Friday, July 31, 2009

Love Aaj Kal

Strength of Our Love

Love then, and love now. Love Aaj Kal tells of two different love stories, one set in the contemporary age of today in the cosmopolitan city of London, while the other takes place in traditional Delhi back in the 60s. Written and directed by Imtiaz Ali, this film magically combines both stories into a parallel of sorts in breaking up and reconciliation, though the more sentimental me preferred the older story much more, simply because it was less complicated, and based solely on the following of the heart.

Unlike the complex games people play nowadays, as Jai Vardhan Singh (Saif Ali Khan) and Meera Pandit (Deepika Padukone) engages in. The first few minutes of the film might be a little strange and frustrating even, where it plays out like an advertisement for modern love moving at a breakneck pace of a whirlwind romance. Jai and Meera meet, fall madly in love, spend incredible moments together, only to allow reasons of practicality spoil everything. Since their careers are going to put them thousands of miles apart – Meera heading towards Delhi and Jai dreaming of eventually relocating to San Francisco, having no trust in long distance relationship means the logical decision to break up and remain friends.

In the other story, Veer Singh (Saif Ali Khan again) meets and falls in love with Harleen Kaur (newcomer Gisele), but being the old-fashioned Romeo and with a process in place to woo the woman of your dreams, he finds it extremely difficult to break the ice, and only to learn that his task has been made doubly complex with the dimension of distance getting in the way as Harleen's family uproots to Kolkata. Swearing a pledge that he will marry her, and for all lifetimes, he journeys to the other side of India, happy to just catch a glimpse of his lady love. And so begins a very tough courtship of stolen glances and secret rendezvous against stacked up odds of opposition.

As a romance, this film has plenty put on its plate. A good looking and charismatic cast, beautiful landscapes and visuals thanks to the jetsetting nature of the story from London to Delhi to Kolkata to San Francisco, and a number of fantastic lines of dialogue sprinkled with a reasonable dose of comedy, and touching moments too. What's there not to like and make you fall in love with the characters, and wring your hand at their predicament, most of which were self-inflicted?

Its two stories tell the stark difference between the modern rules of courtship based on practicality, versus that of the more traditional way, though the common thread will always, and has been to follow your heart. The thrill of the chase for instant gratification looks flimsy when set against the old fashioned notion of earning and justifying one's sincerity through action, rather than cheap talk which Saif Ali Khan's Jai is expert at.

The song and dance numbers are OK, though personally nothing was memorable enough to have stuck in my head way after the end credits start rolling. There were fun numbers of course where both leads in their modern roles seem to relish in, highlighting their personal, playful nature as they paint the town red in their secret rendezvous without the knowledge of their newfound partners. I thought there would be enough moments for each to showcase the pain of their ill-informed decisions of breaking up, but all we got was from the guy's point of view, and that was very much after the fact, which I felt time would probably start to heal all wounds, unless of course you let little personal details of milestones in your ex's life to come in and disrupt your current lifestyle.

Though of course in this story's love found, love lost and love gained, there were set pieces which tests the characters resolve, especially the one where their crazy game of double dating on the sly with their new partners, Jai's Jo (Florence Brudenell-Bruce) and Meera's Vikram (Rahul Khanna), rang through some intense pain and uncomfortable jealousy, providing a cliffhanger for the perennial interval.

If there's one thing I dislike and one of the themes as expounded in the film, it's the lack of honesty in the games people play. The romances of old are seemingly simple enough, without facades put up and masks worn to hide true intentions. Contrasted with today's of course, where both Jai and Meera find it too cool to be acknowledging their feelings properly for each other, and go on a round-about journey before they start to realize their true emotions, and face up to them sincerely. Needless to say, between the two stories, I had preferred the older one which is more engaging, honest and wistful even.

I felt that this was a classic showpiece for Saif Ali Khan. His more modern role of Jai has plenty of what makes a suave man tick, though with the tendency of lapsing into moments of Attention Deficit Disorder, rambling off in motor mouth fashion in expressing his innermost thoughts, which in a way helped him rationalize the deeply kept emotions in his heart. But the fun factor was of course having him personify the stoic nature of Veer Singh in the 60s, lovelorn and desperate even to battle against all odds to win over his lady love.

I'm happy for Deepika to have finally moved away from having to play two roles in every film (save for Bachna Ae Haseeno). Contrary to many synopsis out there, she doesn't play the romantic interest opposite Saif Ali Khan's other role, although of course it would probably make it a tad more interesting, though negating Veer Singh's pledge in a certain way. That would also mean a more conventional reincarnation type story that Imtiaz Ali steered clear of with his treatment here. However, I thought in some ways Gisele as the younger Harleen Kaur had upstaged Deepika's screen presence with her quiet and demure stature, though of course Deepika's asset of having that wonderful “stop-all-traffic” smile got exploited by the director through and through to maximum effect in melting even the most stone cold of all hearts.

All in all, Love Aaj Kal didn't manage to hit the heights that its star billing had the potential to, but still came across as a better than average romantic movie that's suitable for a date.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Overheard (Qie Ting Feng Yun / 竊聽風雲)

What's the Latest, Bro?

Between filmmaker/storytellers Alan Mak and Felix Chong, they have unquestionably rejuvenated the Hong Kong Crime Thriller genre from Infernal Affairs to the recent Lady Cop & Papa Crook. I have enjoyed their film offerings to varying degrees, and so far haven't been terribly disappointed. Overheard continues this trend of enjoyment in soaking up their atmospheric pieces with believable, morally ambiguous characters, against a very contemporary backdrop dealing with almost every-day issues - nothing too far fetched that cannot happen, and without the need for gimmicky twists.

The key deal in the film is about information, and how it is King, and can be used as a tradable commodity from making money, to saving lives. Everyone has a price especially when you're in possession of vital, life-making or breaking, juicy insider news from stock tips to who's banging who, and Mak/Chong had imbued their characters with shades of grey rather than the usual boring black and white type, where on one hand you may not condone what they have done, and yet on the other, you would wonder if given the same set of circumstances whether you will succumb to temptation when the same opportunity presents itself.

Which of course leads us to the perennial question of who watches the watchmen. It is always easy to say, like the chief villain in the film (played by Michael Wong), that an organization is built upon honesty and integrity, but face it, it is a human face that's running the operations, and with human failings and trappings, there's the inherent potential that some hanky-panky could be done behind the scenes. Cases of corporate scandals overseas and locally would already be a case in point, and the story in Overheard pushes all the right buttons in gelling such material all together into one solid, edge of your seat movie.

Lau Cheng Wan (fan here, and good to see him back on the big screen!) plays Johnny, who heads an electronic eavesdropping, oops, I mean, surveillance team with buddies and direct reports Gene (Louis Koo) and Max (Daniel Wu). Together, the trio is responsible for bugging the office of a conglomerate suspected of insider trading and shady businesses. As the story goes, Gene and Max happen to exploit their newly gained knowledge for personal gain, and unfortunately as supervisor with a sympathetic heart, Johnny chooses to play along to protect his subordinates, rather than to bust them wide open to their superiors.

The film moves at breakneck speed, and it also managed to provide that little bit of detail toward the personal lives of the main characters. With Gene, his pressure comes from a critically ill son with insurmountable hospital bills to settle. Max on the other hand wants a personal fortune in order to stand up to his future wealthy father-in-law who looks down on him and his social stature. Johnny too is not squeaky clean morally too, as he's having affair with his best friend (Alex Fong) and colleague's wife Mandy (Zhang Jingchu). And in one key scene late in the film, we see how deeply corrupt he can be through the shift of blame, especially when required to save his own skin. So the stage is set for the devil to whisper inside their ears, to take the bait and go for the kill, participating in the insider trading and throwing away their moral authority as cops sworn to uphold the law.

Which of course means even bigger lies created to cover original fibs, and watching them sweat bucketloads each time things go awry, and they have to do deeper down into the rabbit hole. It made me recall a saying my old principal gave one day at the school assembly, that only the truth will set you free. In this case you'd wonder at which point the characters would decide to make a clean break and own up, and therein lies part of the fun in watching the film, getting equally frustrated with some of them as they go further down the slippery slope.

