Friday, December 31, 2010

Top 5 Duds of 2010

And they are:
- PCK The Movie
- Happy Go Lucky (福星到)
- Vampires Suck
- Future X-Cops (未来警察 / Mei Loi Ging Chaat)
- Like Sunshine After Rain

Well I know I'm supposed to come up with 10, but these were the films that stood out amongst the worst lot this year by a mile and beyond, that it's not much of a point to rank them since they're all bad and should not be touched with a ten foot pole unless you have too much time on your hands.

While the arthouse films of Singapore continue to stem their mark around the world, the local commercial fare contributed 3 amongst the five here, although Like Sunshine After Rain was on a limited theatrical release in an exclusive showcase at Sinema Old School. While bona fide filmmakers here have almost always mentioned budgeting being a constant challenge, I wonder how money got thrown at making PCK The Movie, where the characters have clearly outstayed their welcome, and should have been retired rather than given the privilege of showing up on the silver screen. Use your brain indeed, a non-existing one that is if you have to sit through this at any point in time.

Big names don't guarantee instant film success if the story is bad to begin with, such as Fann Wong, Richard Low and Patricia Mok (well, as far as local content go) in Happy Go Lucky, which was at best a scatterbrain premise that relied too much on Fann's saccharine, permanent smile and constant abuse as the Cinderella type by characters played by Low and Mok. Or the question of how even Andy Lau found himself stuck with Future X-Cops, a big surprise he could actually nod in agreement to make a stinker of a Wong Jing film that spoofed Hollywood only with genuinely bad effects that were laughable at best.

Speaking of spoofs, someone should already cancel all credit lines to Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer, who continue to make mindless, unfunny spoofs of whatever popular genre is out in the market today. Filling one's film with impersonators galore who look far from the real deal, bad lines and tasteless jokes (if one can call them that) reeks of desperation, and one wonders if they have a trust fund to continue with their bad filmmaking exploits, if not only to become a classroom case study in years to come on how not to make movies.

Collectively, this group of films should best be forgotten they even existed in 2010.

Top 10 of 2010

It's that time of the year for putting out the ritualistic best-of list, and I thought this year I should be doing something different. It's always hard, at least for me, to stand up and proclaim one film, amongst the entire lot that I've viewed in a year, to be THE best amongst the lot. So what I'll choose too do from now is to not rank the top 10 films selected, but to select 10 of the best seen this year. And I'll no longer be restricting it to just theatrical releases in Singapore, but to throw the net wider to include all films viewed on the big screen, including those at making their festival debuts. So here goes, in alphabetical order:


With a cast of one man in Ryan Reynolds appearing on screen, director Rodrigo Cortes brings about an intense thriller set within a makeshift coffin used to keep alive Reynolds' Paul Conroy in order for a king's ransom to be paid. Oblivious to where he actually is within Iraq, it's a frenetic piecing together of every clue that tries to make sense of his predicament, and a definite psychologically horrific piece to be creatively set within constricted confines, relying on Reynolds to deliver one of his best, if not THE best performance of his career to date. This is the reason why a film with a limited budget can still be made, with a little bit of innovation and a rock solid, simple story on its side.

Confessions (Kokuhaku / 告白)

I'll let slip that this would be amongst the top three films of the year should I have followed the numerical ranking rather than a grouping of the best films of the year. Confessions by Tetsuya Nakashima grabs you by the scruff of your neck and never lets go, meandering through different viewpoints of characters all interlinked through the murder of a teacher's child, and her focused determination to exact the coldest form of retribution and revenge ever. This film shines for its technical brilliance, its shifting narrative form that unravels like a whodunnit and a whydunnit, and providing that added flair and freshness to the revenge genre without skipping a beat, leaving you breathless as it sprints at top speed to the finale.


Amongst the three Khans of Hollywood, I have always felt that Salman Khan films lagged behind that of the other two, until now. His Robin Hood Pandey, a corrupt beat policeman blessed with fantastical fighting prowess, entertains on a lot of fronts, from beating robbers and corrupt politicians in their own games, to romancing a headstrong woman who seems to be able to successfully resist his charms and exaggerated swagger. The satire here is thick, the storytelling uniquely Bollywood, and the theme of Dabangg (Fearless) totally apt in the attitude Salman Khan had brought to the film. Word is that this box office champion is poised to have its sequel made, so let's hope that it actually materializes.

Echoes of the Rainbow (歲月神偷 / Sui Yuet San Tau)

Nostalgia is the keyword here, as this film like many others that have come out of Hong Kong this year, takes a look back in the tumultuous formation years of the colony's rule under the British. With thespians Simon Yam and Sandra Ng in dramatic roles, I had wondered about the film's popularity at the Hong Kong box office after winning at the Berlinale, and after watching the film myself I fully understood why. It's heart-warming, yet heart-wrenching at the same time, and the film offered a snapshot of decades long narrative spun to bring back some memories of growing up, and the unique challenges faced over the years. Acting accolades were well deserved for both Yam and Ng, and this film also launched Aarif Lee's star and had gone on to star as Bruce Lee in Bruce Lee, My Brother.

Fish Story (Fisshu Sutôrî)

Taken the Japanese Film Festival this year by surprise, Fish Story wowed with a rocking great soundtrack, and its story on how seemingly a series of unrelated sequence of events can finally come together to make bigger picture sense. Who would have guessed that a film that opens with an impending apocalypse delivered something that's full of comedy, drama, lip syncing and some superhero moments even, that if there's any film that spells a lot of fun this year, then Fish Story it is without a shred of doubt.

Gallants (打擂台 / Da Lui Toi)

The film that made my trip to the Hong Kong International Film Festival this year worthwhile, Gallants assembled the very best actors from Hong Kong cinema's martial arts films of the past, dripping this with a nostalgic flavour for genre fans to get together and celebrate the big screen experience with their beloved stars all over again. A pity that this didn't make a theatrical screening in Singapore, because it has wonderful comedy, awesome fight choreography done old school style sans CG and wirework bullshit, and a sublime theme about fair play and never giving up when the going gets tough, which is always apt for any society going through various external challenges that threaten the established status quo. I haven't been much of a fan of Teddy Robin, but his superb performance here as a martial arts master just woken from a coma and is severely out of touch in the modern world, has won me over.


Christopher Nolan continues to burn up the box office to deliver cutting edge psychological thrillers, and Inception turns out to be one heck of a ride with an A-List ensemble cast assembled for an assault into dream worlds and corporate espionage. Some had clued in that the success of this film had already been seeded into our minds, boasting no less than 4 dream landscapes on which Nolan paints his epic on, providing reasons to rewatch this over and over again as we ponder over what's real and what's not. Infiltration and espionage can't marry together in any better fashion, throwing up a number of surprises along the way, together with an absolutely kinetically challenging topsy-turvy battle sequence ever to be put on screen. Without the aid of a computer I may add, which is so easy to blunt efforts, innovation and ingenuity.

Love in a Puff (志明與春嬌 / Chi Ming Yu Chun Giu)

While Edmund Pang's other offering of the year Dream House will unlikely make it here, his Love in a Puff is a delightful comedic romp and shows again why the young HK director has a knack for creating stories that resonate. Watching this during its world premiere in Hong Kong helped in not marring that first experience with a badly dubbed Mandarin soundtrack (the one providing the voice for Miriam Yeung should be shot), as we're taken through a relationship built upon a chance meeting at a smoking corner, gathering points for smokers as authorities almost always come up with more restrictions to curb their addictive hobby. A Hong Kong romantic comedy cannot get more topical and contemporary than this, with snappy dialogue and an eclectic soundtrack.

The Social Network

The phenomenon of our very recent age that fused the technological with the social, providing that push to a more personal yet open, social internet that just about everyone with an email account had embraced. This is the one-sided tale of the beginnings of Facebook, but under the hands of scribe Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher, they had delivered a very smooth piece of storytelling that engrosses from the get go, providing very stiff competition when it heads toward Oscar season.

Summer Wars (Samâ Wôzu / サマーウォーズ)

My choice for the best animated film of the year, beating the likes of Toy Story 3 and How to Train Your Dragon hands down. I still think Japanese anime throws up some of the best in recent years without the need to resort to 3D gimmicks, focusing its energies to the strength of the story. This animated film probably threw everything but the kitchen sink (maybe it did too) onto a sprawling digital landscape as it unfolds on both the worlds within and outside of the digitally connected realms. Think TRON, with a better deal to its story. Mamoru Hosoda is the name you must watch out for!

