Sunday, February 28, 2010

Dear John

Say It Like You Mean It

Dear John,

Romance is a bitch, ain't it? Especially when you don't hear from someone for longer than the usual duration, blaming the delay on everyone else except the sender, then the sledgehammer comes aimed squarely at your heart, smashing it to bits, and it had to be done when you least expected, without preparation, without a chance at attempting to put things right again.

Been there, done that my friend, although you did demonstrate you're a decent chap who can forgive and extend a helping hand toward someone who had essentially taken advantage of your situation given the pitiable situation. You're out there defending the notion of freedom for your country, and that's exactly how a countryman capitalizes on your absence. You're a soldier, so you'll probably know that all is fair in love and war, just too bad that you got on the losing end as you're fighting with one hand tied behind your back.

Hope you don't get stuck or conned again by another confused girl, but sometimes, once bitten we're still not twice shy, and we go into the same old, tried and tested loop again, don't we?

Your Friend, Stefan S

At least that would be my letter to John Tyree, a Special Forces GI Joe type which Channing Tatum seemed dangerously stereotyped to play, and the girls like Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried) go gaga over when he plunges into the water to rescue her girlie bag which had dropped in. So boy meets girl by chance, they like each other, and spend the most incredible two weeks hanging out and declaring their affections before summer's over. It's like the opening shot in Grease, only that they take a pledge to keep one another in their minds, and write each other from miles away, since Mr Career Soldier is assigned a stint overseas, made worse with the events of 9/11, finding himself being torn between his lady love, and the call of duty to fight for freedom.

You've got to take your hats off to the novelist Nicholas Sparks, who can craft a romance as easy as spreading butter on toast, be it an elderly one (Nights in Rodanthe), or a teeny-bopper puppy first love between a quietly violent man and a teenage girl, both of whom do not know exactly what they want except to spend as much time with each other as possible, before they got to have to carry on with their lives. Peppered with enough romantic scenes in the first half such as stolen glances, the rain, the long walks on the beach and such, nothing's really gonna prepare you for the relatively more brutal, more realist development.

Characterization in this film was spent more on John I felt, than on Savannah. After all, we're following his story from the onset, and his relationship with his dad (played by the wonderful Richard Jenkins) had a lot more oomph than that between Savannah and her parents (very superficial), or even between the lovers themselves. There's a very thorough, meaningful and moving sub-story with regards to father and son's coin collection, which I deem as the ultimate highlight of the film, rather than the gimmicky sending and reading of letters back and forth across time and space, which other stories such as The Lake House had utilized.

I haven't read the book so I cannot comment on the ending if it stayed through, but the way it was delivered by Lasse Hallstrom, of the latest Hachiko fame, one would have thought that it would be planned in a better manner, rather than to rely on a convenient and somewhat abrupt finale that unfortunately in today's screening, the music wobbled at a critical point, making it all seem rather amusing rather than touching. At least the story steered clear of the usual romantic twists and as such keeping it fresh though safe, and tolerable rather than to roll your eyes at another cliché.

Dear John has its moments, though I don't exactly call this one a date movie, unless you're watching this for the first half. Oh, and the way the lovers make love one fateful night was deemed too risque by the censors, so their recommendation to have it badly butchered was heeded if the distributors wanted a safer PG rating, to the groans of the female audience who were all anticipating more of Tatum's John (pardon the intentionally bad pun). So there. We can see blood spurting out of John's uniform when bullets pass through his shoulder, but we have a lower tolerance for love.


Mention Kazuaki Kiriya, and Casshern inevitably comes to mind. After all, that's the only feature film he had done since, and it comes with plenty of CG used to create backdrops which no longer existed, and effects used to overload the senses, making what's on screen seem very much like a computer generated comic book, with characters possessing superhuman prowess that are of course second nature since nothing is impossible in the virtual world. I had the opportunity to view this film on board an airplane, but it's a good thing I held out in the hopes that it'll make it to the big screen here, since Kiriya brings back the same technical formula for the telling of his tale of legendary ninja bandit Goemon Ishikawa.

Played by Yosuke Eguchi in the titular role, the folklore of Goemon is just like that of Robin Hood, where a man of nobility becomes the bandit of the land, robbing the rich and distributing the wealth obtained to the poor to ensure the narrowing of the rich-poor divide. With each retelling the legend just grows, so much that there's no more a definitive version of the story, but stories which build upon one another to bring out the flavour and characterization of a known hero in 16th century Japan, where feuding warlords ensure that peace is but a buzzword of a promise yet to be fulfilled to their people. This of course allows Kiriya to heap on loads of artistic license in his tale, which is relatively complete with an origin story, political intrigue, a romance and plenty of fight sequences which will make the action junkie in you whoop for joy.

Which of course is the mainstay for anyone who's watching this. Almost all the battle sequences here are far out and CG enhanced with steroids, ranging from huge armies squaring off, or individual one on one battles with out of this world weapons and moves, reliant on dizzying camera work to bring out the dexterity of the combatants, that you're left gasping for air sometimes as it loops all around the action. If there's a minor gripe, then it'll be moments where such powers get forgotten, which of course helps the narrative at its convenience, otherwise we'll be faced with an indestructible superman that will make it rather boring.

Themes of friendship, loyalty, betrayal and vengeance become staple in this period fantasy film, especially when we learn of Goemon's allies, which include his ninjitsu peer Saizo, played by Takao Osawa whom I thought resonated more with the story given the plight he got put through. Also, the episode with Saizo highlights how Kiriya focused a little more on the emotional aspects of the characters involved in its more dramatic moments with their difference in philosophies, and the writer-director's knack of fusing together historical events (such as the Battle of Sekigahara and the ascension of the Ieyasu Tokugawa) and personnel into the narrative, making it a richer experience for the audience, and lending itself some grandeur in terms of epicness

Despite clocking slightly over two hours, there are enough twists and turns here given changing loyalties, and supporting role appearances by other legendary characters such as Hattori Hanzo (Susumu Terajima) the famed swordsman. Ryoko Hirosue has a flower vase role here as the love interest of Goemon who decided to do a noble thing of being sacrificed as a concubine of the deranged warlord, but does little else other than to continue reminding Goemon how infatuated he is with her.