The casting is something that deserves a mention, as it's one of the chief ingredients in holding the movie together, and engaging the audience's attention throughout. Lau Cheng Wan is evergreen, and has so much charisma on screen, that he could have been just sweeping the road for all that matter, and still has this steely surety that with him at your side, nothing could go wrong. His big brother role to the other younger actors in Daniel Wu and Louis Koo spoke volumes as it got translated down to the story, playing the leader of the pack who decides to haul his flock out of trouble. And all three male leads were extremely believable as buddies who'd stick to one another through thick and thin, and in one scene where they were congregating in a flat when Mandy returns, was just about the best scene to demonstrate this camaraderie. The other scene which had me in chuckles, also related to Lau, was that stock market scene. Lau had propelled too fame through an old television series about stock broking as well, and I thought that was a scene with a well placed insider homage to his roots.

Cinematography was excellent as well, with Hong Kong put under the romantic spotlight at times, and one of my favourites involved a montage sequence which Mak/Chong used to perfection in showing the drudgery, monotony and cyclic fashion of a round the clock surveillance, with fatigue and shift changes all rolled nicely into one. Some may take offense at the way the film ended, but I thought it was quiet poetic justice, and almost brought a tear in my eye considering how the villains will stop at nothing, not even if you're a cop, at ensuring those who take an illegal cut of their ill gotten gains, will get dished some just desserts.

While I would have placed this under the highly recommended watch list, by virtue of this film being badly butchered at one point would mean that I would advise, if you prefer your movies uncut, to wait for the DVD, which of course has the additional bonus of the original Cantonese language track as well. And this theatrical presentation here is just another case in point that for the same PG rating, scenes of gore are more tolerated than a make out session in the office. Go figure.

Personal Effects

No Barrier

I suppose Ashton Kutcher is a shoo-in for his role here. Given a romantic relationship between a young man and a much older woman, Kutcher's real life experiences would have probably given him a head start in the auditions (if there was one), since he has walked the talk, and this aspect of the story would come off as no surprise. Then again, for writer-director David Hollander, this could have been getting this talked-about area out of the way, because the story here is richer than what the synopsis had painted, offering an engaging tale about the connections found between lost, broken souls.

The entire film is shrouded and draped in deep melancholy, and even the art direction and sets are nary bright and dandy, despite having weddings, an occasion for happiness, interspersed throughout the narrative. Hollander had crafted a series of multi-faceted characters and they got fleshed out brilliantly through the wonderful individual nuances to bring out the uniqueness of each one, with a common thread between them in having to be found holding onto things from the past, or plagued by the unhappy nightmares that life had dished out to them. For those who have lost someone dear, you'd probably feel just about the same way as the characters here, and especially in that seeking of justice when a crime has been committed against a loved one.

For those who equate Ashton Kutcher with his popular P'unked gag series, you'd probably already know about his flair for comedy, having his fair share of films like What Happens In Vegas and Just Married providing that showcase for his comic timing. For me, there's always this much under-exploited aspect of Kutcher's talent for dramatic flair. Glimpses of it are seen in The Butterfly Effect, one of my favourite films in recent times, and that same angst, despair and sheer quiet determination become more prominent here.

As for Michelle Pfeiffer, who wouldn't welcome her luminous presence? Last seen in Stardust after an extremely long hiatus from the silver screen, her role as the widow Linda brings about a certain sense of regal frailty, being the single parent to bring up a mute son Clay (Spencer Hudson) against difficult odds. Attracted to Kutcher's Walter, their relationship is actually nothing to scoff about, what being a cradle snatcher and all, but because of that instant connection that they share in the pain of having lost someone dear, and having to sit through agonizing court cases that could swing in anyone's favour.

And of course rounding up the star-studded cast is Kathy Bates as Walter's mom, attending therapy sessions to cope with the pain of loss, and learning to let go. Special mention too goes to Spencer Hudson's performance as the gentle giant Clay, who gets to show that he's no pushover when he gets cornered. While that led to some predictable elements toward the end, it wrapped up pretty nicely (though some may say cop-out), in having a rather confusing start iron itself out properly. Hollander managed to bookend the film going full circle, and I thought it was a neat spark of interest at the front in keeping things very fluid to engage the audience's attention.

Personal Effects is quiet, effectively emotive film that got blessed by a great cast highlighting that in moments of grief, there are always those whom we can turn to for comforting solace. It has potential to make it to my end of year shortlist of favourite films, and without a doubt, recommended!

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Plastic City (Dangkou /《蕩寇》)

What Have I Gotten Myself Into

Shot mostly in Brazil and against a blue/green screen, Plastic City had all the trappings of a classic gangster flick. After all, it has Hong Kong veteran Anthony Wong whom we all know can go crazy if the role calls for it, and Japan's Jo Odagiri who is more than just your pretty boy actor as showcased through his range of characters in his filmography. Unfortunately, under the rookie directorship of Yu Lik-Wai, this city became too sprawling a convoluted mess of half-baked ideas and ambitious presentation that fell flat on its face.

Supposedly, it tells the story of two Brazilian-Chinese guys - Kirin (Odagiri) and his "father" Yuda (Wong), who owns an established underground empire built on counterfeit goods. Naturally their clientele are the have-nots who want to have, and their influence extend until the corrupt politicians in scratching each other's backs. For instance, one of the rare examples of a fun scene here involved a senior politician wanting to look good to his electorate, waging war on fake products, only to have the duo's men arrested and immediately let go behind closed doors, as agreed under the table.

Sadly the film turned out to be more flashy and with more style than substance. Suffice to say Yuda got into trouble, and Kirin takes over the family business while plotting to bust Yuda out. Throw in some unbelievable romantic elements to introduce some classic flower vase roles such as Yi Huang's Ocho, whom Kirin tries to get it on with in Yuda's absence.

Many scenes don't make too much sense because they're presented in a non-linear manner, and the danger here is of course no clear demarcation when a drift in timeline happens, which Yu Lik-wai lapses into time and time again. He also seemed to have found a lot more glee in crafting highly charged and stylized action, rather than dig deeper into the motivations of the characters, or sticking to basic storytelling 101 - do not seek to confuse your audience.

Containing many stock images to highlight the seedy underbelly of Sao Paolo, and sometimes the more touristy type images of what Brazil can offer, the presentation is mostly in darkened hues to accentuate the dark side of life that the characters reside in. Speaking mostly in Portuguese, something a lot more irritating here was having to observe the voices being dubbed over, since lip movement and what's being heard seldom gel. Those who cannot stand their audio being out-of-sync, would know what I mean here, with that being the constant, distracting thorn.

The only saving grace here is the eclectic, trance inducing soundtrack, which of course is never enough to mask the stench of a stinking story nor to cover up the shortcomings of a rookie helmer. Only for die-hard fans of Anthony Wong or Jo Odagiri who don't mind giving Yu Lik-Wai a go and a chance.

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Dear Yasmin

Dear Yasmin,

When Allan SMSed me late last night, I was shell-shocked and couldn't believe the 4 words staring out from the screen. Knowing him not as a prankster, and especially so in the past few days when we were all praying for you, I was dumbfounded, as with many of your fans from around the world when they heard of the news.

It was only earlier this month when you shared your slate of activities with me when I asked, since having follow your blog I noticed that you've been travelling quite frequently. You were scheduled to speak in Jogja for an advertising conference, then off to Japan for the final location check for Wasurenagusa. For sure you were very happy, and excited too especially with your first Japanese production, together with the Singapore ones in Go! Thaddeus, as well as Monte Carlo which was mooted way back in 2006, now that 13 Little Pictures may get some money to have the film made.

The first time my friends and I had heard of Monte Carlo, was during the period when you were here for the Gubra World Premiere. It was about the time when we first met, and I still remember the time, where it was late in the evening, and you were doing the press rounds in Singapore. Thomas of Lighthouse Pictures had contacted the movieXclusive team that we're the unfortunate last group and due to schedules being overrun, had to conduct our interview over dinner. Shaiful had written about it, and clearly your big magnanimous heart and down to earth sincerity had won us all over. You were most definitely without airs, and had taken a keen interest in each and every one of us in the big group (in fact one of the, if not the biggest MX had deployed for events) during the interview, never being a one-way street of questions and answers, but we were made to feel like old friends catching up with each other over good food.

