter from the audience, with funny lines that do work, and carefully crafted characters in Peter (with his nonsensical one-liner conversation endings, and nicknames), and Sydney being quite multi-dimensional. And what's a film like this about man-friends without that dose of fanboy-dom in it, with the Incredible Hulk Lou Ferrigno playing himself in a very short supporting role, and many other film references thrown in for good measure too?

I Love You, Man is an excellent story on friendship, and what makes friendship tick. For that and its healthy dose of comedy, and a great spin on the tired romantic-comedy genre, it goes without a surprise into my list of contenders for top films of the year.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3

Get Off Your Cars and Take Public Transport!

Tony Scott and Denzel Washington together have three collaborations under their belt (Crimson Tide, Man on Fire, Deja Vu), and given that I've enjoyed every single one of their outing, there's no reason why I shouldn't with The Taking of Pelham 123, especially with John Travolta contributing as an over the top villain sporting mean tattoos, a goatee and a foul mouth. A remake of a 1974 film by the same name, this one's pretty much updated with the fusion of the Wall Street fallout and plenty of New Yorker tributes, from the mayor (James Gandolfini) to the average salaryman Waler (Washington) earning his keep.

Those familiar with Tony Scott's films will know what you're up for stylistically, with the dizzying camera work spinning wildly in and around New York City from the bird's eye helicopter view, to the darkened subway tunnels, and the numerous nauseating inducing quick edits to bring about this semblance of concurrent urgency. Add some alternative music - Jay-Z's 99 Problems during the opening credits sounds just apt of the situation at hand - at full blast just about puts Tony's fingerprints all over this movie.

The draw of the film is manifold, and firstly, I'm a sucker for control room type of drama where operators are thrust into positions that call for exemplary leadership and thinking out of the box, cutting at the bureaucracy bullshit. It offers the big board and a glimpse of how intricate a rail network is, and seriously I'm always interested for that chance to have a sneak peek at Singapore's own MRT control room. Here the MTA is faced with a terrorist situation that looks so deceptively simple to pull off - a bunch of heavily armed men boarding the same train at separate points, before taking over at a predetermined point. With the help of insiders, logistics are all easily obtained and intimate operational knowledge exploited.

And the other draw is of course Washington and Travolta playing off each other. You can imagine just how this film is shot, where one imagines the other being at the other end of the line. For the most parts the actors do not share the same frame on screen, but you can feel the energy still as they play psychological games with each other over the phone, slowly chipping away at confidence, and gamble with many bluffs. What's particularly enjoyable is how their characters get to play one-up against the other, and through some intense conversations, reveal a lot more about their characters, through topics such as religion, the system, and demonstrating that they have probably a lot more in common, except the methods that they chose to get back at their experience of personal injustice by the state.

Surprisingly for a Tony Scott film, The Taking of Pelham 123 is quite short on set action sequences. There's the usual complimentary shoot them ups from one-sided street battles to sniper action, though one thing's for sure, the NYPD show of force is something to be reckoned with, being the last resort should the tactics of chief negotiator Camonetti (John Turturro) fail to get through. There's a relatively long sequence of a race-against-time car and motorcycle screaming through the busy streets of New York which I felt was unnecessary, if only for Tony Scott to use as an excuse to shoot something of high velocity, and to pile up on scrap vehicles.

The Taking of Pelham 123 is quite standard fare with some instances which peaked thanks to Washington's and Travolta's charismatic presence which were keenly felt. The two carry a lot of the movie on their shoulders despite being apart most of the time, but as all good hostage negotiation-crisis control room movie goes, this one's still recommended stuff.

[Italian Film Fest] Quo Vadis, Baby?


While I had very much enjoyed the film last night, Quo Vadis, Baby? was one that didn't really live up to expectations. To be fair I was benchmarking it with arguable one of the more renowned Gialli films out there in What Have You Done to Solange? but even on its own it didn't have too engaging a plot and felt more like a romance drama rather than an out and out Gialli film with murder, mystery and a chunk of exploitation thrown in.