And here are the rest which deserves an honourable mention, being the next 20 on my list:

The Book of Eli
Bruce Lee My Brother
The Concert
Easy A
Everybody's Fine
Flowers (フラワーズ)
Heartbreaker (L'arnacoeur)
How to Train Your Dragon 3D
I Love You Phillip Morris
The Joneses
The Last Exorcism
Hallelujah / Le Missionnaire
Repo Men
Sweet Little Lies
Toy Story 3
Up in the Air

The Ghosts Must Be Crazy (鬼也笑)

Boo Hoo

One of the largest local entertainment scandals that need not be repeated involved Jack Neo right about after the premiere of his film Being Human, and amongst the rumours that floated around involved the survival of his J Team production house. Well, fast forward to today on the cusp of the new year, it's still alive and kicking, making films the way Jack has done all along, with the director's baton passed to two of his proteges Boris Boo and Mark Lee, each helming their own medium length film that make up The Ghosts Must Be Crazy, rallying the usual long time cast with new additions like Dennis Chew and Chua Enlai.

J Team has always prided itself in producing entertainment for the masses, and over the last few films have put in credible special effects to enhance their storytelling and selling points. It's no different here with each of the films showing off their latest cutting edge (as far as local films go) effects, so much so that at times it's an over indulgence that doesn't propel the story forward, bogging down the narrative just so that the effects pieces can stand out and drawing too much attention to themselves. What definitely worked here is the shrewd casting in pairing Wang Lei with John Cheng in one segment, and Henry Thia and Mark Lee in another.

The Day Off
Director Boris Boo still hasn't gotten over his army daze with J Team, reuniting with Where Got Ghost? stars John Cheng and Wang Lei who continue to play idle reservists who are looking for opportunities to skive during their in-camp training. Chua Enlai plays their Commanding Officer (though only a lieutenant) and recent J Team regular David Bala plays their Encik who becomes the butt of most of the jokes, with Dennis Chew playing a sick soldier who refuses to report sick so that he doesn't have to repeat this last in-camp training (ICT). To the uninitiated, the final ICT marks the end of our obligation to the nation, so whatever you do, you will not want to miss or forfeit this as coming back again another work year.

It is without a doubt that most of the fun come from the two leads, who are at their natural best in their banter, even if some jokes in a smattering of broken English / Singlish, Mandarin and Chinese dialects sometimes fall flat. Army lingo gets thrown around as does the army and Enlai's CO is someone the troops on the ground always love to hate, almost always screaming his frustration off at the idle soldiers under his charge. There's not much of a story here other than revolving around the half baked plans the soldiers have in insisting to frighten off their superiors, and twists come expected.

Bottom line is, anyone having served in the local army will identify with the subplots here, and this is nothing more than being stuck in a field exercise with Wang Lei and John Cheng who prove that this film can be directed by an invisible hand so long as these two are at their element in being loud, brash and shooting their mouths off like loose cannons. Curiously though, this marks Cheng's third outing as an idle reservist, the other being the made for TV production Pulau Hantu, a horror film with unintentional comedy. I wonder how long it will take before a more serious “army” film comes out of the local film offerings, if not always based on comedy, or horror, or an amalgamation of both.

Ghost Bride
Henry Thia plays the protagonist Ah Hui who is more like a spoof of his character in Old Cow vs Tender Grass. As usual, his Ah Hui is out of luck in both the finance and romantic fronts, the latest hard pill to swallow being his fugly girlfriend (no offense Tay Yin Yin, since this was played up) openly cheating behind his back. As chance would have it, he meets the mysterious Ah Hai (Mark Lee with dual responsibilities in directing this segment) who teaches him about borrowing luck from spirits.

And of course with a little bit of supernatural luck, Ah Hui's fortunes turn for the better, but as urban legends go there's always a price to pay. The story again got bogged down by its scattered focus, and not letting the cat out of the bag, suffice to say that it went overboard with showing off the special effects since it involves the supernatural. With Mark and Henry working opposite each other for the longest time, their chemistry here is unmistakably what sustained the film, especially with the latter half really poking fun at their relationship in a manner still yet unseen on the big screen, which will surprise many, and offer up a load of laughs.

The duo has come a long way since their television debut in the Comedy Night skits on television, and Thia has grown over the years to own the stereotypical characters that he plays, being the leading man nonetheless in a number of homegrown films already. Mark Lee's directorial debut is also without fanfare and unremarkable as well as he didn't rein in the unnecessary portions that threaten to run amok, but still the camaraderie shared between him and Thia serves as the highlight of this segment with a tale that's far more superior than The Day Off. I will also state for the record that Mark Lee's acting here is relatively subtle especially when it ties in to the surprise, and he's clearly one of the more versatile comedians in Singapore, sporting that long hair look that we had last seen in Eating Air many years back. Watch out for his chef character who speaks in Cantonese accented Mandarin in Homecoming next year – his parts in the trailer have been a hoot - which also heralds the return of Jack Neo himself in yet another cross-dressing role.

The “hor-medy” genre is not new, with Hong Kong perfecting the formula with a number of films, one of which comes to mind amongst others is The Haunted Cop Shop starring Jackie Cheung and Ricky Hui of the famous Hui brothers, or even the first Mr Vampire, which succeeded at being both terrifying and funny at the same time, with well choreographed action sequences to boot. As much as the J Team will like to pioneer this horror-comedy genre here, efforts so far still cannot live up to what has already been done in other Asian countries which have stamped their unique mark on the genre. Even Kelvin Tong had Men in White, and we know how that turned out to be. But with a new year comes new hope, so let's see if J Team can propel this forward, especially if it makes money at the box office, then surely we deserve something a lot better.

A Better Tomorrow (Mujeogja / 무적자)


I wonder if filmmakers and their chosen cast suffer the jitters when they attempt to remake a cult classic, trying their best to recreate the formula that worked in another setting and timeline. A Better Tomorrow needs no introduction as it has elements that are deeply entrenched in the minds of any Asian cinephile, where John Woo revived the gangster genre in Hong Kong and created a phenomenon, inspiring copycats both in film and male fashion.

After all, who has the ability to recreate the Chow Yun Fat charisma as Mark Gor, with his long trenchcoat and aviator sunglasses inspiring a legion of followers to the character, so much so that he has to be brought back as twin brother Ken in A Better Tomorrow II? And 70s icon Ti Lung as co-chief protagonist around that brought about bona fide gravitas of a man betrayed, and finding true brotherhood with his best friend? Then there's the late Leslie Cheung, who goes to show that he's not out of place in an actioner, and brings out the role of the cocky young adult unwilling to forgive his brother in most excellent terms. And Waise Lee rounding up the quartet as the villain you'd love to hate especially when gloating with one of his last lines.

The Korean remake was wrong on a number of counts, especially if one were to be a purist and find objectionable character motivations, and scenes rearranged with elements tweaked that's as proportionally controversial as A New Hope's Did Han Shoot First?. The basic structure got retained where it introduced the quartet of characters, with Kim Hyuk (Joo Jin-Mo) and Kim Chul (Kim Kang-Woo) being brothers from North Korea separated when Hyuk abandoned his younger brother to escape to the South, hence setting up resentment which serves the crux of the film. Compensating for this brotherly kinship is his good friend Young-Choon (Son Seung-Heon), who finds himself going from riches to rags, a pale self to his former glory when his revenge didn't go as smooth as he planned it would be.

I don't mind that things got changed slightly, from counterfeiting to arms smuggling. I don't mind that since this is a Korean remake the plot naturally revolved around North and South tensions amongst the characters. I don't mind too that the characters' overseas romp shifted from Taiwan to Thailand. All these, coupled with the updates introduced by director Song Hae-Sung, are pretty minor. The major changes were what irked me, since they don't resemble the cult characters they are based on, especially that of Kim Chul and his estranged relationship with his brother Kim Hyuk, which bordered on thick melodrama that gave an about turn to the latter character when the finale rolled along. There's this obsession with not forgiving his brother yes, but things take an inexplicable turn which transformed him from rugged tough guy, to wimpy, weepy crybaby. What gives?