I became a fan after Sepet, having to watch the film only earlier in the day and falling deeply in love with it. It's most surreal to have watched a film that have touched me so much, then meeting up almost immediately with the creative force behind it. In fact, all of us had such a great time during those initial few days, that we wondered if we'd ever have the opportunity to meet up again, so much so that we quickly printed that group photo, autographed it at the back with our contact details, and gave it to you before you left for home. But I guess we made all clicked, and you extended an invitation to visit you on the set of Mukhsin, Muallaf, and Talentime which I wasn't able to make it. I can't thank you enough for that chance in being on a real film set, and watching first hand how movie magic got created by you, the cast and your jolly film crew, and not to mention being taken care of by everyone on top of having to shoot a film!

Yasmin with Cast and Crew, Muallaf Wrap

My day job had also given me some opportunities to travel up to KL, and we would contact each other to see if schedules do permit us to meet. Most of the time it was quite uncanny that when I'm in KL, you would happen to be in Singapore or elsewhere for other engagements, but you never fail to call me on my Malaysian number to chat. We did meet up one of those times of course, and it happened to be opposite the hotel I was staying at (which I believe was near your home too), and we've had a short chat session together with musician Hardish Singh. I remembered I had passed you a CD of the pictures and video I've taken on the set of Mukhsin, and you were telling me that if the coffeeshop proprietor had agreed, you would play the Mukhsin screener DVD on the premise's TV.

Last year was a tremendous year, where the Singapore Asian Civilizations Museum hosted its very first Retrospect of your films from Sepet to Mukhsin, and who could forget that technical glitch midway through Mukhsin. But you managed to hold court during the long period of technical difficulty, engaging the audience with meaningful banter, that you've probably saved the Museum tremendous blushes. There's this magical magnetism about you, that when you speak, people listen because you touch their hearts, through your films, your explanations, and your sincerity. When it was announced that the film had to be re-screened early next morning, more than half of the audience turned up to continue where they left off. And you were such a tease too in telling the audience that you have the screener DVD of Muallaf in your bag, that they almost begged for it to be played in place of Mukhsin :-)

At Asian Civilizations Museum

I am always amazed at your energy levels too. Having to travel to Singapore for that retrospect, holding a Q&A session, and then taking us (myself, Richard, local filmmaker Sanif Olek, Sherman Ong, organizing representative Grace Lau, and new found friends/fans Christopher Gomez and Vanessa Ching) to dinner, followed by that late night DVD shopping at Mustafa, where almost everyone went hunting for your DVDs, and getting you to autograph them for keepsakes. It was one of the longest hang-out sessions we had, until almost past 3am which we grudgingly decided to let you go so that you will look good for a television interview the next day. Knowing that you're always game for a bawdy joke or comment, then allow me to indulge in an episode which you probably weren't aware of. I suppose you still carry around that small "sauce-bottle" that Grace had gotten at Mustafa for you, for washing purposes in case toilets you visit anywhere in the world turn out to be not so sanitary. Imagine her being tickled pink at knowing that you actually DO carry it around and DO use it, when I saw you whisk it out when you were here for the Muallaf Q&A, and told her about it.

As you told me to, I have set aside some funds to get to Japan to visit you on the Wasurenagusa set, and also to hit the screening of Talentime at the Tokyo International Film Festival this year. I had missed last year's Muallaf festival screening at Tokyo because tickets were already sold out very early, and that is a testament to your popularity since Sepet had took home Best Asian Film at an earlier edition of the festival. I hope to be able to watch Talentime with the Japanese audience, though this time we will definitely be missing your presence amongst us. If I do make it there, I will let you know how it went, just like how I told you of the audience's reaction right after Mukhsin's screening in Hong Kong, which was a rousing applause at the end of it.

The other bit of information you're always interested to know, will of course be whether I've fallen in love again. It's always something that you'll bring up each time we chatted, grilling me about what's keeping me, and what I look for most in a woman, apart from big tits and long legs (haha, I'm quoting you on that one!), though I can never forget your encouraging words when I tend to drift into indifference and nonchalance, that my ex-es were just the wrong ones who had to bugger off to make way for the right one. If I do meet her, I'll introduce Yasmin Ahmad to her, that here's an exceptionally wonderful lady that I've come across earlier in my life.

Shaiful mentioned at his site that he and I still remember that you told us to get our hands dirty in making a feature film as opposed to experimenting with shorts. And we learnt that so long as the story we want to tell is from the heart and sincere, let there be no detractors or criticisms put us down or discourage us. I guess this one would be a fine comedy, and hopefully it'll make you laugh:

You've left behind a series of beloved ads and a handful of heartwarming films, and for sure they will all be appreciated by generations to come, with keen lessons and observations to be learnt from, positive attributes such as Love, Forgiveness and Tolerance.

Rest in peace Kak Min. You are sorely missed, and for sure you're at a much better place now.

Forever missing your generosity and laughter,

Saturday, July 25, 2009


He Man

One of the reasons why I'm watching this, is because of the probable rising star in Channing Tatum. No stranger to the teenage demographics because of his starring role in Step Up (and cameo in Step Up 2 the Streets), and in the upcoming lead role in summer blockbuster G.I. Joe as Duke, Fighting is one of those films that gets him to showcase his sculpted and chiselled features for a role that's more brawn than brains.

The film may have made itself look like the equivalent of a poor cousin of Fight Club, where the participants observe similar rules of silence since it's underground after all, but story wise it's anything but, because this effort is clearly trying to find balance between drama and action, with the latter supposedly being the highlight, but eventually turning its title into a misnomer. It wasn't that the fight sequences weren't intense – they were like Fearless proportions in having the Russians and the Chinese become more skillful adversaries, however the techniques here were more street and raw, so don't go about looking for “killer/signature” moves. Think two people fighting for survival and cash, and you get the drift that fanciful patterns are just a time waster to getting instant results.

Given only 3.5 fights in the film, I thought the dramatic elements would be more engaging since they form the bulk of the screen time. The story by Robert Munic and director Dito Montiel jumped straight into the thick of things, painting the character of Shawn MacArthur (Tatum) as a street-wise sidewalk trader whose temper and fisticuffs led to the attention of small time scam artist Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard), who sees Shawn as a possible ticket out of both their monetary empty lives. Harvey introduces Shawn into the avenue of quick bucks through participating in a New York underground street fighting circuit, and taking Shawn under his wing, they both set out to take the circuit by storm.

Then the story falls short a little in trying to stuff too much into too little. It threw in an invisible parent who links Shawn up with childhood adversary Evan Hailey (Brian J White) whom you know will feature at some point in a brawl, a token love interest in waitress and single mother Zulay Valez (Zulay Henao), and themes such as believing in oneself, which was quite weakly delivered. In fact, there's not much positive themes coming out of this film, since there's always the shadow of corruption and the thought of throwing the fights looming over the characters' heads. The story also forces you to accept that Shawn has immense brute force after all these years (OK, so it didn't completely forget to add that complimentary training montage), and an incredible amount of luck which seems to be constantly shining on him.

There were attempts to raise the bar through the exploration of the brotherhood and trust issues, since it takes quite a lot for a hustler to team up with a stranger who had the power to bankrupt everyone if he doesn't step up. But everything became glossed over very quickly, with every speed bump and roadblock in the lead characters friendship always quickly resolved and forgiven. If only things in real life were so easy, then again, these two men know that their partnership has to be intact since they're speaking the language of money.

Fighting offers nothing new, nor excitement as it sets itself up for an expected finale. Terrence Howard seemed to have taken a step back in this role which doesn't offer him a chance to continue his filmography of impressive roles. If you do intend to watch this, then you got to be warned that almost everyone mumbles, or at times go through a great degree of improvisation in the dialogue, since they make it a habit to say something, then trail off, before adding something else over again.

The Hangover

So What The Heck Just Happened?

I guess you'll probably know by now the yardstick I use for comedies, and that's if I don't laugh until my tears flow uncontrollably, then it's not 5-star funny. Granted that there wasn't any comedic situation here that had warranted my laughter from the belly and opened my tear ducts, it did have some classic moments that would bring out some genuine mirth, albeit sporadically, though the film managed to fuel itself up to last the 100 minute distance.