The initial moments do require some getting used to as the visuals are built upon CG created landscapes, but it'll soon build on you that without which a film like this could probably not be easily made. It's Kazuaki Kiriya's signature visual style, and I had enjoyed Goemon very much so when it found some balance between its action scenes, and its dramatic moments. Just so you know if I have to choose my favourite fight sequence, it'll have to be Goemon and Hattori's duel in the last act, which showed why one is master over the other.

Up in the Air

Told You To Pack Light

Once in a long while comes a film that you'll tremendously enjoy because it engages on many levels through an extremely smart story, with wonderfully designed characters, and themes that you can easily identify with straightaway. Jason Reitman seems to be on a roll here, with Juno and Thank You For Smoking being great films that I've come to enjoy (particularly the satirical latter) and he delivers yet again with Up in the Sky.

From time to time I dwell on the what-ifs of having being told to walk. Given the jittery economic climate the last few years, anything's really possible, and yes I've got to admit I've got a plan B set up, a dream that would be put into execution in the event I'm sitting across someone who's reading me the marching orders. Then again, why wait for something to happen before pursuing what one really wants to do? I guess it's what they call it as the comfort zone.

George Clooney stars as Ryan Bingham, a man with an interesting job yet one which most people loathe - telling people that they're given the pink slips, and essentially that they're considered surplus and no longer required by their companies. He's a corporate down-sizer for hire, where companies with pussy managers hire his company's expertise, to do the marching orders on their behalf. Which means his type gets to travel frequently to where they are required, and in which case chalk up frequent flier miles by the thousands. In my opinion, not the bad job scope given being on the road most of the time (those who hate to live out of the suitcase need not apply), though one that has to come with plenty of EQ and sensitivity, since you're the harbinger of bad news, and have to face the brunt of mostly surprised employees being told their worthless.

Which of course through the years Ryan would have formulated his game strategy to deliver the message softly, sugar-coating it all, and as an occupational hazard develops this fetish for plastic cards for convenience, miles and a major one being unable to hold down a stable relationship because of his nature of not always being around friends and family. And I actually share his attitude towards expectations that stem from relationships, preferring to be winging it alone rather than to surrender that sense of freedom, although time and again one might just feel the need to belong to somebody else. But of course we’re not identifying with Ryan just because of his single status, but also because of the comical, quirky mantras he lives by in his jet setting career, offering some keen insights to the very rote manner in which he travels from plane to hotel and back again.

Things are set for some change when his boss Craig Gregory (Jason Bateman) gets smitten by some textbook cost cutting measures (which manager wouldn’t?) presented by Ivy Leaguer Natalie Keener (Anna Kendrick), and hires her to execute her plan, involving the use of technology to remotely fire someone on the other end of the webcam. Of course this means the total disruption to Ryan's comfortable lifestyle, with a hint that it'll make them all redundant in due course, when the need for face to face interaction ceases, in what would be a totally impersonal, not to mention the lack of moral decency and respect for the staff one is about to let go.

But because with any technological plans come the need to understand the process and the business in which technology will be employed, so Natalie gets attached to Ryan since she has zero real world experience being fresh out of college and all, and in showing her the ropes come more opportunity for comedy, as well as to dig deeper into the characterization. The best scenes of course come from their interaction, and the three way conversation that they have with Ryan's new found fleeting girlfriend, Alex (Vera Farmiga). when they touch upon the decisions one makes on relationships, whether it be willing to commit, or prefer to be free from the shackles of relationships and emotional routine.

Ultimately, the film talks about the moral courage for changes to be made in one's life. We all get complacent in our zones of comfort, and can become quite the creature of habit, seeking solace in routine and things we're familiar with. Branching out isn't easy and comes with innate fear which we must overcome, sort of like the backpack motivational talks Ryan gives, where we tend to pile our life with so much junk that it's always hard to let go of things, to lighten our load, and find new meaning and adventure. And on the relationship front, one character finds himself falling into a relationship, while another finds herself getting out of one but not by choice, offering a nice little opposing parallel when put side by side.

Up in the Air deserves every single accolade that it has won thus far, and surely this flies up into my initial shortlist of favourite films of the year. No prizes for guessing which movie I’m rooting for in this season’s Oscar race for Best Adapted Screenplay for its incredibly well crafted story. Highly recommended, and you’re doing yourself a disservice if you miss this on the big screen!

Saturday, February 27, 2010



I was skeptical at first whether this film would actually make our shores here, given that it sets itself at the junction of early civilization, the waning of the Roman Empire, and the rise of Christianity in Alexandria, Egypt. During the screening, it dawned upon me that this film is most apt and timely in reminding everyone of the need for religious tolerance and harmony, because unless we learn from history, we are going to make the same kind of mistakes and never learn from it, putting ourselves as a people many steps back in terms of progress, given what has already happened here when a religious leader decides to mock another faith.

Agora goes back to a time where the Christians were growing in numbers, and a society which are made up of them, the pagan worshippers, and those who follow philosophy, or science for that matter. Starring Rachel Weisz in the lead role of Hypatia, a leading female philosopher who teaches at The Library, a repository of a wealth of knowledge of mankind at the time, hers is the imparting of knowledge to her group of elite students, who one day would take up important leadership roles in future society, while keeping herself busy through the research of astronomy and geography, at a time where the Earth was considered flat and at the centre of the universe. There were many interesting schools of thought which we are likely to chuckle at now, but these make for glimpses of good insights as to how theories and hypotheses get developed, tested and proven.

Outside of the school however, is where the action is and toward which the film gravitates as trouble begins to brew, where everyone wears their religion on their sleeves, making callous remarks such as comparing gods, and that “my god is better than your god”, the kind of mockery and insults thrown around that is bound to warrant irrational responses, even if they are thrown about today by careless groups seeking to provoke. So when one group decides to take up arms, no thanks to the goading by a religious leader, blind followers of the faith will not resort to peaceful resolution, but one that bays for blood.