Song Seung-Heon perhaps drew the shortest end of the stick, because trying to emulate Mark Gor with his Young-Choon was nothing short of a futile attempt unfortunately. Clearly lacking the charisma to pull the role off, he tried his best and came up short, and in an unceremonious exit, I think director Song Hae-Sung has to bear the blame for some shoddy work here, even though we know the original had loopholes in the shoot out department that sort of became terms of endearment with weapons blessed with unlimited supply of bullets that always find their way to embed into bodies of faceless goons, these were opportunities that weren't seized to go one leg up before John Woo went balletic with his gun fights and shoot outs.

What worked though was how sinister Jo Han-Seon played chief villain Jung Tae-Min, whose meek demeanour hides his sinister nature and becomes the villain you'd love to hate. I thought he did well because he wasn't really trying to live up to what had already been done, though perhaps maybe it wasn't as intimidating as trying to fit into the shoes worn by Ti Lung, Leslie Cheung or Chow Yun Fat. There's also a distinct lack of female roles here to trip up this gang of four, eliminating frivolous romantic subplots where females are nothing but flower vases, allowing themes of betrayal, friendship, brotherhood and camaraderie to ring through much louder.

Still, this remake is slow to start, and it took some 30 minutes before the first major action sequence. To fans of A Better Tomorrow there's nothing here that will surprise you anyway, except to raise an eyebrow or two when motivations and subplots deviate. And if there's one more element that this film sorely lacked, it's the very, very iconic theme tune that accompanied the Hong Kong original. This one pales in comparison and somehow turned out dull for the most parts. You have been warned to stick to the definitive John Woo version.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Tourist

Seen Enough of Venice?

A lot has been said about how insipid this film turned out to be, even with the appeal of two of Hollywood's A-listers in Johnny Depp and Angelina Jolie failing to lift this film from mediocrity. I'd beg to differ and wonder whether these blabbers have grown so accustomed to Jolie kicking ass as some sexed up alpha-female, and Depp being flamboyant under dark eyeliner, that they refuse to accept anything else should these two actors decide to take a break and play, well, ordinary Joe and Jane.

It's a breath of fresh air to see them do absolutely nothing to reinforce their typical persona stereotypes. For once I don't have to witness Jolie being the action heroine, and Depp junking his quirky characterization, playing two folks who fall in love under extraordinary circumstances when they first meet on a Euro-train travelling from one romantic city to another - Paris to Venice - and for once felt a little helpless rather than almost always coming out on top. The courtship ritual is just plain hilarious even though the lines may appear a little stilted, playing upon the usual games people play in hooking up. Needless to say the twists and turns from the mid point to the last act isn't something that you won't see coming, and in some ways continue to play up to expectations of an average caper involving a major mistaken identity.

An adaptation of the French film Anthony Zimmer, The Tourist was one heck of a troubled project to begin with, having revolving doors for lead cast and the director even, before settling for Depp and Jolie, with Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, who gave us The Lives of Others, at the helm of this Euro-thriller. Jolie plays Elise Clifton-Ward, an elegant clotheshorse who is tailed by a Scotland Yard team managed by Paul Bettany's Inspector John Acheson, who is dead set on keeping a mark on this female target so as to chance upon any opportunity to capture her main squeeze Alexander Pearce, the enigma of this story who has embezzled money from the mob, as well as evaded government taxes.

In a betrayal of Judas proportions, Elise condemns her new acquaintance Frank Tupelo (Depp), an American math school teacher on holiday whom she deliberately picked out amongst the passengers as instructed for his close physical resemblance to Pearce, to being marked himself by Reginald Shaw (Steven Berkoff), the man whom Pearce had stolen from and is looking to recover his money, pride and seek revenge, which leads this film into a cat and mouse chase involving both the cops and the robbers after our two leads, who soon find it difficult not to fall in love after pulling through the ordeal they're under. But for their good looks and individual charisma, sparks didn't fly and you're constantly left wondering whether they would, or won't, and if there's always more than meets the eye.

Those looking for action in this caper will definitely be disappointed, as set action pieces are few and far between, looking very tame from a rooftop chase to a motorboat pursuit, which don't break any new ground. Attempts at comedy usually fell flat, and you'll get more fun from the string of recognizable cameos from Timothy Dalton to Rufus Sewell popping up from time to time. Visuals are absolutely gorgeous since it's set on location allowing for the capture of Venice's best side and angle, and made me reminisce my own limited time spent in the city, and fashionistas will likely go gaga over the designs put onto Jolie.

While this film may be somewhat of a weaker cousin to all the spy versus spy movies out there, it isn't as bad as most would have said it was. It doesn't have any big explosions nor noisy gun fights, lacked a certain sharpness in wit in its dialogue which could be worst if not for the screen presence of Depp and Jolie, and a final twist that wasn't really necessary, something I felt robbed the show of its ultimate emotional quotient of the everyday, average Joe who had risked everything to dream of walking away into the sunset with the girl.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Saw 3D

One Last Hurrah

All film franchises will come to an end eventually, especially those based upon finite fantasy books, even if some don't have a complete and satisfying ending. Who would have imagined that Saw, a small production in 2004 written by Leigh Whannell and James Wan who also picked up directing duties, would turn out to be such a Halloween hit that it became THE film to spend subsequent Halloweens with, making one of the tough breakthroughs in creating a resilient cinematic horror icon with Jigsaw, propelling its actor Tobin Bell to fame and cultivating a fan base as well.

Over the years the film got passed on to filmmakers willing to bring the franchise forward when the original creative duo released their reins on the film, and directors and writers jumped on it to varying degree of successes, each adding their own imprint on the franchise, to what it is now - there is a new Jigsaw, but the handing over of that responsibility wasn't as smooth as what was thought out to be, plus some added twists and turns that each film brought to the table that to some may turn out to be a tad ridiculous since it involved some major predictions and forecasting that is hard to reconcile if narrative convenience isn't part of the overall plan.

With 3D finding its way to the big screen these days with almost a guarantee of increased box office takings, it's no surprise that the latest and I presume final Saw installment would go this route for its last hurrah. After all, it does seem that horror flicks provide for plenty of ingredients to exploit the format in a cheesy manner, though the budget here meant less things got to be thrown on screen toward you. Production values are dumbed down a little, and I almost let out a chuckle when the first obligatory trap to show off the 3D format, turned out to be nothing more than one, yes one, piece of intestine being hurled / dropped toward the screen during a disemboweling scene, as will other objects in limited fashion as the story wore on.

Like the films that went before it, this Saw installment has its cast made up of a blast from the past. The last time I saw Sean Patrick Flanery on a regular basis was many years ago when the Young Indiana Jones Chronicles was the rage with his role as the titular character made famous by Harrison Ford. Here he carries the film as the central character in a plot about a self help motivational speaker Bobby Dagen who propels to fame, purporting to be one of the many survivors of a Jigsaw trap, preaching about living a new lease of life upon his sacrifice to break free. Needless to say when you cry wolf, you'll cry for real when the wolf puts you on its radar.

As with most Saw plots, we follow the protagonist n his quest to free people from the Jigsaw traps, which very often is to no avail because of hesitation, lack of courage, fear of sacrificing, running out of time, or a combination of those as the Jigsaw traps were designed to exorcise some of such demons and become that perverse moral educational piece. While crime and punishment Jigsaw style got meted out sticking to established rules, the self-execution traps by the new Jigsaws in the later part of the franchise somehow had lost the plot, and although still toeing the line with developments to their respective characters in not respecting the thought process and rational behind the gruesome punishment, the main bite in overcoming these traps become non existent. Some perennial trap favourites do get some additional mileage in this film as well - see if you can guess which one!

On the side of the law, we follow Detective Matt Gibson (Chad Donella) in the footsteps of cops before played by Danny Glover, Dina Meyer, Donnie Wahlberg, Scott Patterson, Mike Realba and Athena Karkanis in pursuit of the serial killer, only to find themselves almost always coming up short. If there's a fault to this film, it is the persistence to the formula that has gotten stale, with Saw 3D being nothing more than just an incremental narrative effort in giving the audience more of the same, only with a different looking cast.

What continues to work is the sophistication of the traps involved to produce blood and gore in copious amounts, as they get slightly elaborate with each turn that you wonder about the creative engineering involved that does stretch the imagination of how it's all being wired up by a single person. Some scenes were obligatory and didn't fit in with the grain of the film, two of which stood out like a sore thumb were the opening gig which was set in public (just how can one wire that up without suspicion is a great mystery) which highlighted the attitudes of a Youtube generation, and the one set in a garage which put 4 persons under a minute's threat in win-all-die-all fashion.