Doug (Justin Bartha) is about to get married, and as a rite of passage, his best male pals in schoolteacher Phil (Bradley Cooper), dentist Stu (Ed Helms) and brother-in-law-to-be Alan (Zach Galifianakis) decide that they should have a no holds barred bachelor's party in sin city Las Vegas. After all, whatever happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. But who would've counted upon a rag-tag group to deliver him there and back safely and on time for his big day, since Phil's pretty much the frat boy leader of the group, just too eager to let his hair down, Stu's toeing the thin line of being the party-pooper, having to deal with an overbearing girlfriend, and Alan's just plain Rain Man dumb, which of course is perfect for some nonsensical one-liners and moments.

After a wild night out which we don't get to see (and so to keep you guessing), Doug's found to be missing, and to add to that, Jon Lucas and Scott Moore's story sets everything up for the events soon to follow, planting elements such as those which you've seen in the trailer – a broken tooth, a baby, a tiger in the bathroom, a hotel suite totally trashed and a stolen police car. Every element links to something that happened in the last 12 hours, and it's up to the trio to establish the series of events from the clues presented, so as to find out where their groom could possibly be.

It plays out like fusion of a comedy and a light hearted mystery, since none of them could even remotely remember what they did (and that too is not a stone left unturned). The fun factor came from how the trio of Cooper-Helms-Galifianakis share some incredible chemistry as boys who discover their hand firmly within the cookie jar, having to untie the knotty mess that they find themselves in. And to add to the delight, a lot of events happening in proper chronological order, have plenty of random bits to keep you tickled pink, before you realize that they all actually made sense, especially when you have enough clues to piece them all together. After this I'm on the lookout for future Galifianakis projects as it seemed that he's now a contender up the Jack Black's niche alley.

Director Todd Phillips had thrown in plenty of the staple profanity and token nudity commonly found in Hollywood mass comedies, and not forgetting racial stereotypes such as drug dealers and effeminate gangster chiefs all for the sake of eliciting some laughs. Something you can credit Phillips for though, is trying to sustain a comedy but unleashing the funny bits in a restrained manner so as to evenly spread out laughter, though the last 20 minutes to its inevitable finale did seem to fizzle out a little, until the end credits roll for that photo montage.

The Hangover boasts a contemporary pop soundtrack, though the winner in the film is of course Las Vegas itself, with the film being quite a shrewd city promotional video, with its glitzy night time neon lights, and showcasing a host of activities one could get into, such as casinos that never sleep, and quickie-weddings in small specialized churches for that purpose. Having spent a week at the same city, it's a treat of course to revisit on screen some of the places I've previously set foot on, and if opportunities present themselves again, I'm pretty sure I'm going back.

Comedy of the year this may not be in my books, but it does have enough to make it pretty delightful to sit through, especially if you're in the company of buddies who share the same traits as the characters, or sharing the same sense of humour.

A Frozen Flower (Ssang-hwa-jeom)

Skin Flick

A Frozen Flower got billed here as “The Year's Sexiest Blockbuster”, and writer-director Ha Yu's movie could probably be also billed as an equivalent to Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower, given its period setting and schemes within a royal household, plenty of gorgeous costumes, opulent production sets, with a tinge of wire-fu martial arts and a chock load of mixed romances thrown in for good measure too.

Set in the Korean Koryo era where it's under the control of the Mongol's Yuan Dynasty, the current gay Koryo King (Joo Jin Mo) sets up his own elite bodyguard troops, recruiting 36 young boys to undergo extreme training and eliciting pledges of unfettered loyalty from this group of trusted men. Amongst all he favours Hong Lim (Jo In Sung), and spent plenty of personal and quality time with his pet, from the open plains hunting to the courtyards training, right down to the games both play in the royal bedroom. Nepotism runs in the royal household, since it's an open secret as to why the King appoints Lim as chief of his bodyguards, undoubtedly also because of the advantage of up close and personal already from within the royal chambers.

The male-centric world soon got shaken by the introduction of the Yuan princess to be Queen (Song Ji Hyo) in an alliance forged by marriage, and I guess you can see how this third party could cause severe problems. Pressure mounts when the royal family is expected to bear an heir, otherwise a successor to the throne will be appointed. This displeases the King of course, given someone on the outside waiting in the wings for his demise, but then his sexual preference also meant that he can't get it up. So in desperation, he crafts a crazy plan in over to hang onto power, and that's to order his lover Hong, to impregnate the Queen and produce an heir whom he will accept as his own, thereby protecting his throne. The Queen reluctantly agrees of course, but as a woman who accepted to be loyal to the kingdom, she's got to do what is best for her husband. As for Hong, well, it's duty toward both King and Country.

What this does is in fact to push both the Queen and Hong into an uncontrollable sexual awakening, which the rest of the film pretty much centres upon, dealing in relationships, and the vast emotions that come along with it, including the negative ones like jealously and ultimately, rage and hatred. While at first Hong couldn't get himself to betray his first love, I guess it probably is easier for any guy to treat sex as sex without an emotional baggage, though it did tickle Hong's heart that perhaps the female of the species was more interesting, and his breakaway from a male-centric relationship, was seen as a betrayal and treason to the King.

As for the Queen, the power of fleshly pleasures from this perverse consummation of a marriage, sees to it that she gains some strength in taking over some control in her restricted life, and plots to seduce Hong even more so that she could satisfy her lust, which for both parties, transform into a healthy heterosexual relationship in which the King obviously despises. I suspect there will be some quarters cheering the film in depicting that homosexuality can be cured by a good dose of sex to open their minds, but I thought it was more of a matter of choice and opportunity being presented here, since the sexual preference get contrasted between Hong and the King's is quite clear – one's obviously following the heart, the other his orders, which slowly developed into silent insubordination, before the heart fully takes over. In any case this romantic triangle will push and probe when you're viewing this, as there are plenty of insights to gain from if you were to put yourself into the shoes of either party, and determine how you would react to the sequence of lustful events.

The film of course goes beyond love and lust issues, although Hong and the Queen go at each other like jackrabbits. There's also a subplot involving the usual political intrigue (having the film set in a period setting and not dwelling on this seems wasted), with political assassinations bringing about some major set action sequences. I felt it would have probably benefitted audiences with no clue about the Yuan dynasty control over Korea at the time if this was given a little more focus, but I suppose it's left to further reading on our own. Or had a bit more about the bodyguard unit because they were being utilized for a lot more activities like counter-espionage rather than just plain protection purposes.

This being Singapore, you'll get to see the more explicit heterosexual scenes between the bisexual and the straight woman quite intact, though the only (at least the only one that made it) homosexual one was butchered for the most parts. Those who prefer their films intact could go opt for the DVD instead, as the Koreans have already released this, which includes a limited, unrated 2-disc edition.

Public Enemies


It looks like Michael Mann just can't get enough of playing cops and robbers, and with previous efforts from Heat to Miami Vice, he just about goes to show that he can weave some exciting scenes of pursuit, testosterone charged shoot em ups, and parallels between those on opposite sides of the law. What more, he has the services of Johnny Depp and Christian Bale as his leading men, set in a time during the Great Depression where desperate men turn to desperate measures to survive.

Mann doesn’t waste time and puts you smack in the middle of the story, introducing you to the John Dillinger (Depp) character through a very daring prison break. Not his of course, but orchestrated by him to free his merry men, to form his band of brothers to rob banks with. Unfortunately though, the bank robberies that made it to the final cut wasn’t as sexy as those in the trailer, and doesn’t offer you too much techniques or tactics into breaking into those bank vaults full of cash, and neither does it add to the Dillinger character other than one-liners telling the public that this is nothing personal, highlighting his code of honour even amongst thieves.

As for Christian Bale’s lawman Agent Melvin Purvis, he gets introduced opposite Channing Tatum’s Pretty Boy Floyd, and gets put in a no-nonsense light somewhat like an Elliot Ness type, and gets personally handpicked by J Edgar Hoover (chillingly played by Billy Crudup) to lead the charge in capturing Dillinger. With pride in serving in the very roots of the FBI’s formation, and with great belief in the force’s standard operating procedure and cutting edge (at the time) scientific methods, Purvis comes across as a very straight laced contrast to Dillinger’s free-wheeling, devil may care attitude. Which of course sets up the initial differences between the two men more than just merely being on the different sides of the law.