Like your classic investigative noir film, we start with a private investigator, a female one in Giorgia Cantini (Angela Baraldi) who's in her 40s and a spinster feeling really miserable from her lack of love life, and haunted by the fact that her good looking older sister Ada (Claudia Zanella) had committed suicide many years back. Giorgia decided to finally re-open that investigations on her own because she had received a box full of VHS tapes, in what would be a confessional series as recorded by her sister. Back then blogs were unheard of, and keeping a diary is unhip, so the next best thing is to do what Paris Hilton does - record on film every little sordid detail of her life.

This of course proved to be invaluable wealth of information to an investigator, but for Giorgia it's something like becoming a voyeur into her pretty sister's life many years back, who as an aspiring actress won't think twice in using her physique to advantage, sleeping with anyone who could give her a role, and dabbling in plenty of vices, all of which dutifully documented. The mystery for Giorgia is to discover who "A" is referred to, possibly holding the key to her sister's death.

Quo Vadis, Baby? is like a film within a film, one which takes place in the present, and the other in the past, thanks to plenty of sitting through of those tapes that you'll begin to feel like a priest in a confession box. This technique of flashbacks take up almost half the time of the film, but offering no new revelation other than Ada being a cheap slut who probably deserved what she got. There's little worked on gaining your sympathy for the character, or empathy for Giorgia in living through such pain of discovering naughty details of a deceased sibling.

Complicating matters of course is Giorgia's messy love life, included so that some flesh could be shown in order for this film to join the ranks of the Gialli genre, which in some ways the romantic portion of the film stood out a lot more with its romantic themes, rather than knowing it had a mystery to resolve. And when it finally got down to doing so, it lacked some real punch as you can get ahead with its limited number of characters to guess from, and limped very much to the ending no thanks again to convenience and almost implausible odds.

Definitely not something I would recommend to anyone new to the genre, especially when there are other gems available which are more than worth its time.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past


For those who have played the field and sown some wild oats around town, Ghosts of Girlfriends Past might be a walk down a personal memory lane into why nothing lasts longer than possibly that first, genuine relationship. There are reasons abound why some are either commitment freaks, or just plainly wanting to chalk up a list of conquests to show off, and for top fashion photographer Connor Meat, erm I mean Mead (Matthew McConaughey), it's a run from responsibility, and the fear of never ever wanting to be hurt again.

I'm pretty sure many who have gone through a break-up would admit to having it leave some bad aftertaste, that you'd just want the upper hand the next time around when dealing with that painful, negative emotion, should and if it happens. Call it insurance, or the hardening of the heart, and if you're to subscribe to the tips shared in this film, it's preaching to love a little less if you're to walk away unscathed. This does not apply to those who are for the notion of true love, happiness and that institution called Marriage, and for a film whose protagonist celebrates and actually enjoys his freedom and singlehood, it ends with a cop-out smack in the face.

The trailer would have pretty much shown everything you need to know about the plot. For the ultimate swinger in Connor, nothing is worse than having to attend the wedding of his brother Paul (Breckin Meyer) as his best man, to toast during a ceremony he won't touch with a ten foot pole. Making it worse of course is the attendance of the only girl he has ever had genuine feelings for, his childhood and first girlfriend Jenny Perotti (Jennifer Garner). Then comes the whole shebang of A Christmas Carol proportions where Connor is visited by his dead uncle, Wayne (Michael Douglas), responsible for imparting his techniques to getting laid, who tells him that he'll be visited by three ghosts before the night is up. And for the home run, it's a determination if Connor would become a changed person and end up with the girl of his dreams (the future ghost did look hot though).

Those expecting comedy, you'll be disappointed as the jokes come off rather half-baked, making fun of best mens as nerds and bridesmaids who are horny all the time. Then there's the future father-in-law in war veteran Sergeant Volkom (Robert Forster) and his ex-wife Vonda (Anne Archer) whom Connor tries to hit (no women too young or old it seems). Those in for romance, unfortunately both McConaughey and Garner exhibit no sparks nor chemistry, perhaps the latter being all settled already as a real mom, that she's miscast as the mid-30-something still out there looking for love, and holding a candle for her childhood friend.