While some may find issue with how everything managed to get looped back to the first film with the presence of Cay Elwes amongst the ensemble, I thought it was pretty decent in closing a chapter to a franchise in somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion to how everything is treated so far with flashbacks providing real meat to the story, a technique employed to extend the longevity of Tobin Bell's screen presence. Some questions raised in the last two films when it tangent off under new management got addressed here, and I found it acceptable if I'm willing to put aside plot convenience.

It may have taken a while to finally get this here on our shores, but for fans of the franchise there's likely to be no stopping you to watch how it all comes to a full circle with all its gory details intact and without a detectable cut. Non fans will be better off catching up with the previous films should there be any attempt to watch this, otherwise it'll turn out to be nothing more than an exploitative film that raises too many questions when the big reveals roll along.

You can click on these links to read my reviews of Saw, Saw II, Saw III, Saw IV, Saw V and Saw VI.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

[DVD] Transsiberian (2008)

Magic Carpet Ride

One of the many mantras we all learnt from young was never to talk to strangers, because we do not know if they're hiding any ulterior motives. But when you're on vacation, sometimes in being friendly we open up to others, and hopefully allow for the sharing of experiences forge new found friendships. Not always with a positive outcome, but it wouldn't hurt just to be friendly, especially with those who are travelling in the same direction and sharing the same cabin for an extended period.

The Transsiberian Express traverses between Beijing and Moscow, taking 8 days between destinations and is the world's longest train journey. I haven't been on any extended train journeys, so if the opportunity arises, I don't see why not, especially when it offers the views as what can be seen in this film (albeit some locales being stood in by others). For the couple Roy (Woody Harrelson) and Jessie (Emily Mortimer), the long way home via rail is something of a given since Roy is a train nut, with Jessie not minding the journey since it provides for plenty of photographic opportunities to feed her hobby with the camera.

With Roy being the ever friendly dude on board, he soon befriends a Spaniard and an American couple Carlos (Eduardo Noriega) and Abby (Kate Mara), who are also travelling the same way, and are drifters of sorts, spending the significant part of their recent lives just travelling between cities. Soon we find that these two aren't just your regular tourists, and everything else perhaps just smokescreen for something sinister coming up, especially when Roy gets delayed when he ogled too long at some abandoned trains, leaving Jessie travelling with the other duo, and Carlos getting a little way too friendly for an acquaintance.

Transsiberian brings to the table a thriller that worked on multiple levels. It plays with the panicky mindset when we get separated from our travelling companion in a foreign land, accentuating this fear really well, while also has some sexual tension brewing that you know will rip a relationship apart if it does boil over. Midway through the film an unspeakable incident happens, with Emily having to cover her tracks with limited success, especially when no thanks to Roy, a narcotics detective Grinko (Ben Kingsley) shares their train cabin, and Jessie's suspicious behaviour just raises too many alarm bells.

Character motivations and their hidden agendas are the showpieces in the film, where it's both easy to try and mask the truth with lies building upon lies, yet on the other hand also easy to break them down in part due to corroboration, especially when you know the law still quite has the upper hand in eliciting responses from common folk. The multitudes of twists in the final act puts this in line with other "couple in trouble when on vacation" genre films such as A Perfect Getaway, only this one had the claustrophobic corridors in train carriages and a beautiful, wintry picturesque landscape.

It's not often that I get to see Emily Mortimer play a major role in a film, so this is a pleasant introduction to that, with Woody Harrelson taking on a character who's relatively muted, if compared to his recent roles of late. In fact his Roy is so whiny and naive, you'd wonder how the courtship actually went. Their characters make quite the odd couple with marital issues to address since they usually sweep them under the carpet, and I suppose this makes the dynamics at play here a little bit more interesting since they get along on the surface only, with some resentment brewing underneath, so what's more therapeutic than to go through an extreme adventure together, and an unexpected one at that.

Written by Will Conroy and Brad Anderson, the latter who was also responsible for this film's direction, Transsiberian emerges as a strong thriller which builds on the fact that a situation like this, or at least the setup, is entirely plausible, if we were to let our guard down, and be overly friendly to strangers who have already marked us for something more sinister. Stay safe and alert while travelling, folks!

The Region 1 DVD by First Look Studios autoplays with previews (6:22) on films like War, Inc, Sukiyaki Western Django, Priceless and Birds of America. The feature film proper is presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer with audio available in English 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround or Stereo. There are English or Spanish subtitle options and scene selection is over 12 chapters.

No extras are found on the disc except for the Previews section which contained everything already seen when the disc is popped into the player, and an additional trailer for Contract Killers.

Monday, December 27, 2010

Uncle Boonmee Comes to Singapore for Charity

The Asian Film Archive is pleased to announce the Singapore Premiere of UNCLE BOONMEE WHO CAN RECALL HIS PAST LIVES to be held at 7pm on Saturday 15th January 2011, Cathay Cineplex. Following the screening, the visionary Thai filmmaker, Apichatpong Weerasethakul will be hosting a discussion on his award winning film, which has won the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival.

You can find out more about this Charity Premiere Gala event here. Tickets for this event are now available online or you can contact the office directly. One ticket will be given for each donation of S$50 received by the Asian Film Archive.

The Archive is a proudly independent charity and depends on public support to maintain the 1,489 films in its growing archive. It is an Institution of Public Character (IPC) and cash donations are eligible for a 250% tax-deduction. Your tax-deductible donation enables the Asian Film Archive to preserve our film heritage for future generations to enjoy.

You can find out more about this Thai film from the ever reliable Wise Kwai of the Thai Film Journal, or check out the synopsis below:

Uncle Boonmee is suffering from acute kidney failure and has chosen to spend his final days surrounded by his loved ones in the countryside. Surprisingly, the ghost of his deceased wife appears to care for him, and his long lost son returns home in a non-human form. Contemplating the reasons for his illness, Boonmee treks through the jungle with his family to a mysterious hilltop cave which turns out to be the birthplace of his first life. It is an interesting story that weaves the supernatural into a tale of discovery.

Apichatpong Weerasethakul is the first filmmaker from Southeast Asia to win the Palme d'Or, the top award at the Cannes Film Festival. He began making short film and video works before shooting the documentary Mysterious Object at Noon. Since 1998, the filmmaker, who deals with memory and socio-political issues, has mounted exhibitions and installations in many countries. His art projects and feature films have won him numerous festival prizes and widespread international recognition. At the Festival of Cannes, Blissfully Yours won the prize Un Certain Regard in 2002 while Tropical Malady in Competition in 2004, received the Jury's Prize.

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives will also be screened exclusively at The Picturehouse from 27th Jan 2011.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Band Baaja Baaraat

My Third Picture Deal Done!

With Band Baaja Baarat, Anushka Sharma has completed her three picture deal with Yash Raj Films and in some way had gone full circle. In her debut film Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi we first see her burst onto the screens in a pre-wedding scene - her character's, before tragedy doomed her to a hastily agreed upon marriage to Shah Rukh Khan's Surinder Singh as arranged by her father on his deathbed. Here, she plays the wedding planner, and a number of major scenes see her both fussing around and enjoying herself in the weddings of her relatives and clients, and playing a role whose profession symbolizes some major shifts in conservative mindsets where weddings are outsourced to professionals behind the scenes rather than leaving it under the hands of relatives.

And one wonders how bold the studio is in entrusting a major film to a new first time director Maneesh Sharma whose experience has come from working as an AD in other major films, and pairing the still relative newcomer Anushka opposite the complete rookie Ranveer Singh as her co-star. This risk had paid off, as the end product is something relatively refreshing and spunky, going well with the themes, look and feel for Band Baaja Baaraat which is to break mindsets, and as teenage characters, epitomized the can-do, fearless spirit of entrepreneurship, wanting to try rather than to regret later in life.

Anushka plays Shruti Kakkar, who is dead set in her ways in wanting to start her own firm Shaadi Mubarak in the wedding planning arena, and deflecting the usual route where a girl has to seek marriage after graduation and live a life that's more or less set, rote and formulaic. Fate has her chance upon the laid back Bittoo Sharma (Ranveer Singh) who is looking to stay in Delhi a little longer after graduation, otherwise at his father's insistence he has to pack up and go back to his village to continue his family's roots in running a sugarcane plantation. Like all romantic films, it's opposites attract to a certain extent with Mr Relax vs Ms Focused as she reluctantly makes him a partner in her start up, as they draft an informal pact to stay focused on their career path and keep their friendship platonic.