However, Public Enemies seem to be, like Dillinger, always in a hurry. While it's paced incredibly well to plough through its rich material of a famous American bank robber during the Great Depression era, very little gets said about him as a person other than his romantic pursuits. His romance with Marion Collitard's Billie Frechette seemed to stick out like sore thumb and presented a tangent in the narrative, with too much desperate focus on it being that sliver of a personal piece on the notorious bank robber. Collitard had little challenge in a role which began quite interestingly with the romantic games people play, but fizzled out with time, being no more than a glorified flower vase in a role that could've been tackled by any fresh faced ingenue.

Mann seemed to be pulling his punches with a lot of subplots going underdeveloped. There were plenty to be explored, such as the code of loyalty between Dillinger and his band of merry men, or even the formation of the FBI could've been tackled in more depth especially since the film included the grilling of the unpopular J. Edgar Hoover (Billy Crudup), whom I felt had enough fuel for a tussle of hearts for Melvin Purvis to handle. I can already imagine with John Woo at the helm, sans the more balletic gun fights, these are areas that Woo would probably exploit, and areas which could have made this a more interesting, meaningful film than a shiny, glossy one. Not to say that Mann didn't try, which can be seen in those excellent scenes with Dillinger not being able to keep up with the times of white-collared crime versus brute-force robbery with diminishing returns, and being written off as old-fashioned. That too was in great contrast again to the FBI's newer, modern methods, which didn't prove to be as successful as the tried and tested process of crime investigations and problem solving.

So what's the verdict of the match up between Johnny Depp and Christian Bale? Like Mann's Heat which had the much touted about pairing of Robert De Niro and Al Pacino on opposite sides of the law, or like other much touted collaborations such as Ridley Scott's American Gangster starring Denzel Washington and Russell Crowe, which is another biography of a more contemporary gangster, Public Enemies join that list in having its star billing spending less than a handful of screen time in the same frame. They rarely meet since they are adversaries on opposites, though here when they do, it's nothing more than some mediocre exchange of words. Nothing too exciting about it, which is somewhat of a pity since these two gentlemen are just about the hottest property in Tinseltown right now.

With cameos by Leelee Sobieski and Channing Tatum in blink and you miss roles, Public Enemies felt a little short-changed in depth, with wasted potential from being a contemporary classic such as how Brian De Palma's classy The Untouchables which was also set around the same period, with a famed lawmen and an infamous crook as its lead characters.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

Murderer (Saat Yan Fann / 殺人犯)

Don't Accuse Me

The credentials attached to this production is somewhat stellar, and I got to admit I was hooked by the trailer, which stylishly promised something of quality hidden behind the very obvious red herrings thrown around. Lensed by Lee Pin Bing and starring Aaron Kwok, whom I've grown to admire his choice of projects which highlight his developing credibility as a serious actor, this film started off strong, but ended with an unsatisfying, weakened whimper in a schizophrenic manner.

Unlike C+ Detective, which also recently starred Kwok in a cop role, and one which I had enjoyed and came with a number of surprises, Murderer got let down by the chief factor in direction and vision. While some may point the blame squarely at the story, I thought it was something that could be forgiven, since it needed something quite ludicrous to pull off that sense of disbelief that would drive Kwok's Chief Inspector Ling totally nuts, and make everyone roll their eyes if he were to tell the truth. And what more than to make his character morally ambiguous as well, not a squeaky clean do-gooder boy scout, with that shade of grey that hovers around even the best amongst us.

The film started off literally with a bang, where we can rudely interrupted with a man who had fallen from great heights, and coupled with a bone-crunching impact. A cop is found at the foot of a block, barely alive, and on the upper floors lie Ling, completely dazed. When Ling wakes up, he suffers from memory loss, locking inside his subconscious some very vital clues to a serial killer whom his team had been investigating. A Memento-ish premise has been set, and you're primed for a thrilling ride, complete with complementary scenes of blood, gore and shocking quick edits.

Naturally he becomes a suspect, and kudos to the story though in throwing up scenarios that all point toward him, from the murder weapon and location of macabre killings right down to irrefutable evidence that firmly indicates Ling's involvement, one way or another. Aaron Kwok does his best in providing that sense of despair, which on one hand he tries to uncover the truth and the identity of the serial killer, while on the other constantly worrying if he's truly in fact guilty, and through his dubious actions, make you wonder if he's either a Jekyll and Hyde, or just plain poetic justice if he were to be investigating himself.

It developed adequately well up until the half way mark, where until then the story allowed Kwok to run wild with his emotions, showcasing a range that showed why he's a Best Actor award recipient. But alas even Kwok's ace performance failed to make up for director Roy Chow's shortcoming. I felt that while it may be necessary to show hand at the mid way point just who Ling's cunning adversary was, never mind if it could be a tad unbelievable, but the way it was handled was just plain sloppy.

Imagine having to listen to the usual villanous monologue bragging just how smart the plot so far had been, or watch how a sequence of events had happened in order to develop this feeling of vendetta. It tried to redeem itself by occasionally suggesting to you that things may probably not be what it seemed, but instead of opting for a more psychological challenge, it laid everything out on the table verbatim, and failed to continue playing you, the audience, in keeping alive that sliver of hope that the revelation could be something more subtly handled, rather than being so verbatim and shoved down your throat as the truth.

I had even secretly hoped for a dream sequence where one wakes up and finds what had happened was nothing but a figment of imagination - I would be pleased with that development in this movie, so that would indicate to you just how badly handled it all was. And to makes things worse, there's this constant shuffle in the last 10 minutes between psychological drama (too little too late) to blood curdling and spouting moments of gore, and even attempting a Seven to a certain extent, which unfortunately dragged the scene a little too long for that sense of gory impact.

A whole list of supporting cast, such as Cheung Siu Fai, Chin Kar Lok, Josie Ho playing Ling's sister Minnie, and Ning Chang as his wife Hazel, all fail to add any depth to the movie, being rather throwaway characters in this story which had as much potential as 20th Century Boys (with clues that are locked away in the past, and told through flashbacks), but let down by direction, failing to translate something more cerebral without casting a shadow of comedy in its lacklustre execution and delivery.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Jack Neo's Where Got Ghost? / 吓到笑

The last horror comedy we had on our shores was Kelvin Tong's Men in White which unfortunately didn't draw in the crowds. He might have success with his The Maid which helped to establish Tong as a bona-fide commercial filmmaker, but the horror-comedy genre had eluded him.

Now Jack Neo is embarking on the same genre, the Hor-medy as exclaimed in the trailer, and given his track record in comedy, read: at least the masses turn up in droves almost each time he releases a movie, and probably THE most successfully commercial director in our contemporary cinema, it's almost a no-brainer in predicting just how this would turn out in terms of box office receipts.

"Where Got Ghost?" is made up of 3 short stories of about 90 minutes each, one of which centers on reservist soldiers. I thought Neo had shrewdly casted Ah-Beng favourite Ah Nan in a role that looked pretty much having leapt out of Pulau Hantu, having his character involved in many a local wisecrack about the army. Neo being an officer himself, would undoubtedly have a wealth of material to tap from, not to mention from every corner of NS life that you always get to hear about from friends.

And from the trailer, it also seemed that Neo could go back to parodying his other films, or hijacking his own lines to further milk some laughter from the audience, such as the perennial "Have You Eaten Yet?" which found its way here. Glimpses of the trailer also revealed Jack Neo being back in front of the camera and reassembling his cast from Money No Enough 2 probably as the 3 siblings and their wives, and Lao-Beng Richard Low likely to have reprised his character (or at least the characterization) from The Best Bet.

It's not rare that Jack Neo had quite quickly made another film for release in the same year, the earlier offering being the relatively less successful (amongst his filmography) Love Matters during the Lunar New Year period, so I guess to make up for that lacklustre perfrmance, he's targeting the equally lucrative National Day cum Lunar 7th Month Hungry Ghost period to make up for the shortfall.

Here's the synopsis on each of the shorts:

"Where Got Ghost?" (“吓到笑") is a Horror-Comedy Chinese Movie. 3-in-1 Horror tales told in a good old comedy fashion.