Director Mark Waters would be an old hand at handling ghostly apparitions in a romantic comedy, after all he had dealt with Resse Whiterspoon and Mark Ruffalo in Just Like Heaven. But his only saving grace in this movie with little surprises, is that of Michael Douglas' performance as the old-swinger Uncle Wayne, hamming it up as the adult version of Will Smith's Hitch, but with some pluses in not just wanting to establish that first hello, but going all the way for that one night stand, sharing some tips and tricks that you probably might just get lucky with.

Ghosts of Girlfriends Past turns out to be a misnomer, as Emma Stone gets to represent the countless of faceless, nameless women that Connor gets down with. As a date movie it's pretty formula, made worse by its taking a leaf from A Christmas Carol. The only element that kept me entertained, was the blast from the past moments complete with an excellent soundtrack to bring back those 80s and 90s nostalgia. See if you can spot the track 6 Underground by The Sneaker Pimps, and Time After Time by Cyndi Lauper, amongst others.

Friday, June 12, 2009

[Italian Film Fest] What Have You Done to Solange? (Cosa Avete Fatto A Solange?)

Murder Most Foul

While reading up on the Gialli genre of Italian exploitation films, one title gets constantly mentioned as the best of the lot and that's "What Have You Done to Solange?". With staple elements such as violence, gore, horror, gratuitous nudity, dubious dubbing (yes this got to me as I was trying to figure out the actual languages used) and an excellent, suspensful score (thanks to the legendary Ennio Morricone), if anyone were to ask me whether this is worth the watch, the answer is a firm yes.

It's not just because of the shock elements as described, but essentially this film had a better than expected storyline. Loosely based on Edgar Wallace's The Clue of the New Pin, there's a superior murder mystery thriller contained which keeps you guessing throughout. For its age (some 37 years old!), it certainly had enough legs to keep you engaged, and paced itself with enough twists and turns, that kept my interest piqued in trying to figure out the red herrings, and the tangential nature of its narrative.

Starting off with an illicit affair between a married Italian language and gymnastics teacher Enrico (Fabio Testi) and beautiful student Elizabeth (another Gialli legend Cristina Galbo), their pleasure of the flesh session aboard a boat in an English river got interrupted when Elizabeth catches a glimpse of a murder in progress, witnessing a knife being plunged into the pubic regions of a semi-nude female (well, it's exploitation after all)

While both are trying hard to keep their affair a secret, and no thanks to a couple of missteps, they had to come clean with fellow peers in the school, made worst when Enrico's wife Herta (Karin Baal) happens to be a colleague as well, and the murdered victim a student of their institution. For Inspector Barth (Joachim Fuchsberger), it's the usual tying up of loose ends in a series of murders which turn up, all involving young girls and falling prey to the same modus operandi. This is where the audience will probably get the most fun out of, trying to apply contemporary sensibilities to try and solve the mystery ahead of time, but failing to do so because of Massimo Dallamano's tight direction and constant keeping of an ace up his sleeve.

The titular Solange doesn't appear until late in the movie, and from there you would have been rewarded with some clarity and semblance of the plot, which has so far been spread eagled with affairs of the heart and a whodunnit, where everything seems remotely related, and the connecting the dots is half the fun. Morricone's score is not as memorable as his works on the Sergio Leone films, but it did maintain that sense of moody, mysterious atmosphere befitting of the genre.

What Have You Done to Solange? had enlightened me that some of the frequent narrative styles used in contemporary mysteries are nothing new, given that a film four decades old have already employed. If anything, this film had my interest raised, though being one of the best out there already, I will keep in mind that others in the same era and genre might not be able to replicate the brilliance shown here.

[Italian Film Fest] Almost Blue

There's a serial killer loose in the Italian city of Bologna, and from the get go, we're introduced to the aftermath of a very brutal killing in the hands of a psycho, with a preference for extremely loud music played through his headphones. I thought the killer here is very much like the one in the 2004 film Taking Lives starring Ethan Hawke and Angelina Jolie, where the murderer lingers and adopts the persona of the person he kills, before moving onto the next victim.