How mob mentality can take over rational thought easily, and it is well known of the responsibilities that religious leaders should hold, and the clout they have over their followers. This is especially dangerous when false prophets are abound, and their deliberate and measured twisting of scripture interpretation for their own political ends has to be something to be nipped in the bud. But therein lies another challenge to the political masters, the Romans in this case, since they too irk to be seen taking heavy handed measures lest they themselves fall out from their political seats of power when people choose to riot, and that chaos caused by followers would overwhelm their own soldiers, who in turn of course, belong to their respective faiths.

And the peril of religious riots cannot be more than emphasized when friends have to turn against friends, slaves against masters, and everything reduced to rubble just because one group decides to wage battle with another, regardless of the cost, which in this case was to put civilization back many years when scientific records and journals were destroyed in the name of being blasphemous. Sometimes I just wonder, whatever happen to good common sense of moral decency, when one preaches to be of a certain faith, but the deeds done run contrary to the message the faith preaches, devoid of love and forgiveness, but replaced with human failings such as hatred and violence.

Filmed in Malta with gorgeous sets recreating the space of a time long buried in the annals of history, the film provokes thought on multiple levels, dealing with the likes of religious tolerance, friendship, desire, science through the main characters of Hypatia and those who are orbiting around her centre, such as slave turned moral police-monk Davus (Max Minghella), prefect Orestes (Oscar Isaac) whose love Hypatia once spurned and is put under growing pressure to be bow to the political power wielded by Bishop Cyril (Sami Samir), and Synesius (Rupert Evan), once a student and now Bishop of a neighbouring land brought in to try and neutralize Cyril's powerful clout.

Being a period piece you'll soon find yourself absorbed by the tale of bigotry and the dangers of what ambition of a religious leader can do given their personal agendas, if left unchecked to incite hatred and ridicule against non-believers, and worse, violence, which will be a tad too late to try and remedy. The message contained within the film cannot be more applicable in the world of today. Highly recommended must watch film this crowded week, and it goes into my list as essential viewing.

Karthik Calling Karthik

Call Me

The telephone has left its indelible mark as a horror film element, thanks to many Japanese films and Hollywood remakes which dwell on mankind's fear of pervasive technology, and it is easy to mistake this Bollywood film, written and directed by debutant Vijay Lalwani as one of the run of the mill horror films which the protagonist get antagonized by strange phone calls made to him in the middle of the night. Thankfully though it steered clear of that formula, although it did become quite the stretch in its home run revelation, to achieve what's relatively short for an Indian film that clocks in just slightly over two hours.

Farhan Akhtar impresses and carries the film on his shoulders from start to end. Famous for being a prolific producer and director himself, he has no lack of acting chops and takes on the role as the mysterious Karthik Narayan, a meek man who is agonized by his childhood secret of having been involved in his brother's death. Carrying that kind of guilt while growing up does severe deficiencies as a child, and he becomes very much reserved, often failing to let his talent shine, and being trampled over in his office. He is infatuated with his beautiful colleague Shonali Murkhejee (Deepika Padukone) to the point of being a crazed stalker, accumulating thousands of emails he just had not the guts to send out, and it is this point about being obsessed that is truly scary in the film, especially when these emails were used to aid in the wooing process. Run, girl!

The only other film I watched Farhan star in, is the ensemble piece Luck By Chance, which gave a contemporary look at the Bollywood film industry. Here he cuts his Karthik in two different styles, the first of course which is the shy and gentle meticulous genius with a penchant for solving Rubik cube puzzle. The second develops when Karthik receives anonymous calls on his landline, from a chap to claim to be Karthik himself, dispensing advice on taking personal ownership and standing up for oneself. It's a confidence booster that Karthik's own psychiatrist (Shefali Shetty) seem unable to dispense, and with the prep talk every dawn at 5am, Karthik becomes the confident man as he struts around the office, succeeding in every aspect thanks to those calls, and eventually wooing the girl of his dreams.

The first half focused on the romance for the most parts after Karthik's professional life gets sorted, and here the usual musical montages form the backdrop of the courtship between Karthik and the outgoing Shonali. Deepika Padukone's career so far as been an interesting one, bursting onto the scene with Om Shanti Om and Chandni Chowk to China, both films where she would play two characters each. Thereafter the roles offered somehow didn't challenge the actress, from Bachna Ae Haseeno and Love Aaj Kal capitalizing on her good looks to become yet another romantic heroine. Karthik Calling Karthik again doesn't allow her to break new ground, other than being the clotheshorse in the film..

For a first timer, Vijay Lalwani doesn't become like Karthik in being the bundle of nerves, but pulls this film through with a story that discusses about how technology develops itself despite detrimental effects to health, and mental issues of guilt and intricate complexities of the mind. Through the narrative he challenges the usual norms that one would stereotype this film under, although for a teasing moment decided to let it go a little to offer what a horror film would do with ease. The cards get kept close to his chest with a satisfying revelation at the end of course, but somehow the second half, in which Karthik would be set to challenge the caller after a series of downfalls because of the breaking of promises (and if pushing it, the inevitable trusting of a woman!), seem to be dragging things out for a tad too long, and convenient to boot as well.

No cheap gimmicks were used, and by steering clear of the expected, Karthik versus Karthik manages ring through (pardon the bad pun) as an above average thriller.

Summer Wars (Samâ Wôzu / サマーウォーズ)

We Are Family

I had enjoyed Mamoru Hosada's anime film The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and had eagerly anticipated his latest effort Summer Wars to hit our shores since last year. I'm glad it did, and it busted my expectations, proving that he's no one hit wonder, and together with writer Satoko Okudera, have again come up with a worthy tale animated under the Madhouse banner.

Which is beautiful to look at, and an assault of the visual senses from the first frame, with so many simultaneous action happening in the same frame that just begs for a rewatch in order to try and get everything, with its highly detailed digital world reminiscent of an equivalent psychological one in Satoshi Kon's Paprika. Here, we're introduced into the online world of OZ, where everyone is highly reliant on to get day to day transactions done, from making phone calls to complex monitoring of distress signals be it personal health, or critical infrastructures. Think of it as Facebook on steroids, with the provision of interactive avatars that can be accessed from virtually any connected device big or small, and containing profiles of just about everything that's online.