Roadside Got Ghost
Swindlers Cai, Fu and Shou have a new scam - using a hotline to make random calls to people, promising them fortune. Those who win the lottery are required to pay commission to Cai or be scared into submission.
One day, Cai receives a phone call. The caller gives Cai deploying the same hotline trick. Believing it is a copycat of his scam, Cai naturally disregards the call, but goes ahead and tries his luck with the given number anyway. To his surprise, he wins. Mysterious happenings assume...

Forest Got Ghost
Nan and Lei return for army reservists' training. They learn that the place they will be send is the widely known 'haunted hill', so they take the shortcut. Suddenly, the 'haunted hill' seems to come alive - tombstones, red dress spirit and other strange sightings. Then it rains. Nan and Lei seek refuge at Yin Yin's house, a girl they just met. Little do they know their road to hell has been cut short...

House Got Ghost
It is the Lunar 7th Month, weird sightings happen at home, children can only think it is the late mother's doings. The truth slowly surface as they begin their road trip only this time it seems to be more than what they bargain for...

Monday, July 20, 2009

[DVD] All Hat (2007)

Watching The Cows Come Home

If you haven't watched paint dry before, this film comes close to filling in that experience. Set in a quiet, lazy perhaps, small town where the happy campers are all debt ridden, and horseracing being a form of escapism, this film doesn't have a lot of material going for it, except to extrapolate quite painfully a story that could have had a lot of plain sailing moments thrown out. All the characters are in need of money, and it takes one hare-brained idea to translate it to riches for all its participants. Except perhaps for its chief villain, a spoilt brat looking at how to unfreeze his father's assets.

Starring a relative bunch of unknowns, All Hat doesn't thrill, doesn't engage and it certainly didn't offer what the synopsis on the DVD sleeve had promised. If anything, it just went to show how boring a film can result in, without really trying, by stuffing it with a whole lot of disillusioned characters all resigned to their fates. Except for 2 silly brothers who brought on that occasional laughter (only because it's so bad), everything else felt very contrived, as it trotted toward the finishing line.

Unless you're up for some very plain drama, you might want to better spend your time elsewhere.

You can read my DVD review of All Hat at by clicking on the logo below.


Sunday, July 19, 2009

8 From the 80s

This was posted very much earlier over at Twitch as part of a Mega-Twitch-O-Meter listing, so here it is reproduced. You can refer to the actual Twitch post here and of course the contributions made by the other gifted writers.

The only changes here are the pics, so here we go:


So this is probably not the most awesome list out there, but for a boy who grew up in the good old 80s, they were certainly easily available for repeated screenings thanks to the trusty VHS player. Undoubtedly most of the tapes have already been worn out and succumbed to humidity in this part of the world, they’re very much cherished to a boy growing up on Hollywood fodder, until his discovery of a wider world of films out there.

Find out which ones tickled my fancy and were usually placed close by my video player back in the days of growing up, 8 from the 80s, right after the break!

0001. Clash of the Titans

I recall watching this in a large cinema hall way before multiplexes took over, and the hall I was in, had these awesome winged horse statues flanking the screen, just like Pegasus in the film. If it’s Greek mythology on screen, how can one forget about this film, where gods and jealous goddesses manipulate clay figures to their whims and fancies, and the monsters ranging from minotaurs to a sea-dwelling Kraken ever so willing to devour the virginal sacrifice placed before it. I remember being scared stiff with appearance of the nasty looking Medusa, turning away lest I get turned into stone myself if I were to stare. A remake has been announced recently, though I’ll be glad if it could capture some of the charm of the old film which had some awesome stop-motion.

0010. Gremlins

We all know the strict requirements if we’re to keep this forbidden Mogwai, but trust us humans to break all the rules in a jiffy, from feeding after midnight and dousing the poor fella with water, leading to a Christmasy mad-cap caper where these little critters wreck utter havoc in a small town. Who would have thought that Chris Columbus could have come up with something as wickedly fun and nasty as this, and nothing is as riotous as a bunch of Gremlins critters going around Christmas caroling, and that unmistakable (and quite hummable if you ask me) signature tune. I’d never forget how Billy’s mom single-handedly fends them off and dishes out extreme punishment in her own kitchen! Hey, and it starred Phoebe Cates too!

0011. Ghost Busters

Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis crafted an extremely delightful action-comedy-adventure where paranormal professors bandied together to form a lucrative spirit capturing business out of an unused fire station and an old white hearse. I’m in stitches each time I recall that absolutely hilarious moment where Moranis got chased by a beast and ended up staring through the window of a high end restaurant, with its diners being pretty nonchalant about his plight. A couple of pop cultural icons got created, such as Ray Parker Jr.’s unmistakable theme song, that anti-ghosts logo, and the Stay-Puff Marshmallow Man’s stomping of New York. Now we’re waiting for the much rumored third movie to gain traction, whether it would be a direct sequel or a reboot of sorts with a fresh faced cast. Hey Dan and gang, the neighborhood’s getting strange enough, and the fans are indeed calling!

0100. Back to the Future

Great Scott! It’s been almost 25 years already?! But hey I still don’t see any flying cars zipping around the skies, or that one size fits all Nike trainers hitting the market yet! Wait I’m jumping the gun on its sequel, so let me zip back to 1985 in my DeLorean…......... Probably one of the earliest time-travel movies that I can watch on a repeat loop (until I subconsciously knew all the lines by heart), I’m always left in amazement at how tightly-knit the story was throughout in linking up the reel 1985 and 1955 that Marty McFly got himself into, from set designs to conversational dialogue. Wonderfully encapsulating all things 80s and 50s in one film, this had spawned many playground bullies adopting the Biff Tannen knuckle-on-head rap, so thankfully I didn’t look anything like Crispin Glover’s shy-loser George McFly with his floppy fringe. Calvin Klein also probably benefited from that huge product, erm, character placement. Purple, too!

0101. Top Gun

To a kid, it’s cool to rule the air piloting million dollar F-14 Tomcats with call-signs such as Maverick, Iceman, and erm, Goose? While it’s never politically quite accurate, this film had its fair share of aerial dogfights to thrill audiences during its time, although watching it now it’s more of the same old repeated scenes of necks craning around the cockpit and the shifting of joysticks while pressing all the right buttons (to fire off various armament that is). And all these from Tony Scott before he opted for his now frequently preferred frenetic MTV styled dizzying visuals and jump cuts. Kilmer and Cruise’s “You can be my wingman” statements will also never be out of bromance fashion. Hey, and it starred Meg Ryan too!

0110. Robocop

My first exposure to a Paul Verhoeven film would be this part-man-part-machine-all cop law enforcer, and one of the things that continued to stick was how cheesy those television commercials were. At a time before film classification, we either get something uncut, or badly butchered, and surprisingly, Robocop survived relatively unscathed over here at the theatres, going by memory, though on the goggle box, needless to say how Peter Weller’s Murphy got KO-ed was given the chop. I can still hear my jaw drop on the ground when Robo got unleashed in his first night out at Detroit City to a pulsating score, equipped with a non-compromising attitude thanks to his prime directives, and a nifty piece of an automatic handgun with precision targeting to unleash mayhem.

0111. Die Hard

Yippee-Ki -Yay! Before Bruce Willis’ John McClane started battling terrorists all over a city, coupled with large mind-numbing explosions, and featuring aircraft like a jumbo jet to a fighter plane firing on all cylinders, he started off quite humbly under the directorship of John McTiernan battling Euro-villains represented by the cool, calculated Alan Rickman, whose gang took over an LA office tower for its precious bond papers locked away in a vault. Barefoot and clad in a grimy singlet, it’s a great reversal of a hostage situation where the hunters become prey to a lone cop armed with plenty of wit.

1000. Batman

Oooh, I’ve got a live one here! Nobody could escape the Bat-juggernaut of 1989, and set to rest the campy 60s television series. Jack Nicholson got top billing as The Joker, though Michael Keaton had to convince almost everyone that Tim Burton had made the right choice in the Caped Crusader. Everywhere you turned, was a bat-logo emblazoned on almost every conceivable object, and the set designs by the late Anton Furst had everyone talking, especially that of the sleekest, and most bad-ass looking cinematic Batmobile to date. (The tumbler’s a tank, so it’s no count for sleekness). Before Batman had begun and transformed into The Dark Knight, this and Batman Returns were my personal favorites, before Joel Schumacher arrived to screw it all up.