In essence this is your classic cat and mouse thriller that explores the links between the three leads in rookie policewoman Grazia (Lorenza Indovina), the psycho killer played by Rolando Ravello to Aamir-Khan-Ghajini's crazed perfection, and the blind man Simone (Claudio Santamaria), who gets caught up in the entire episode because he wilds his time away at his computer listening in to chatrooms, police scanners and what have yous, like an online busybody oracle. In doing so, he puts himself unwittingly in the line of fire as the killer decides to make him the next target. And so the premise is set, and I felt there's a truck load of potential here to at least live up to average thriller expectations.

There was what I thought a perfect moment set up in allowing the audience's imagination to run wild with one killing - you can hear audible sighs of sorrow when the killer picks his mark, because while the character was nothing more than a supporting one, appearing only to nag, everyone understood instantly the impact it is going to have in the story moving on. The aftermath of that was nothing short of poignant, and that hammered home the notion of how evil is as evil can be.

If there's a major letdown in the exciting build-up, it's how everything gets wrapped up in the end too conveniently and in major anti-climatic fashion. Big clue being the need to adopt the persona, and having everyone turn up at the right place at the right time, with room for some sexy time thrown in as well for good measure, just because it's Gialli. It turned what could have been room for a tight, climatic finale into a joke of convenience probably stemming from a lack of ideas. Great build-up, but terrible finale.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

[Italian Film Fest] Plan 17 (Piano 17)

What's Up?!

This year's Italian Film Festival comes with 2 separate Fringe Programmes, the first being the "Gialli" - Thriller series, and the second meant for fans of animation. Best part of all for everyone tightening our belts these days, is that the screenings are absolutely free. Plan 17 played to a full house today at The Arts House Screening Room, and while it was far from perfect, it was still a lot of fun watching it with a very responsive audience.

The premise of Plan 17 is nothing short of intriguing for fans of the thriller genre. We have a bomber who's tasked to enter a building and detonate a briefcase bomb. Why he does so and his motivations aren't immediately clear, and the situation is made all the more complex when 2 seemingly unrelated persons join him in a lift, and finds themselves all stuck when the lift motor got tampered with. Worse, the bomb is already set on a timer, and it's a 90 minute rush to get themselves out.

No, the film didn't spend the bulk of the narrative confined in that tiny space and having three persons talk crap while waiting for the rescue team. At this stage, the non-linear narrative kicks in to provide some spatial allowance to break out of the four walls, and had attempted to tell the audience more about each individual's background, and how they all are actually connected to one another through 6 (or less) degrees of separation. There's Meroni (Giuseppe Soleri) who's the meek working class salaryman who's taken advantaged of constantly, and the office slut in Violetta (Elisabetta Rocchetti).

The bulk of the film, and its chief anti-hero, is Marco Mancini (Giampaolo Morelli), the bomber who made a pact with someone to retrieve some documents, but finding himself stuck in a time-crisis. There's an enormous back story on his involvement in a crime family, a bank robbery gone awry, and double-crossings from jealous rivals, which the ending of the film provided just that little twist to it all to try and justify some cold-blooded execution. At some point you would want to yell out "enough!" to the filmmaker for having to rewind certain scenes just to point out to you explicitly how things gelled together.

It's hardly a perfect film though, if one is expecting a very tight paced thriller. Plot loopholes are abound, and some situations may be a tad absurd, drawing unintentional laughter, and dialogue that's cringeworthy as well. Technically this looked like it was shot on video and lacked some cinematic quality to it, though there's a highly infectious theme/trance music that played just about at every important scene or revelation. Sad to say though the last third of the film became highly predictable and decided to become an action movie, with a weak villain revealed who enjoys that standard-villain-soliloquy delivery all over again.

Plan 17 may not be the wonderful introduction to Italian Gialli for me, but my interest is piqued for the remaining offerings over the next two days.
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