It is this over-reliance of technology for communications and interaction, that Summer Wars aims itself at with a cautionary tale that we should not forget the ties that matters, the real world ones, and especially that of the family. These are real bonds forged, which an online one can be susceptible to crackers and exploitation, in the name of fun and without evaluation of consequences. It's the real, old-school styled world versus the convenience that technology has brought, and our continued evolution along the digital lines, missing out on the old fashioned way of communication that we get to see put to good use here, from dated filofaxes, to thumbing through of address books, postcards, and letters.

The tale centers around the "almost-math-olympiad" representative of Japan, high-schooler Kenji Koiso (voiced by Ryunosuke Kamiki), who volunteers his time and service to his crush, the most beautiful girl in the school Natsuki Shinohara (Nanami Sakuraba) to spend the summer at her ancestral home in Ueda. Little does he know that Natsuki wants him to pose as her boyfriend, since she had promised the matriarch of her family, Sakae Jinnouchi (Sumiko Fuji), a powerful, well connected woman, to do so when she goes back for the holidays. And what an extended family it proved to be, giving opportune to the introduction of quirky, lovable characters, each with their own traits which may prove stereotypical, but I highly enjoyed their presence.

As with any large family, there is bound to be someone who had outcast himself and not very well liked, said to be the black sheep and isn't on cordial terms with everyone. The threat faced to the family and the world at large somehow got intertwined together, and makes for an incredibly engaging time witnessing how events unravel themselves, with new discoveries made and alliances forged as the family stands together to do battle and wrestle control over what was essentially dropped on their laps to address. Pleasant surprises get thrown up along the way to keep the adrenaline pumping, and of course to keep you guessing, which is a very nice touch from the usual formula. And Hosada seems to have a knack for making films with strong female characters once again, even having the males in the family conceding so.

Summer Wars is an extremely rich story take takes place on two different planes, the real and the virtual, with good themes and some very beautiful, detailed animation to make you cry out for more. A love story also managed to get snuck in with the littlest of scenes, but always packing powerful emotions throughout. If anyone's not convinced on the power of Japanese animation of late, then give this film a go. I'd bet you won't get disappointed, and I highly rate this early in the year into my shortlist of the best I've seen this year, thus far. Don't miss this on the big screen!

Friday, February 26, 2010

Coming Soon: Haunted Changi

A local documentary film is coming our way very soon, which explores the history and legends behind Singapore's infamous location. Mention the name Old Changi Hospital of Singapore and you'll easily get a plethora of supernatural tales. The site's still standing, and it still is creepy even though you're just driving by. In broad daylight. For those unfamiliar, this hospital was built in the 1930s, and was used during WWII when Singapore was under Japanese occupation as a POW camp complete with torture chambers. Spirits of different races and nationalities have been claimed to be seen wandering the premises especially at night.

According to the producer Sheena Chung, the crew had gone in and spent a night at the site with various cameras and captured plenty of strange happenings on film and audio tape. The crew got really sick after the night shoot, with the soundman was down and out for a week. Sheena herself had seen some of the footage and attests its frightening bits, from what she had gleaned so far during post production.

Could this film be our very own Blair Witch equivalent? You decide...

Related Links
Haunted Changi Official Movie Website
Production Blog
Facebook Group

Thursday, February 25, 2010

Happy Go Lucky (福星到)

Huat Ah!

For a first time feature filmmaker, Harry Yap has gone for the jugular in his maiden attempt to write, produce and direct a film starring recognizable household names in Singapore, with the likes of Fann Wong, Richard Low, Patricia Mok and Liu Ling Ling, each of them veterans in the television and film scene. A friend once told me that with the right cast put in place, any film can direct itself, but unfortunately even these seasoned actors cannot perform miracles on what's essentially a very weak plot (if there is one to begin with) peppered with bizarre pacing and having disparate scenes stitched together and stretched to feature length proportions.

Comparisons with Jack Neo's films cannot be avoided. After all, Happy Go Lucky treaded upon the very same themes, techniques and even jokes that Neo employs in his earlier films, from toilet humour, use of Chinese dialects in rapid fire dialogues and word play, right down to the very blatant product placements, which stick up very much like a sore thumb here since it inevitably drew attention to itself, and the usual social commentary that snuck into the storyline, this time being very topical on its anti-gambling stance as well as touching on the opening of the casinos in Singapore.

In effect, what Happy Go Lucky did, was to make Jack Neo films "World Class", for lack of a better description. Production wise this film is not as slick as productions that we'd come to expect a Singapore film to have evolved into, and looks akin to Neo's earlier films - those that would be dated if seen today, for its rough edges. There's no lack of budget here of course, given the star-studded cast, as well as locales reaching out to Cambodia even for the last act, but somehow it forgot about the fundamentals of a good, solid story.

As mentioned, scenes are disjointed from one to another, and worse, some being there for the sake of. There were many areas that could have been edited out, serving little purpose in the film to move the narrative forward. For instance, a scene can be set up just to have a joke run its course. I have to admit though that I was tickled (at the Lim Pei scene - tried and tested formula, but still funny thanks to the charismatic Richard Low) but it doesn't tell anything more, nor serve a purpose other than to elicit laughter. Being a comedy, there are jokes from the onset, but there were a lot more that fell on its face, than to make you laugh out loud, before losing steam as the tired narrative wore on.

Characterisation is ultimately one-dimensional and cliched, riding upon the established personas of its cast in what is essentially another incarnation of the Cinderella story, where Poh Xing (Fann Wong) is the emotionally abused daughter of Hock Lee Poh (Richard Low) and has to endure constant childish chidings from her no-good sister Donna (Patricia Mok). I'm not sure how Fann Wong came to star as the lead here, given her relatively rich filmography which boasts a movie from Hollywood as well. In this film, her role as Poh Xing is whom you'll call extremely lucky, a Calamity Jane on one hand, but yet able to ward off bad luck nonchalantly. Being good natured, we get the point when she's the only one volunteering her time to the senior citizens in her neighbourhood, and when abused, puts her watery, contrived bambi-eyes to good use before switching to her cheery self. If one doesn't know better, it looks schizophrenic.