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Crank: High Voltage

I Need a Body Rub

Crank: High Voltage is the ultimate guilt trip for an action junkie. Just to state for the record that I had parked my brains at the door and totally enjoyed the very first Crank film when many had condemned it because of its WTF ending, but I thought it did serve its purpose since there were plenty of implausible situations our hero Chev Chelios, played by one of my favourite contemporary action stars, Jason Statham, got put through. Implausibility seems to be the buzzword here as well, being consciously mentioned very early on in a direct continuation from where we left off in its predecessor, 3 months after Chelios ran amok in the city.

Basically the writers-directors Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor had crafted a totally wicked exploitation film in this follow up to Crank, that it single-handedly put the recent Tarantino-Rodriguez Grindhouse movies to shame. They have shifted into higher gear from the first film and went absolutely nuts with the visuals, employing a whole range of tricks and fads just to pump the adrenaline, or electrically charge the camera into one mad rush. Sure it's dizzying for some and certainly not everyone will come to appreciate the madness and the fun that probably went behind the scenes in this action-comedy.

Yes comedy, in the most politically-incorrect manner as possible, some of which may be cheap potshots that stem primarily too from the languages and insults employed. As mentioned this is wicked exploitation at its contemporary finest, with plenty, and I mean plenty of gratuitous nudity, violence, sex, cursings, and gore, with Chev Chelios at either end of dishing out rude punishment, or be at the receiving end of some himself. He's indestructible as we learn from Crank, and Crank 2 continues to play on this, with his heart now ripped out for a triad boss (played by the late David Carradine in thick disguise) and replaced by an artificial one with enough charge so that a secondary operation (involving his wiener) could be performed.

So begins a mad chase for what belongs to him, and being in contacts with old mates like underground doctor Miles (Dwight Yoakam) and his main squeeze Eve Lydon (Amy Smart) who once again strips down and gets it going with Chev in full view of the public. Expect a lot more zaniness thanks to a whole host of one dimensional characters thrown into the thick of things, either as mindless hoodlums to add to the body count, or thrash-talking clingy whores played by Bai Ling who was so unbelievably bad, complete with repetitive moves and near incomprehensible diction, that she was good just for laughs.

For those who think this is offensive, then steer clear. The movie never for a single moment took itself seriously, so neither should you. And the fact that it had some illogical scenes, such as those Ultraman-Godzilla type scene just thrown in out of the blue and so random, reinforces the crazy factor in Crank 2. And the finale no holds barred whack fest by who's who and who's not (trust me, you won't bother too much) left me in stitches just because of the countless exploitative moments the filmmakers have paid their homage to.

Oh, don't head out the doors once the credits start rolling, as there are some incredibly hilarious out-takes which are strategically inserted throughout the end credits roll. Will there be another Crank movie? I'm not sure, but if there is, then I need no open invitation because I'm so there already!

Juice Up!

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

High School Couples

Love is in the air. While the muggle world and the world of magic are under siege from the forces of evil, I guess there's always time for our growing teenagers to be frustrated more by the affairs of the heart, rather than be troubled with whether the fate of the world is within your control to steer from collapse, unless of course you're Harry Potter, the Chosen One.

The sixth movie and installment of the lucrative J. K. Rowling brainchild, I initially had my reservations about the last film being split into two just because it directly translates, going by the immense box office response, into billions, but the story has now matured immensely into something darker and more sinister. Gone are the more innocent childhood days of matriculation into Hogwarts, looking forward to school to learn new skills and somehow being caught up with the looming of Voldermort's resurrection of sorts, but now as seniors, that premise becomes closer and all the more life threatening as events in the last few films had demonstrated.

The film leapt directly into the thick of things, so for those like me who are not too familiar with the books, then you may find yourself lost from the start. But I guess that'll leave you engaged up front in guessing, being part of the tension building and fun, so fret not, as everything will be unravelled in good time thanks to the excellent narrative presentation by director David Yates, and of course, the strength of J.K. Rowling's source material. As with the past films, a little bit about Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) and the earlier generation of magicians get slowly peeled away as the film progressed, and continues to bait you hook line and sinker as you immerse yourself thoroughly in wanting to find out more.

As already mentioned, since the first Harry Potter movie we've literally accompanied our child wizards from their younger days, through to puberty and now into teenagers with raging hormones, and this particular installment had a good bulk of it dealing with boy-girl relationship pangs, with love triangles such as the Ron Weasley-Hermione Granger-Lavender Brown (Rupert Grint, Emma Watson and Jessie Cave respectively), or a developing one between Harry and Ron's sister Ginny (Bonnie Wright). Needless to say there are countless of other supporting characters all eager to snag a date with some of the characters mentioned, or have desires to do so through love potions even!

It's a whole range of emotions on display here, where infatuations, unrequited love, betrayal, envy and jealousy all rolled in at certain points, and truly the actors here deserve full credit for their very matured performances, especially in a heartbreaking one where Harry and Hermione find themselves in the same boat, and then realizing that affairs of the heart aren't always that easy to learn nor to master like their classroom lessons and practical tests.

On the larger scale of things, we see less cutesy elements that were the hallmark of the first few films, as this episode sets the gears of Voldermort's sinister plan into motion. Everything in this film is draped in perpetual black or darkened greys, with less than a handful of daylight scenes in it. Besides dabbling with various romances, there's this sense of urgency raging throughout the pacey narrative, which has tension, action, romance, adventure and comedy effectively fused to entertain an audience.

New characters get introduced such as new Potions Professor Horace Slughorn (Jim Broadbent) who has a hidden and mysterious link to the young Voldermort, and so do the old ones like the various school going children, and villains from fellow peer Draco Malfoy (Tom Felton) who's planning something as instructed for the dark lord, to the Death Eaters like Fenir Greyback (Dave Legeno) and Bellatrix Lestrange (Helena Bonham Carter) whom Harry has a personal vendetta against. Events such as Quiddich too return to the big screen after a long awaited hiatus, although this time round it was certainly a Ron Weasley show.

The special effects again prove to be a wow-factor. Some set action sequences were crafted independently from the book to provide a more menacing edge to the story and to allow the characters to engage in more magical fights, but also served to up the excitement when it mattered. For the last hour it became more like a Harry Potter and Dumbledore (Michael Gambon) partnership as they embark on a quest which resembled very much like Dragonball's, so much so that his best friends Ron and Hermione get sidelined and parked aside for quite a fair bit (the former didn't even have a speaking line at the ending scene of the film even!) but again Dumbledore demonstrated his prowess, just like he did in The Order of the Phoenix, and the visuals were nothing less than stellar and so beautiful to look at - an impressive rage of an all-round fire which also nodded in the direction of The Ten Commandments, rumoured to have taken about 8 months to render.

Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince joins Star Trek as my choice of bona-fide blockbusters this Summer season. If anyone had doubted whether David Yates is the right choice for helming the franchise until its two-parter movies adapted from the final book, then his second foray here would leave you quite impressed. I'm already stoked about the things to come, so much so that, haven't not read the books proper, I had went to spoil myself silly. And yes, with so much happening in time to come, from where this film ended and trailed off, 2 films would hopefully do justice to the seeds of development already sown here.

Bring them on!

Friday, July 17, 2009

Female Games

Friends and Foes

"The female of the species is more deadly than the male" - Space, Female of the Species

Kan Lume continues to push the boundaries involving relatively taboo themes that Singapore narrative films have traditionally steered clear from. While one may seem to think offhand that this film centers around lesbianism, this film is anything but solely that, though obviously it's an easy selling point, but presented here in this pared down version is still a keen observation into the psyche of females, which you'll hear or experience yourself from time to time with regards to girls checking other girls out, in a competitive sort of fashion.