At least up until the Intermission where things start to spiral a little out of control as emotions run high, and you'd come to expect the entire second half of the film to run aground with the usual fights and arguments, which in some way parallels the mood of the film where a split becomes problematic, and only when they work together as a team does the magic of the film happen. Basically it's the rules that the duo set out to break in their chosen industry, and with a pact made on their friendship never treading into the romantic space, you know it's a set up since breaking and bending the rules is something they do on a daily basis with a growing business.

And this mirror is more pronounced as we start to see how materialism and the building of a career can get in the way of romance, with the tussle on demands for time taking its toil. The only spark in the second half as it plods itself to an inevitable end for a romantic film, is how sometimes we get a little callous especially in taking someone else for granted, and here we see how the female of the species is actually quite complicated when her heart is set aflutter, painting Bittoo inadvertently as the cad without feelings, and a silly boy at that when love comes knocking at his doorstep.

On the characters' professional front I would have preferred it a little more if there's some poetic justice dished out in being more direct in being competitors to their brief mentor in the business, who perceived as the best turns out nothing more than a fraud when it comes to delivering quality service. I suppose in the outsourcing business one wonders if one gets the best, or are shortchanged left right and center in the way unscrupulous business is done. This of course gives rise to a myriad of supporting characters such as Maqsood the florist (Neeraj Sood), Rajinder Singh the caterer (Manmeet Singh) and Bittoo's friend Santy the musician (Revant Shergill) to join in as small suppliers hell bent on delivering quality as a business ethic.

I've always loved Indian weddings put on screen, because that promises colour and spectacle, with lovely songs and energetic dances putting up quite a performance for an outsider like myself to witness and enjoy. Band Baaja Baaraat offers just that in large doses with the different projects the fledging Shaadi Mubarak organizes, and needless to say I was having a field day. It's bands, horns and revelry out in full force, and both leads were a delight as they breathed life into their roles as business partners turned lovers. Anushka Sharma has grown from strength to strength with each film release, and Ranveer Singh is quite the discovery, with new male Bollywood heroes being quite the rare species in recent years, and his well oiled performance here doesn't betray the fact that he's into his debut. Let's see what other films will appear over the horizon for this rookie.

Band Baaja Baaraat is that spectacle that comes highly recommended, so catch it if you can as it nears the end of its run here.

Yogi Bear

Smarter Than Your Average Bear

As if Jack Black's Gulliver's Travels isn't enough for the younger crowd this holiday season, Yogi Bear fares no better in providing entertainment solely for the kids, and if you're looking for something intelligent from this film, you're better off somewhere else. Like all Hanna-Barbera Productions' characters translated for the silver screen such as The Flintstones and Scooby Doo, what this provides is a live action version to much cherished childhood cartoon characters, and little else.

Yogi Bear and his sidekick, the smaller sized bear Boo Boo, are walking-on-hind-legs, talking bears at Jellystone Park, managed by park ranger Smith (Tom Cavanagh) and a none too bright ranger Jones (T.J. Miller) who aspires to be chief ranger one day. As usual most of the scenes with Yogi and Boo Boo center upon their exploits in trying to pinch and take off with the picnickers' baskets of food using schemes, plans and tools created by none other than that who is smarter than your average bear.

The story by Jeffrey Ventimilia, Joshua Sternin and Brad Copeland is an extremely simple one centered around the villainous politician Mayor Brown (Andrew Daly) and his spineless bootlicking sidekick (Nathan Corddry) who try to balance their state's budget deficit (of their own overspending) through the execution of their plan of selling off Jellystone to loggers, and doing so by co-opting Jones into their fold to foil fund-raising plans by Smith to keep the Park alive and self-sufficient. And besides Yogi Bear's obsession with picnicker's food, some time got set aside for a romantic subplot between Smith and Rachel (Anna Faris in a totally wasted role), a filmmaker working on a nature documentary.

Yes there is room here for some environmental message to creep in, with the introduction of endangered species toward the final act, and how we must act in order to save trees from illegal logging and the natural habitats of animals. The setups are quite clear from the onset that they're introduced, which leaves you wonder how long it'll take before the film screams to an end as it plods its way through some 83 minutes. Ultimately, it feels like an unwelcome extension of a typical cartoon episode.

Voiced by Dan Aykroyd, Yogi doesn't seem to sound like his usual self from the cartoons seen on television, but I suppose Aykroyd came close enough, just not quite. Justin Timberlake to my surprise however, seemed to have nailed Boo Boo's voice quite accurately. The graphics used to render these two bears turn out to be quite vivid, although some slip-shoddiness in effects can be clearly detected especially during the entire rapids scene with obvious sub-par superimposition works. One wonders if most of the budget went into the three dimensional aspects of the film, which have scenes specially crafted to exploit this, than to pay attention to simple things that usually get taken for granted, adding to a marred experience.

For a kids' film, surely there's the expected blatant flaws such as the bears being able to roam around without being detected for so long, which is quite impossible given their penchant for showboating and being near people just to pinch their food. But of course you must remember one thing, this is designed for the kids, and as adults we have already outgrown this no thanks to cynicism in the real world. I shudder at the thought that the Smurfs are ready to make their 3D live action debut sometime next year. Hopefully it will be that cut above the rest that had gone before it.

Do turn up early for the film so that you can catch Wild E Coyote Vs Road Runner in Rabid Rider, which sees the good ol unsuccessful antics that Coyote concocts to catch up with Runner, with hilarious results from his latest hair-brained idea of utilizing the Segway utility vehicle, which turned out to be nothing but expectedly disastrous. A lot more fun unfortunately than the main feature.

Facing Ali

Here It Comes!

It's often said that it is the villains who make the hero stand out and look good. In this case, Cassius Clay aka Muhammad Ali (after his conversion to Islam) was one of the greatest heavyweight boxers and a living legend of the sport, unparalleled in his prowess during his peak, having fought the likes of George Foreman and Joe Frazier amongst many others en route to his titles, and achieving an impressive professional record of 56 wins of which 37 are by total knock outs, no draws, and losing 5 times, 4 of which are through the decisions of judges, and 1 by retirement. No prizes for guessing that's the last one.

Facing Ali, the documentary by Pete McCormack, brings us through the entire professional career of the man who floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee, and he certainly does. Through stock footage of bouts in the ring across the globe, "thrash talking" prior to games which brings us plenty of quotable quotes, and television interviews, we get to witness, as will others generation after generation, of a man who's the epitome of a fighter, possessing incredible speed in his footwork and dexterity with his punches, a body built to withstand intense punishment as dished out by opponents, with endless stamina to survive 15 rounds and surprising rivals with a sustained spurt of energized barrage of blows toward the end.

If you're interested in his life story, then you probably will be better off with biopics like Michael Mann's Ali which starred a bulked up Will Smith in the titular role. Here, we get the profile of the fighter through no less than 10 of his renowned, luminous rivals with whom shared sometimes one, two or even three separate matches throughout his entire career spanning more than two decades. It's full on talking heads, and through the relentless focus on building their back stories and gathering their recollections, thoughts and experiences fighting with The Greatest, we learn more of the man who has earned the respect of his professional peers, and I dare say almost all of whom have some form of reverence in the way the fights of their lives have shaped their personal and professional lives for the better. In many ways, we learn of Ali's immense influence and it is exactly these testimonials that genuinely reinforced his legendary status as the best the sport had ever to offer.

But in order to make this a fuller documentary, we also touch on the inevitable milestones in Ali's life, such as the influences on him in terms of politics with Malcolm X and religion through Elijah Muhammad, and how his refusal to be drafted for the Vietnam War since he doesn't have a fight with the Viet Congs, meant being banned and stripped of his title for years. But with stuff of what legends are made of, Ali still showed that he has what he takes as he went on to wrestle the championship back after that long a lay off, not forgetting that age is an inevitable enemy in this brutal contact sport.