Richard Low too fell victim of the stereotypical roles that he had played before. In fact if you were to check on how many actors have their screen characters strike lottery, then Richard Low will come up tops, hands down. Or if you want someone to swear in Hokkien with flair and gusto, look no further than this actor. I'm not complaining though as he does what he does best, but seriously, Singapore filmmakers need to realize that he cannot play the same kind of roles repeatedly. His Hock Lee Poh is the perennial gambler who has this miraculous foot reflexology shop run by his daughters and Liu Ling Ling's supporting character, but the amount he gambles away in the film (before the striking of lottery) makes one wonder how the shop had not gone down under since he's spending like there's no tomorrow.

Then there's Patricia Mok, who amplifies her usual uncouth, loud mouthed persona who's man crazy. So far, Mok's roles in films are nothing more than supporting ones for a scene or two, so Happy Go Lucky will mark one of the earliest that she has relatively more screen time devoted. However, with her falling for the usual caricature type as depicted by the script, complete with exaggerated moments which tried too hard, meant that it's another film in waiting for the actress to show what she can really do. Being loud does not equate automatically to being comical.

A number of missteps were made along the way, those that the first time feature filmmaker will try hard to deviate from, but will find themselves inevitably filming Singapore fit for a touristy video. Watching the film is like suffering from multiple personality disorder, at one moment dwelling on something, and the next suddenly shifting gears to talk about something else. It's one thing featuring events like the karaoke bar visit in the film, but another when it's easily misconstrued to be a showy platform from a moral high ground. What's even more peculiar is the featuring of a real geomancer in the last act, and it became something like an instructional video on gambling How Tos, Dos and Don'ts.

The inexperience in pacing a film shows as it goes the roundabout way to get any point through, but Yap's experience with television meant that support from the medium came in the form on roping in familiar faces for supporting and cameo roles. An average film at best, and it'll definitely have to rely on the deities featured to try and bring in box office wealth. Wait for the DVD will be my advise, if you're really dying to see this.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

The Last Station


One thing's for sure, this film boasts an A-list cast such as this year's Oscar award nominees in Christopher Plummer and Helen Mirren, and others such as James McAvoy and Paul Giamatti, that the film literally gets carried away on their collective shoulders. Detailing the last year of Russia's, and one of the world's literary great Tolstoy, the film examines how his growing stature amongst society and his non-violent, pacifist movement start to gain so much traction, that he becomes almost like a demi-god worshipped by the masses who lap on every single word and phrase he utters. His thought of leaving his material assets to his protege (Giamatti) also sends his wife (Mirren) into a frenzy, wanting their assets to go not into another's hands (even if touted as for the greater good), but to keep it within the family and the children.

Then there are other subplots as well, most notably the romantic one where a young, passionate love is contrasted against a maturing one that has gone on a plateau, and the one which I liked was how McAvoy's character got sent undercover as a spy to report back on Tolstoy's every doing, but also finding himself caught up with the enemy when caught under a constant crossfire. Plummer gives possibly the most iconic portrayal of a historical character in his career,

You can read my review of The Last Station at by clicking on the logo below.


Tuesday, February 23, 2010

[Mini Feature] The Gang (私会党)

As far as I can recall, the only other time where a short film got the Gala Premiere treatment, was Royston Tan's Sin Sai Hong (新赛凤) back in 2006 where it made its debut at the National Museum of Singapore Gallery Theatre. Arguably one of the most expensive local short films to be made (close to S$100K), The Gang got its Gala with plenty of pomp and fanfare, making its debut over at The Grand Cathay tonight, with cast, crew, many members of the film community and invited guests, which also had a 2-song showcase by Maia Lee, making her film debut in what she had revealed as a role that was created for her when producer-director-writer Kelvin Sng decided to cast her in the film.

This 32 minute short is quite the labour of love of a vision that is yet complete. I've tracked the beginnings of Sng's More Than Words since 2007, where I believe it was a flyer I've obtained at the Hong Kong International Film Festival that year. A short film with the title More Than Words became the first output of that vision to capture a story set in 1970s Singapore, starring Fish Chaar (who can be seen fairly recently in Kan Lume's Female Games) as lead character Hao Nan, and Li Yu Tong as Yu Tong, the girl whom Hao Nan falls for. And with 1970s Singapore comes the opportunity to blend romance with the crime situation then, with secret society activities rising to its peak and then declining rapidly from a no-nonsense crackdown from the authorities.

Hence, The Gang (私会党) , the natural evolution from that short film into this mini feature, which serves somewhat like a proof of concept, of Sng's and crew's technical ability to pull off a period piece, and their ability to assemble an ensemble cast to spearhead the film. And those names are a balanced mix of experience, such as Vincent Tee (Blood Ties), Sunny Pang (Perth, Lucky 7), Emma Yong (The Blue Mansion), Adele Wong (The Days), and relative newcomers such as Andie Chen, who now takes over the lead character Hao Nan, Louis Wu, Keely Wee and of course Maia Lee, whom most of Singapore will know from the very first season of Singapore Idol.

Shorts to feature films aren't something new to the Singapore film industry. Royston Tan's 15 is an early example where his short got extrapolated, and Blood Ties the short film by Chai Yee-Wei also went the route from short to feature, securing funding from the Singapore Film Commission's First Feature Film Fund and was first of nine feature films to be off the blocks, making its film premiere last year, with a star-studded cast to boot and a revelation in newcomer actress Joey Yung.

The subject matter of Gangsterism used in a local feature film isn't new too, with 15, Eating Air and The Days tackling teenage gangster characters though set in more contemporary eras. Sng's The Gang goes back in time to our tumultuous 70s, where gangsters aren't your street corner bullies, but men (and women) who had undergone various brotherhood rituals and rites, taking oaths and swearing to protect their “family” against external threats so perceived, for turf, infamy and of course, bragging rights, without thinking twice if needing to resort to extreme physical violence to get heard.