Evelyn Maria Ng stars as Alex, who opens the film with a video confessional, introducing herself and basically setting the stage, talking (or complaining!) about all things Singapore, and the want of venturing overseas for opportunities because the perennial grass on the other side is always greener. Hence her road trip with Sandy (Shen Qiaoyun), an acquaintance whom we only get to know more about along the way to Malaysia. The stage is set for two aspiring model wannabes to meet up with a casting director (Dean Kuan) across the Causeway. Alarm bells would ring by now if you have followed the synopsis of the film, but the end result is anything else but that.

The relationship between the two girls began quite cordially, where they seem all sugar and spice and all things nice. I guess as friendships go in a trip, we tend to make concessions, have fun, and basically have a good time. The first act before they meet with their professional sugar daddy (I say this because of the promises and potential of opening doors that a casting director can bring) consists of plenty of niceties, and all the foundation upon which a strong friendship can be formed. Even a trip to a fortune teller ends up with executing together the advice of packing all their troubles in an old kit bag, and getting rid of it.

However, I'll be extremely curious to know what the original cut would have looked like, because a key development in their friendship got pushed to the epilogue in a sort of a flashback and reminiscent of better days, especially when we see the events that happened upon return, with a tinge of domestic violence being quite painful to watch. If I may indulge, I would have thought having the scenes included proper, rather than relying on the trailer to fill in the blanks, would have resulted in a more emotional punch between the two female protagonists, as they turn against each other, one subtly and one none too subtle. Thing of it as watching the proper and complete Ang Lee vision of Lust, Caution, versus the castrated one which we also got to hit the screens here. Different emotional impact, period.

That aside, the film still works to a certain degree, thanks to both actresses being really daring and fleshing out their competitive characters really well, even though their physical relation really got subdued. If you could put that aside, the film continues to explore that more competitive nature of the female psyche, especially when you have two attractive girls vying for similar opportunities, all it takes is a little casual (and of course deliberately damaging) remark thrown in by the casting director's assistant, and suspicion soon brews into contempt, as every little action is perceived differently and blown way out of proportion. Like an M&M, they become friends on the outside, foes on the inside, trading little gossips, laughter at the other, saying belittling mean things behind the backs, and the likes.

And if you could not believe that the closeness of the characters didn't complicate matters, well, I share the same sentiments. The characters' sexuality isn't clear from the start, which I felt the full version would have, as mentioned, really socked in the emotional impact. It could have the potential of an additional dimension of severe jealousy, when one party decided to forgo their relationship just to advance in her career, and also that sense of betrayal having felt by the other, translating to rage that becomes a back-street brawl (which was awesome by the way). This version didn't really bring that out too well, as it became one brawl without the emotional component, just at a professional one.

Not to say that the guys here get forgotten as well, though they don't get put under so good a light. We get to peek into the guys' discussion in a bonding session over beer, which reveals their strategy and motives that I thought was simple brilliance, exploiting weaknesses for personal gains through the sharing of tips like how punters do. Fish Chaar also gets a small scene that highlights the possessive nature of a relationship such as that seen in Closer, and may make you shake your head at how he couldn't keep his temper in check, though in a situation presented, it's extremely difficult to keep a cool and level head.

Technically, this was Kan Lume doing almost everything himself in an intimate shoot under tight schedules. Natural lighting was opted and there was a conscious overexposure of images as if to center your focus on the characters and not care very much of the wider world, which the characters seem to exhibit in their bold relationship, and the nonchalance of the consequences of their actions. To avoid being too dark and gloomy, a light hearted, breezy bossa nova soundtrack was selected to accompany our experience in viewing the latest feature film from one of our boldest filmmakers in Singapore.

The original cut of the film meant for the Singapore International Film Festival was 78 minutes long, before it got withdrawn because it was passed R21 with cuts and therefore conflicting with the SIFF policy that they only screen uncut films. The version that Sinema Old School is screening will be only 70 minutes long, so if you do the math you know that you're only watching about 90% of what was. Going by the scenes in the trailer which you can watch online, the bolder, more explicit scenes between the characters obviously got the axe, but don't let that detract you from the themes that the film sought to explore.

As for film censorship issues, well I guess it's suffice to say we're still stuck at an age where screen violence is more tolerated than characters mouthing off, or sexuality, in that order of decreasing tolerance.

Related Links
One of the leads in the film, Shen Qiaoyun, is also a prominent blogger who goes by the moniker Sheylara, and she documented a very detailed Makng-Of the film Female Games over a series of blog posts which you can access here, giving you a look at what went on behind the scenes:

God is a Woman (Working Title)
Getting Ready
Day One
Day Two
Day Three (Oh yeah the cat fight is as real as it can get!)
Day Four
Off The Set

[World Premiere Screening with Cast Q&A] - Sinema Old School 22 July 2009 8pm - Details, and for other timings, find out here.

[Update 20 July 09]'s Interview with Evelyn Maria Ng

Thursday, July 16, 2009

[SFS MISENSCENE] Burma VJ - Reporting from a Closed Country

To create that sense of realism, tension and excitement even, the fad nowadays is for filmmakers to employ the use of the nausea-inducing shaky cam. For the multiple, independent video journalists in Burma documenting instances of oppression and suppression, crying for the attention of the outside world, it's not a technique used for vanity or stylistic reasons, but one stemming from sheer necessity. One can imagine if one is caught with a video camera recording street arrests and such, where the penalty would likely be endless interrogation, to put it mildly, and probably being conveniently forgotten.

“Joshua” and his crew from DVB – Democratic Voice of Burma – a group of clandestine journalists operating from within Burma, had plenty of footage that they manage to smuggle out of the country, either through online means, or trusted couriers, where news networks had used to tell of the plight of street protesters in September 2007. Utilizing small consumer cameras hidden in bags and whisked in and out for clips lasting seconds, you can feel that real sense of danger that these folks go through just to get actual ground conditions to the outside world.

Director Anders Østergaard had assembled various clips from that fateful event where the monks took to the streets, which for days an unexpected non-response from the military government provided that spark of optimism that change was coming. For those familiar with the aftermath from that affair, watching this on hindsight made one feel a little saddened even, because we know what would be coming up next. With some moments re-enacted and spliced together with actual footages, Burma VJ became a riveting documentary where the draw is having to become a witness to what's happening on the ground being in stark contrast to official state media's interpretation, and perhaps to think about how an event as this one shouldn't be allowed to just fade away.

And the footages are nothing short of amazing, astounding, and shocking even. There was a progression of sorts technically, probably stemming from collective courage of the masses where temporal point-and-shoot strategies gave way to lengthy unflinching recordings. From the journalists' first hand accounts as seen through their viewfinders, we take to the streets with them in a “people power” movement, even going right up to the villa where Aung San Suu Kyi was held under house arrest, appearing to greet the monks. We also get a sense of how the military's strength in numbers were called upon to cordon off areas and provided a standoff with their weapons locked and loaded, and executions at point blank were all caught on camera, from grainy digital zooming of lens watching from afar.

In some ways, the film progressed as per how the movement gained momentum, in a slow brew of relatively smaller demonstrations to a frenetic charge toward large masses, before night time raids and arrests of the protesting monks led to a systematic fizzling of drive and ultimate dispersal, and the flight for cover, as the DVB journalists had to lay low following crackdown by the secret police. For the superstitious as the military junta is touted to be, there's a quick mention of Typhoon Nargis too, which I recall when it struck had many tongues wagging that it was a celestial response to what was done to the monks, here in a scene that I've never seen, a lifeless body floating on a river with a cracked skull.

Burma VJ is an powerful documentary centering on the human spirit of hope and moral courage, and I do urge anyone who has the chance to watch this, to give it a go.


All The Way From Copenhagen - Director Anders Østergaard!

Just as how technology was used to overcome the primary challenge of getting the word out on the ground conditions during the crackdown in Burma, technology was also used effectively to bridge tonight's audience with Burma VJ's director Anders Østergaard in Copenhagen, where the post screening Q&A was conducted over Skype in a video chat.

A long ovation concluded the 30 minute dialogue session, and here are some excerpts from tonight's session, moderated by Gavin Low. (I do apologize for the less than stellar audio in the clips, save for the last one)


Current State of DVB

Remuneration and Royalties

Distribution and Screenings

As revealed by Anders, the DVD of the film should be out sometime in October this year, so for those interested, do keep a lookout for it!

Related Links
- Official Movie Website
- Movie Blog
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