And with documentaries, you'd almost always learn something new. For me, I've always wondered why boxers or wrestlers tend to prefer hugging their opponents whenever possible. Then it was mentioned in passing that doing so wears out the opponent. And it makes some sense, since the sportsmen weigh quite a bit, and resting that weight on someone else who has to stay on his foot and not buckle under those kilos thrown at him, just tests endurance and muscle strength. Now I know, as do I bear witness through archival footage of Ali in action over the years in one sitting, the strategy Ali takes in beating his opponents, compensating the lack of speed later with sly experience in taking on younger challengers, and how sometimes this sport can be dirty through throwing of games or through managers throwing in the towel, sometimes with good intentions though to discontinue the punishment and damage any athlete can take.

Pete McCormack also made the recollections of fights here interesting not only through stock footage but by having more than one of the peers of the time, apart from the fighter involved in the specific fight, share their insights to the same bout under highlight. Under certain circumstances some won't admit to losing until now, especially those who lost to Ali through decisions of judges, so I guess some bruised ego is still in place. And ego is something Ali had in abundance as he adopts a rather arrogant attitude brought into each pre-fight, which you can either call showmanship, or the use of psychology to rile the opponent.

It's quite the downer as the film wore on toward the end and the inevitable, where the curtains finally came down on someone's illustrious career, and in some ways the lessons learnt in knowing when to call it quits, though 8 million dollars to make a come back isn't something that everyone can walk away from. Still, McCormack's documentary is paced evenly and builds up the legend in a somewhat different fashion, relying on peers and rivals to pay tribute to one of the greatest sportsman of all time in the boxing arena. Recommended for fans and definitely a great jumping point into knowing more about Muhammad Ali and the sport he excelled in.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Tees Maar Khan (तीस मार ख़ान)

Her Name's Katrina, and She's Too Sexy For You

Renowned choreographer turned filmmaker Farah Khan follows up her successful film Om Shanti Om with a remake of the 1966 Italian comedy After the Fox which starred Peter Sellers, and with that departed from the casting of Shah Rukh Khan, her leading man in her first two films, and got one of the more successful and established Bollywood pairings with actors Akshay Kumar and Katrina Kaif in leading roles. Like After the Fox, Tees Maar Khan not only adopts a similar storyline, but also inherited its spirit with the tremendous amount of inside jokes and film references that Farah Khan has already shown a knack for with OMO, honed from goodwill working with many in the industry through the myriad of films she has choreographed for.

The story is simply the telling of international master con artist Tabrez Mirza Khan aka Tees Maar Khan (Akshay Kumar), who gets contracted to rob a moving train full of antiques under the watchful eye of the police who's on board to guard the national treasures. He hatches an audacious plan which involves his own cover of being a director, and ropes in an entire unsuspecting village of naive villagers to aid in his scheme, even convincing a desperate superstar actor Atish Kapoor (Akshaye Khanna) that he's the real deal with a film that can make Atish finally reach out for his obsession of winning an Oscar award finally, after inadvertently passing on a role that went to Anil Kapoor for Dumbdog Millionaire.

Yes you read that right, and that's only the tip of the iceberg in the number of references the film makes to the industry of Bollywood and Hollywood, though while Farah Khan's OMO had a barrage of cameos in part thanks to the number Deewangi Deewangi, here the cameos are limited though no less an impact nor taking away any of the fun when mentioned, from Danny Boyle to M Night Shyamalan with comedic spoofs to names, places and films. Some may find fault that the composition of the film may remind one of her earlier effort such as the film within a film structure, in essence, this is a filmmaker's film and Farah Khan aces in making it something that you'll need to see more than once to catch everything she throws into it which all worked in a magical manner. Even her crew become extras on the set, and like an ode to her industry and co-creators and collaborators whose industry is recognized in the same way she closed OMO.

But the fun boils down to the fantastic item numbers Farah puts into Tees Maar Khan, scoring plenty of points with the coup she managed with Katrina Kaif, highlighting her sensuality and sexiness all at the same time through the much talked about Sheila Ki Jawani. While I had half expected the audience to break out into a boisterous mood, I swear the hall was stunned into silence as everyone gawked at what I would put my money on as the Item Number of the year, period. And what a way it was to introduce Kaif's Anya, the live in girlfriend of Tees Maar Khan who's in on his secret, an aspiring though talentless actress wannabe. While Kaif nails this bimbotic, airhead role to perfection, it is her musical numbers that impressed all the time.

And to top that within the same film even, Farah Khan pulled off another coup, which again stunned the audience a second time round with audible gasps of disbelief, before breaking out into laughter for the very wry and sly manner in which reel life mimicked the real, or at least whatever the tabloids want us to believe. We know Salman Khan, who had a successful year with his Dabangg, will make a cameo appearance here, but to have him perform in a number and sharing the same frame with both Akshay Kumar, and especially ex-flame Katrina Kaif, was a sight to behold in Wallah Re Wallah, especially when Akshay in character almost always become protective of Anya from other hot blooded male predators. One word: Amazing.

While Akshay Kumar may be one of the more industrious actors from B-town, not every film turns out a classic. I had high hopes for his pairing opposite Aishwarya Rai Bachchan in Action Replayy last month, but the story unfortunately tanked. I suppose he has more luck almost always opposite Katrina Kaif, and here he's back to what he does best, playing macho characters. His Tees Maar Khan possesses this impossible swagger and a master of disguise, relying on his wits to get out of sticky situations and dexterous skills of thievery to earn a living, emerging always one step ahead of the cops in pursuit. The introduction to his character came right from the start as an animated baby before and during the opening credits, influenced by his film loving mom while watching cop and robber films with the fetus deciding to live a life of crime instead.

If there's a minor flaw, I'm complaining about the lack of English subtitles before the opening credits, which thankfully was a short scene. Certain subplots also weren't necessary at first, until you realize they were pieces to wrap up the third act to paint a more sympathetic picture of Tees Maar Khan as the half Robin Hood who develops a heart of gold for the villagers he intended to snook, but influenced slowly through the pangs of guilt and compassion to embody and enrich the character. Split down the middle with the intermission separates the film like the recent Ashutosh Gowariker outing Khelein Hum Jee Jaan Sey, with character introductions and planning before the actual commencement of the action in the latter half,

Tees Maar Khan screams Fun with a capital F right from the start, with very deliberate over-acting, an audacious plot and over the top presentation that makes it the right film to end this season with plenty of laughs and a reminder not to take everything so seriously. Farah Khan is in top form with her direction and vision on how TMK is to be presented, ensuring repeat viewings for many reasons at many levels, be it to catch certain scenes again, or to count the number of easter eggs inserted. Relax, have fun, and take it away, Kat!

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Gulliver's Travels

He's So Huge!

Don't expect the modern update of Gulliver's Travels to be true to the centuries old tale, as the story by Joe Stillman and Nicholas Stoller goes for broke in making this one light comedic affair suitable for the whole family. Meaning it's for the broadest common denominator to enjoy in a festive outing during this holiday season without worrying too much about nasty plot gymnastics, gory violence or sexual innuendos, being utterly effects laden (quality is questionable though) and in the gimmick of 3D without exploiting that medium properly.

Jack Black plays LLemuel Gulliver as a big man with big dreams but small on the confidence front, which spells disaster in many ways, being stuck in a mailroom job for a decade, delivering office memos within the New York Tribune, and lacking the courage to do anything more than admire his infatuation Darcy Silverman (Amanda Peet), the editor for the travel desk, from afar. Deciding to seize an opportunity based on a whim and a lie, Darcy assigns him to the Bermudas for a story, and Gulliver ends up going through a magical water spout, ending up in the land of Lilliput where his size becomes an issue for the Lilliudians who ropes him down (probably the only reference true to the original story) and imprisons him as an enemy. But as things go, he soon gains the trust of the little people, who begin to worship him as an awesome deity who can keep their enemies at bay.

And Jack Black being Jack Black, plays with relish the ultimate Star Wars fanboy with plenty of references to the franchise and other pop culture, especially music which has a large role in the film from being employed as a lyrical tool to assist Horatio (Jason Segel) in wooing the woman of his dreams, Princess Mary (Emily Blunt), to spreading the message of anti-war through the song War, which in any case stuck out like a sore thumb in the way the story got developed.