There are a number of positives to take away from this short, which itself is a stand alone story hinting of more. While it's quite a super summarized, fast-forwarded version of Sng's feature plans, one can easily whiff the potential from hidden secrets that characters hide from one another, as well as an anticipated intricate web of relationships between characters that will likely prove to be the crux of the story, especially what I thought to be scenes dedicated to sins of the fathers that the sons will have to pay for. Romance will be something central as well, going by Sng's More Than Words short, and something which was largely absent in The Gang, which traces Hao Nan's journey into the triad gang called Red Luck, touted as the most powerful, in an effort to enlist their help to find his father's killer.

It is the wonderful art direction that I enjoyed tremendously, painstakingly and creatively attempting to shoot against our modern and fast evolving backdrops and environments. There was a scene that took place in a public swimming pool male toilet, and I can't take my eyes off the many posters from yesteryears, about the water rationing situation and campaigns in Singapore, coupled with the Public Utilities Board logo. Such was a time when water was precious, and technology for water recycling and creation almost unheard of here. Then there's the very old-school looking barber shop, which also served in the narrative as a front for triad activities (Hmm, seems like all self-respectable gangster film will feature the ubiquitous barber shop), and let's not forget the costumes and hairdos too, from the bell bottoms, to hair slicked back by tons of Brylcream.

The challenge here faced in this short film, with the eclectic mix of eclectic experience levels, is how to allow each of the cast member to shine through in their very limited screen time. And the experience, or lack thereof shows, with the veterans providing commanding presence, and the relative newcomers struggling with their meatier roles, save for Louis Wu who stood out as the mean, tattooed Ming, the enforcer type in the Red Luck gang. But of course this spells room for improvement in the feature, especially when the cast is given a chance through multiple scenes to hopefully win audiences over with a wider range of emotions.

I felt that the final scene for the film was a little too extended for a short, although it had Vincent Tee at his maniacal best, and a very interesting action sequence that shows off why his character was named as "Xiao Lang" (Crazy Person). I got a little bit distracted by the barb-wired cage which didn't look too barb-wired especially from the long shots, but I guess there's a balance to be achieved between safety and authenticity, which perhaps a larger budget could rectify. But you'll get the idea of what the scene is trying to say, with its throwback to how adulterers of the past were punished.

Speaking of authenticity (pardon the intentional pun), while the theme, the sets, costumes and such were definitely close to the 70s, I was thinking about how much it would take (or irk the censors) if this film, or the feature one at least, for it to be predominantly in Hokkien, or any other Chinese languages than Mandarin. After all, it was because the Chinese then were speaking in various tongues that the Speak Mandarin Campaign got its roots and launched in 1979. Since the short already is rated M18, this could also allow for a more appropriate language to be used. Not to say that Mandarin cannot be, but I felt it'll cut a little closer to reality and memories of the past. Maybe the powers that be can really cut this film (or the feature since The Gang is already completed) some slack, and allow exceptions (if necessary) based on artistic merit and an attempt by the filmmaker to reflect the times that have thus been changed permanently, and lost.

All in all, The Gang had set out to generate buzz, and that it has done. This labour of love is not over yet, with the raising of funds to get the feature going. As reported by SINdie, the feature will cost up to about S$2M, making it one of Singapore's most expensive films as well (I believe the most expensive to date is Glen Goei's The Blue Mansion). Here's to best wishes and luck to the cast and crew, and I hope to see the feature film get made, and to grace our screens, perhaps this time with more grit, attitude and leaving audiences with an unforgettable local movie experience!

Unfortunately my camera doesn't work well in hall settings which are dim, so you've got to stay tuned to the Facebook Page for some photos and probably video from the Gala Premiere of the short film. Today's gala also featured the trailer of the short film to whet the audience's appetite, before a stage introduction by the cast and director. Maia Lee then took over for her showcase of 2 Mandarin songs Qian Yan Wan Yu and Zhi Guai Wo, the second which was unfortunately marred by hiccups in the sound system. Which if anyone from Cathay is reading this, may I humbly suggest that the Grand Cathay be fit up with some spotlights for on-stage meet-and-greets so that those on stage will not always be in shadow, and of course to spruce up the sound system to allow live performances.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Want to be Heard by the US President?

Those who have been following my blog will probably come across the interview I did with Eng Yee Peng sometime in 2008, which by then she had released her documentary films Diminishing Memories I & II, that had gone on to have sell out screenings at The Arts House in their run from Sep to Nov 2008.

Lately she's involved in the recording of video messages to be sent to the US President, which is part of Australian independent filmmaker Peter Hegedus' project called My America. If you have concerns about our society, economy, environment, or some dreams, hopes and wishes that you would like to tell President Obama, then perhaps you would consider the chance to be involved in this film project, where Yee Peng will be collecting and recording 30 seconds worth of video messages from each person.

Here are the details where she will be filming the messages:
Date: 28 Feb 2010, Sunday
Time: 0930-1200hrs
Venue: Meet outside the Asian Civilizations Museum
RSVP: ypengemail-ma [at]
Tip: Do go early so you wouldn't have to wait too long in line

To make My America Peter Hegedus packed his camera and a makeshift studio booth and travelled from Brisbane Queensland to places like China, Iran, Africa, America, Hungary and Australia. In each of these countries he invited people to step into his booth and record a message to Obama direct to camera.

Related Links
Peter and his company at
My Amercia, the movie at
More on Yee Peng's works at

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Hot Summer Days (全城热恋 - 熱辣辣 / Chuen Sing Yit Luen - Yit Lat Lat)

I'm Loved!

I'm a little curious as to why this film failed to muscle its way to the screens last weekend instead, given it's the public holidays and Valentine's day as well, surrendering its opportune release to a week later. After all, Hot Summer Days also boasts a star studded cast and following the trend of an ensemble movie made up of little stories threaded together under a common theme, with comedy, drama and romance all rolled into one.

Filmed in Hong Kong, Beijing and Shenzhen, assisted at times with some CG to spruce up the environment and landscape, this film is quirky from the start, with animation applied liberally to tell of a period of an extreme heat wave in the summer season across the Chinese territory, resulting in every cast member being bathed in an oily, sticking film clinging onto their skin. It makes you a little uncomfortable as well, since the first thing that crosses your mind is that everyone here needs a quick shower to cool off. And while romance is equated with passion, rising temperatures also translates to impulsiveness, and anger.

As with all ensemble movies, the stories here are varied with an eye-candy cast to bring about the bittersweet experiences of love, where you have a chauffer-coolie (Jackie Cheung) romancing a pianist-masseur (Rene Liu) over SMS, a proud sushi chef (Daniel Wu with moustache and nary a smile) spurning the love of a writer (Vivian Hsu, does she ever age?), an air conditioning technician (Nicholas Tse) intrigued by a tomboyish biker chick (Barbie Hsu with an extremely chic hairdo, and plenty of eyeliner), a country bumpkin (Fu Xinbo) having to prove his sincerity to a teddy bear factory worker (Angelababy, she's everywhere!) by standing as ordered under the hot sun at noon for 100 days, and an arrogant photographer (Duan Yihong) and his assistant trying to track down a model who had supposedly cursed the former to blindness. Then there's Gordon Liu playing a salesman prying for opportunities on a beach, and other mini subplots which expands the theme of love to more than being a romantic one, which covers almost an entire spectrum from first love to unrequited ones and those who got away, to encompassing that between friends and parent and child.

Part of the fun in the film is the numerous cameos who appear as one-off characters just because, so look out for the likes of Calvin Choy (of the Grasshoppers fame) playing a larger than life version of himself, Shawn Yue as a tattoo artist, Charlene Choi (one half of the twins) outbidding a kid for ice cream, and the largest cameo of all (credited as Miss Cheung) is Maggie, as a lovelorn mysterious woman hanging out at Daniel Wu's sushi bar. They're like the spice to ensure that there will be something or someone to look out for with every turn of the camera to some place else.

There were two elements here which brought back memories of local films. The first being having the sweltering heat play up in the background, and everyone here can jolly well associate ourselves with the feeling of extreme warmth, captured in a segment of the short Heave. Also, a scene involving a kid buying up her parent's time might come close to that seen in Jack Neo's I Not Stupid Too. We could all say that they are coincidences, and it is exactly these coincidences and serendipitous moments that pepper how the characters come together, from a number dialled incorrectly, to chance encounters on a puddled street.

And there's something contemporary in the way the characters here are crafted, as most of the stories have the females making what was essentially the first move, be it out of boredom, or that they really do know which buttons to press in order to make the guys fall head over heels, or they're basically go-getters like Vivan Hsu's Wasabi in never feeling shy in letting her feelings be known. Similar to Valentine's Day, I felt again that there was plenty of negativity in having the couples experience plenty of bitterness in their relationships, probably to remind that there's no such thing as a smooth-sailing romance, with its regular ups and downs, and the occasional pain to go along. And like contemporary films, you just can't get away from a twist no matter how small, in its finale, which wrapped up one of the story threads in a rather clumsy manner.

The Cantonese language makes itself heard again, with Jackie Cheung's part being mostly in the language, probably because the charm of that storyline relied on the little language nuances that get deliberately made when his character switches from Cantonese to Mandarin, and I would have shuddered to think how such charm would be lost if given the dubbed version. Nic Tse is still dubbed over, but like I said, we're making small inroads to being less anal about dubbing Hong Kong characters as a regulation. My hope still stands that one day we will do away with dubbed versions of movies, which in today's context will be meaningless given Pan-Chinese efforts in collaborative filmmaking.

If you dig Valentine's Day, then perhaps you may just want to follow that up with Hot Summers Day with your loved one, since love is probably still around us all, and with the Chinese Valentine's equivalent coming up in about a week's time.

[SFS Talkies] Up the Yangtze


I had initially thought that I would be watching a National Geographic film about the Yangtze river and the Three Gorges Dam project, and the introductory scene of the film suggested just that, until it dawned upon me that the subject matter goes beyond the mighty river and the world's largest hydroelectric project, and follows something more intimate, that of how a decision made by the powers that be translated to the relative hardship of people directly impacted by that decision.

Any layman would know that with a dam means the rising of waters behind it from accumulation, and the damming of any large river spells disaster for the village and townsfolk which have settled along its banks. 2012 suggested that only China had the means and resources to build those arks in record time, and undoubtedly such a reference holds true in their attempts to relocate millions of people and settlements along the Yangtze, to the detriment of the poor being uprooted from their livelihood, and into the great unknown.

Curiously, with such a massive landscape change, and the inevitable prospect of having everything today buried 175 meters deep under water, it gives rise to opportune river tours aboard luxury cruise ships, and here's where the documentary embarks upon its examination of two main characters, the village girl Cindy, and the arrogant Jerry, both of whom work aboard such a cruise ship, pandering to the whims and entertaining the tourists, most of whom are foreigners wanting to catch a glimpse of a certain aspect of China through the riding down the signature river.

Through the eyes of Cindy and Jerry, the film provides a look at how change has impacted the lives, dreams and hopes of its people, which a funny anecdote told in the film seem to sum it all up pretty nicely, where the road to Capitalism is followed wit the signal light toward Socialism turned on. This cannot be more keenly felt through Jerry, whose arrogance of youth spells his primary dream in life, and that's to make a lot of money, in stark contrast to another group of folks represented by Cindy, the village people who are yearning for the simpler life, but are always getting the shorter end of the stick due the inability to break out of the poverty cycle, made worst now with massive migration programmes that forces them to adapt.

Granted there are enough scenic shots to wow you, and even astonish, such as the "ghost" towns created when the community had to abandon to avoid the eventual flood waters from enveloping its surroundings. I can imagine Atlantis in a smaller scale, brought about by the slow and unavoidable build up of water volume. This is not just a documentary on the river or the dam, but more importantly about the people and how change had been forced unto them. Recommended!

P.S. And a friend shared this with me, containing the aftermath of events covered in the film:

Friday, February 19, 2010

A Serious Man

Nice View

A glance at sites with meters, ratings, numerous award nominations and such will entice you into thinking that A Serious Man is an excellent film fulfilling that potential of being so widely appraised. My personal meter with the works of the Coen Brothers is mixed, because it's likely I'm not as intelligent to decipher all the inside-jokes, metaphors and subtexts that are so richly embedded in the films, and watching this in a small theatre here made me realize that I'm clearly not belonging to the demographics that the Coens are targetting – the Jewish community.