Family friendliness for the young ones will mean themes like beliving in yourself, never giving up, the dangers of lying and such make their obligatory presence felt. And as if to up the comedic quotient, the Lilliputians speaketh funnily, behaving strangely and dressed up as if stuck in a time warp to the medieval ages, with kings and queens and castles to upkeep, with their skill as fantastic builders stretching the imagination akin to possessing some magical qualities. Enemies and villains also do not do much except scowl, and Chris O'Dowd's General Edward overacts in his role en route to becoming Gulliver's arch rival suited up in a metal piece that Iron Man would be proud.

Director Rob Letterman had shown some potential with the animated flick Shark Tale, before the 3D disaster of Monsters vs Aliens which promised potential went unfulfilled, becoming that mediocre animated film that wasn't funny despite having a roster of comedians in lead roles. There isn't much to wow about with this version of Gulliver's Travels, since the story goes smooth sailing without tossing up any surprises, and the verdict is a plain vanilla version that could have been done without.

Little Fockers

Who's Watching Who Now?

It's been 10 years to this date when a friend and I were jaded over an increasingly commercial Christmas period, that we decided to skip meaningless countdowns, and opted to catch Meet the Parents in the cinema instead. An excellent choice, as the film turned out to be a riot, with Robert De Niro just about embarking on a career shift in doing comedies. And who can forget how the film introduced (at least to me) and popularized the much mimicked and spoofed "I'm Watching You" hand sign?

While Meet the Parents and its follow up film Meet the Fockers was a great companion piece, this third film Little Fockers turned out to be quite the misnomer. It isn't much about the little ones of the clan, a general progression one might add with the first dealing with convincing the in-laws that male nurse Gaylord / Greg Focker (Ben Stiller) will make the better husband material for Pam (Teri Polo) than investment banker Kevin Rawley (Owen Wilson), and the sequel bringing together both sides of the family for the first time to some hilariously disastrous results. While one may think that with such a title this film would be focused on the kids - twins Samantha (Daisy Tahan) and Henry (Colin Balocchi), but you get extremely limited scenes, and even rarer for the funnier moments, reserved solely for a stint during their interview for a place at a high end nursery.

My gut feel is that the shift in direction from Jay Roach for the first two films, to Paul Weitz, may be responsible for this. Director Paul Weitz may have had directed one of the raunchiest teen comedies in recent times with the first American Pie, and demonstrated dramatic flair seen with About a Boy and one of my favourite films In Good Company, but somehow seemed mismatched to further the mythos of the Fockers. Instead what you'll feel coming out of the Little Fockers is that strong urge to bring all the characters back together in quite hurried fashion, since stamping a mark means having a hand in taking charge of the characters and their lives 10 years from where it first began, and having a go at the main protagonists of Greg and Jack Byrnes (Robert De Niro) all over again.

This spells a rehash of major plot points already covered before. While it began with what seemed a dandy relationship that Greg may finally have control over with his continued presence in Jack's circle of trust so much so that he's being earmarked as successor to carry on the Byrnes clan's prestige, the story soon gave way and went back to Jack's suspicious mind, honed from decades of covert operations, eager to prove that Greg has fidelity issues, and urges his daughter Pam to change her course midway to hook up with Kevin who continues to show how he's holding a candle to his ex. Now that's cutting quite close to Meet the Parents all over again, were most audiences would have already been.

The tone of the film in terms of its hilarity quotient got dumbed down too much as well. Gone out the window are the more risque jokes that the first two films had in abundance, and in their place were more dramatic sequences dealing with the bringing together of families, the issue of responsibility, wanting the best for the kids, the juggling of roles and I suppose everything that a typical family man, or household, can identify with very easily, which should make for its appeal. Dramatic moments, not comedy.

And for whatever comedy it can muster, it's left to quite juvenile attempts where you can see something coming from a mile away, such as those involving a Viagra type pill, and when you'd half expect Ben Stiller to launch into a blistering tirade against his suffocating father-in-law, and the usual mistaken intent courtesy of Jessica Alba's Andi Garcia, a drug sales representative who's quite the femme fatale here, getting into compromising positions that adds fuel to fire. Obvious references to The Godfather films with "Andi Garcia", "GodFocker" and De Niro himself of course, together with a Raging Bull moment made it a little painful to watch, as those were great films with a fantastic actor now relegated to making a spoof of his iconic roles then.

The story by John Hamburg and Larry Stuckey seemed more interested in stuffing the film with plenty of cameos such as Harvey Keitel as an unscrupulous contractor, Laura Dern and even Deepak Chopra playing himself, and having the original huge ensemble from the earlier films got shoved aside in a tussle for screen time, such as Dina Byrnes (Blythe Danner) who's quite invisible as Jack's wife, and that of the Fockers Bernie (Dustin Hoffman) and Roz (Barbra Streisand) in limited supporting roles, with even a desperate shoo-in for the Byrnes' family kitty. So much for the coming of the family, from going out there to the in-laws with the first two films, to everyone gathering at Greg's (at least that's the original intention) for the 5th birthday celebration of the Little Fockers, which turned out to be the Owen Wilson show of sorts.

It could have been a great comedy given the premise already all set and established by the first two films, but alas, that change in direction and therefore flavour didn't do this franchise any wonders. Good fun, but not great.

Monday, December 20, 2010

[DVD] Airplane! (1980)

Erm, Yeah Riiight

They sure don't make comedies anymore like they used to. Airplane! is that quintessential must watch for any fan of the Abrahams-Zucker-Zucker brand of comedy, where they have perfected the art of punning and comedic irreverence, where everything and anything goes and you'll have to keep your eyes and ears peeled for the barrage of jokes, slapstick and punchlines that come in from the blind. Even after today this film still cracks me up for the countless of jokes from the get go.

The crux of the story (yes there is one!) is the romantic dalliance between a cab driver and one time air force pilot Ted Striker (Robert Hays) who tries to reconcile with estranged girlfriend, stewardess Elaine Dickinson (Julie Hagerty). Not taking no for an answer, he follows her onboard her flight to Chicago, and in between boring passengers with flashbacks to the good ol romantic days, his lack of confidence in flight gets called upon as all the pilots get put out of action through a bout of food poisoning.

And it's a tremendously busy flight with a myriad of caricatures in the passengers that do things that are plain implausible it's funny. Not only that, we also get ground crew trying to guide the plane to touchdown at the airport, and one of the inane characters Johnny, played by Stephen Stucker, responsible for many of the literal comedic and nutcase moments. And of course there are famous names attached to the film such as Lloyd Bridges, Peter Graves and even Kareem Abdul-Jabbar the basketballer, all eyes are of course on Leslie Nielsen as the doctor on board Dr. Rumack, who immortalized the line "and don't call me Shirley", with his signature deadpan reaction, and who would go on following this film to make the Naked Gun series with the filmmakers here.

One thing that strikes you when watching this film in retrospect, despite its comedic intent, is how lax air travel security tend to be back then, especially when cockpit visits are now totally banned. Buying a ticket at the last minute at the counter in similar fashion as what was done in the film also doesn't raise too many alarm bells, compared to what if one is to do the same today. And barging into the control tower, well I guess the rules have changed.

That aside, this film may look a little dated, but the brand of comedy the Zucker brothers and Abrahams have given to the cinematic world is priceless and extremely hard to emulate, try as hard as some hacks in today's era would in choking their film with impersonators and spoofing modern pop culture, which gets so tired after a while. Even up until today the puns in Airplane! is rock solid, and will still get me, as always. And keep that eye on the rolling end credits!

The Region 1 DVD by Paramount presents the film in an anamorphic widescreen format with audio in English 5.1 Dolby Digital. Subtitles are available in English and French, with scene selection over 26 chapters. There aren't much extras here other than the Theatrical Trailer (3:32) and the Group Commentary with Jon Davison, Jim Abrahams, Jerry Zucker and David Zucker which is a definite must-listen as they share plenty of trivia about what happened behind the scenes with information thrown up all over the place, just like how they design their brand of comedy.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

[DVD] The Science of Sleep (2006)

What Does It Take?

Michel Gondry may probably leap into the mainstream conscious with the big screen treatment of the upcoming The Green Hornet in January next month, even though his films Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and Be Kind Rewind had been played in cinemas here today, somehow The Science of Sleep had been given a miss, which is a pity. It's a romantic fantasy story that I thought would sit well, if not for its fantastical moments which were utterly and incredibly creative, a product I guess from an inventive mind.

Gael Garcia Bernal plays Stephane Miroux, a sort of mirror for the writer director himself like it or not, especially for his inventive and curious mind which slips into dreamland, and has trouble differentiating between his dream world, and reality at times. I guess even before Christopher Nolan came up with Inception, there's The Science of Sleep which deals with commonalities about living in a dream, but in a more surreal, romanticized way rather than to manipulate. Barnal aces his role as the good looking guy who is shy and sort of a recluse, a creative type looking for an outlet to showcase his abilities, only for his mom to con him to relocate from Mexico to Paris on the pretext of a suitable job available. In a wicked mood, you'll find pleasure as he stumbles through the language barrier, and plenty of Freudian slips that make him come across as an inconsiderate, impolite jerk.

While his career doesn't take off as he would like, being amongst a zany bunch in a calendar producing office, Stephane gets acquainted with his new neighbour Stephanie (Charlotte Gainsbourg), who becomes in an instant an object of his affection, but being socially inept, he's absolutely clueless how to go about pursuing her, since she's quite direct from the onset that she doesn't have a boyfriend nor is looking for one. Stephane's pursuit slowly eats into his subconscious, and we get to see on an increasing scale how this wooing of an unattainable girl soon consumes his being, with little lies, and that mesh of reality and fantasy that exposes his insecurity. But hey, to an audience, this suits us just fine, as it provides for plenty of eye candy entertainment when objects come to life or when he creates some cheeky and fun inventions (check out the one second time machine, which makes perfect sense in execution!), and through stop motion, one of those techniques that I'd always enjoy and appreciate.

The best parts of the film are something like what Gondry did in his film Be Kind Rewind, where surreal dreamy moments are more "sueded" with simple common material found around the house, like cardboard rolls, rather than to get something more stylish or refined. There's some naivety and innocence when in this world and in some ways, play out like music videos, which is what Gondry had been working on before embarking on feature films. Like his previous film Eternal Sunshine, there's no escape from wanting or desiring life as it is in the dream, rather than to face the harshness of reality which almost always doesn't pan out like our desires and dream.

And of course the other bit which I liked tremendously, is to peer into Stephane's head, where there's him sitting in a control center aka his brain, with windows that peer through and sees what the eyes see, and a blue screen literally being the canvas of how the imagination work, superimposing recollected dreamscapes through which his fantasies play out, especially with the presence of the dreamworld Stephanie who obviously behaves in a way he desires, completely different from the real life experience.

I'm not too sure how Gondry will be able to stem his mark that he's established so far with the making of The Green Hornet, but I'm guessing it'll likely play out in more straightforward fashion than this one, which at its core is a pretty impressive romantic tale that has two lost souls, one who misses his mark on countless of occasions and groping very hard to find an emotional connection with the other. Excellent and seemingly improvisational production values make this a must watch!

The Region 1 DBD by Warner Bros Home Entertainment presents the feature film in an anamorphic widescreen format, with audio presented in English 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround. Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish for this multi-lingual film, with a 25 chapter scene selection.

The disc begins with a set of trailers that autoplays, with The Painted Veil, The Fountain, Infamous, and For Your Consideration. Special Features included on the disc are presented in full screen format:

Commentary by Writer-Director Michel Gondry, Gael Garcia Bernal, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Sacha Bourdo - with an ensemble like that you'd either have plenty of nuggets of information coming your way, but unfortunately, this one is quite lacking in certain counts. While you cannot deny the fine camaraderie that had been built up over the production, most of the talking's done by Gondry and Bernal, who are the more chatty of the lot. Otherwise most of it is just plain descriptive about the scenes, the recounting of experiences in shooting them, in between chunky periods of silence.

The Making of The Science of Sleep (39:14) begins with an interview with the Director of Photography Jean-Louis Bompoint recounting his experience meeting Michel Gondry, and vice versa with working with Bompoint, where they had began working on a series of shorts. And some of the ideas actually came from a significant time back, where we can see influences coming from early in his life. As with any standard making of film, this includes interviews with cast and crew, and showcases the entire creative and production process in making this film to fruition. Surprisingly a lot of things are done through practical effects rather than to exploit computer technology, which I think the result is a film that's a lot more endearing.

Lauri (11:13) centers on Lauri Faggioni, the Animals and Accessories Creator for The Science of Sleep, who is responsible for every animal and thingamajig that we see in the film, their creation and design, so full credit to her if we enjoy and are amazed at these gorgeous and inventive creations.

Rescue Me (3:36) introduces us to Linda Serbu who runs Hollywood Kitty, a home for unwanted cats. Just how it ties in to the film? Well remember the song performed in Stephane's imagination involving his group of co-workers in their boss' office dressed as cats? That's the title of the song and it's about this! And this continues with Adopt Some Love (4:58) which is a short documentary by Linda Serbu about a colony of stray cats and the people who look after them. Rounding the features up is the Theatrical Trailer (2:17) for the film.

Haunted Changi Now Out on DVD

The DVD for Haunted Changi has launched, and it has no lack of extras packed into it as well! This edition now out in stores contain the feature film with enhanced footage unseen in cinemas, so for those who want to return to the location through film (since it is now officially closed), this I guess will be your pick.

Special features include the First 3 Chapters of Sheena's book "What Happened to the Crew of Haunted Changi", which was hinted about at the end of the film, and the 16mm World War 2 archival footage which I guess is the documentary piece seen in the beginning of the movie. For all the controversies raised during the production stage about the blog entries, the Crew's Production Blog is archived into the DVD as well, and rounding up the features is the obligatory Original Theatrical Trailer.

But that's not all! The DVD will also come packed with an actual 35mm filmstrip from the movie! So it's a lottery out there if you do pick up the DVD that you do not get segments of the film where well, you see/get nothing!

You can read my review of Haunted Changi here, and check out the cast and crew Q&A here.

For more details about the DVD release, and how you can get your hands on a copy whether you're in Singapore or overseas, check out this link at the official movie webpage.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

[DVD] Duplex (2003)

Sleepless Nights

The home gatecrasher, the unwelcome guest, and the tenant from hell. These can be used to sum up the story of Duplex, directed by comedian/actor Danny DeVito and featuring the first time pairing of comedians Ben Stiller and Drew Barrymore as the husband and wife suburban couple who through an animated opening credit sequence, go through property after property looking for the perfect place to set up their home, which should also double up as a home office for Stiller's Alex Rose, an up and coming writer due to complete his next novel without having to write at Starbucks.

Thanks to their housing agent, they settle for the titular duplex, which seemed like a great idea for their housing plans and one that's within their budget, a good deal even though it comes with a caveat that they cannot throw out the existing tenant, an old lady called Mrs Connelly (Eileen Essell) who stays upstairs and well, pays the rent. But little do they know that their lives would soon turn topsy turvy through the skillful manipulation that senior citizens can be capable of, appealing to good citizenry in wanting to help others, only to be willingly exploited to run errants, and face a crisis of sorts in either wanting to stay put, or leave.

So we go into full gear of the battle between households, where sleep gets interrupted through the elderly lady putting on her TV at full blast, and the couple getting back in tit-for-tat fashion. But it seems that Mrs Connelly is always one step ahead either in the luck department, or having the authorities, Officer Dan (Robert Wisdom) on her side. After all, who would you rather believe - a frail old woman in her twilight years, or a young yuppie couple whose backfiring revenge tactics put them in bad light as discourteous, intolerant people? Oh if only everyone else knew the cunningness of the elderly!

Danny DeVito's film, based on a story by Larry Doyle, however keeps things rather firmly in PG fashion even though the couple's intent move from nice tactics into murderous territory, deciding to employ desperate measures given that they're driven up the wall and with the couple both having their household revenue stream impacted. Both Stiller and Barrymore provide good comic timing especially in their individual scenes (well, someone has to bring home the bacon) when their characters get stuck with "entertaining" the bothersome old lady whose benign requests usually turn out to the contrary.

But the scene stealer would of course be Eileen Essell as Mrs Connelly with her playing both the fragile old Irish lady who is more than meets the eye, a force to be reckoned with beneath the aged exterior, capable of tugging at your conscience and making you feel guilty should you not accede to her gentle pleas, which almost always come laced with sarcasm, or the nitty gritty that makes you feel bad. Convincingly playing her role without which this film would probably have not been able to make us laugh with or at Stiller and Barrymore's characters as they get stuck in their predicament which comes with a predictable twist at the end. It's evil, I know.
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