Why am I saying this? It's because they had turned up in droves, and had laughed along with plenty of what's going on in the film, and I felt very alone in wondering whether it's me that's not getting exactly what's shown on screen. Touted as being one of their most personal films to date, I would have appreciated if all of the Hebrew portions on screen, such as text on a chalkboard, strange carvings on teeth and the likes, get translated in English, otherwise how the heck would anyone not versed in the language, get a fair chance in enjoying something that the right people get to laugh along, or laugh at?

And something's quite wrong with the very peculiar way to start a film, set centuries ago with a kind man offering someone to come home with him to have soup, only for the wife to chide him that his visitor is already dead, and proves it by sticking an ice pick into him. OK, so I'm guessing what went along after with this scene sticking out without much of a link to events that happen afterwards, but unless you're well versed with some of the Jewish culture and terms used, I'd suggest you go read up an encyclopedia before attempting to watch this film. Remember, everyone's laughing, except you.

Cinematically though, the Coens are doing no wrong. Casting a bunch of relative unknowns was a brilliant move to ensure that we don't get distracted from their story, which I felt the strength laid in its individual parts, rather than the whole sum, in something of a loose modern spin at the biblical story of Job, with Michael Stuhlbarg being the physics professor whose life is suddenly turned upside down, with his brother living in his home indefinitely, his wife leaving him for a smooth talker, his son a marijuana addict, his daughter swears constantly and desires a nose job, and in his professional life faced with a bribe and a threat of defamation from a Korean student, and a slew of anonymous poison pen letters threatening to stagnate his career.

All these you can appreciate its dark comedic moments, but for that level of depth, you've got to be in, or you're definitely left out, only to be compensated by good acting from the leading man Stuhlbarg, a slew of caricatures who will allow you to laugh at them on the surface only, and some really out of this world anecdotes that will leave you wondering how much of it comes from the Coens' own personal experiences. Then again, one could opt not to be hard up to decipher everything from the film, with at least 2 of the 3 fables I'm deciphering as taking a step back and not harp upon some of the things that happen because like Life, not everything has an answer to, and it's not every time that you get to understand why certain things occur for a purpose until some time later.

You have been warned, and of course please feel free to share with me what you see in the film that made you like it so much, so that my eyes can be opened to see the new clothes on the emperor.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

For Those in New York...

and digging Japanese films, then you may have heard about the screening of Destiny's Son - 斬る(Kiru) - this Friday at Japan Society.

And looking at the lineup of goodies, one can't help but gawk at the number of film offerings any Japanese film cinephile from around the world would drool enviously at.

More information on Japan Society, New York can be found here. with miscellaneous updates on new films and projects found at their Blog!

From Paris with Love

Gonna Use My Gun Now

Just as how Milkyway and Johnnie To in Asia has churned out films with that unmistakable Hong Kong crime noir flavor, I look at Europa Corp and Luc Besson in Europe with something of a similar eye, being somewhat of a fan of their action films of late, especially when Besson has some involvement either in production, story or directing that rare film these days.

One can imagine the kind of cinematic mayhem created with Pierre Morel directing a Luc Besson story, which the last combination had resulted in the action packed thriller Taken. With From Paris with Love, this formula again delivered where it mattered – high octane action that never lets up from the get go, especially when we have the casting of John Travolta as a loose canon live wire who was probably schooled and skilled in the same clandestine network as Liam Neeson's Bryan Mills from Taken, except that he cracks more jokes, uses methods that are a lot more over the top unorthodox, but similarly dispatches opponents with deadly force and without remorse.

In some ways this is like the rebooted James Bond, where we follow diplomat James Reece (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) who is yearning for a more adventurous tour of duty for his country other than serving in the US Embassy in Paris, planning the itinerary of the Ambassador. He gets that all important call one day to do just that, except that he finds himself stuck in an extremely strange on job training with the best in the cloak and daggers business, Travolta's Charlie Wax. Before he can even settle down for a meal, they get into fire fights after fire fights, from restaurants to dilapidated built up areas, touring sites like the Eiffel Tower, to staking out from a run down brothel, all in the name of taking down drug dealers, or so it seems. Reece had asked for a license which is more than what he can handle, and has to fulfil his duty to the country while learning an important lesson in his occupation that would make Bond just as proud, and probably put his arms around and empathize with.

Morel again demonstrates that he's top dog in the action flick business now, knowing when to push your level of adrenaline to a higher level, and keeping it there throughout the set action sequences, be it balletic pistol shoot outs, or a meandering freeway chase at top speed. Like how the metaphor of chess playing get thrown around from time to time in the narrative, Morel plays the narrative out like a chess game, one step at a time and always having one party being one step ahead, until the ultimate checkmate.

With our recent diplomatic immunity spat, this film delves into just how much mayhem a diplomatic pass can dish out, from bypassing security screenings, behaving like a complete jerk and getting away with it, and of course, bringing about complete and utter chaos with an ever increasing body count with nary a question asked by a single cop. The dynamic duo here walks around as if nothing has happened, that in some ways may feel heavy handed that only the American clandestine network is capable of taking down the bad guys anywhere in the world, without giving too hoots about sovereignty especially France which they had bailed out twice in two world wars.

For those who enjoy the bickering-buddy movie, then From Paris With Love is your automatic choice, especially when Travolta steals the show with his mean looks of a bald head and a goatee, thrash talking and punishing his prey at the same time without breaking a single bead of sweat. Heck, he even comes with his own bag of high tech toys to keep the tech junkie happy that he's not just all brawn but some brains as well. What more, I can't laugh harder than when a sly reference managed to find itself inserted into the film which jibed at Travolta's Vincent Vega role from Pulp Fiction which talked about a certain food franchise observation. Jonathan Rhys Meyer's character looks more the whiner than a decent partner for Wax, and this turns out to be the cursory character development to make its way to the story.

But the film is far from perfect and lacking that killer instinct that Morel's Taken delivered, and fell for the ultra conventional finale monologue that wouldn't fly if this had tried to be a tad more realistic. Still, action fans are likely to get their bang for the buck. Recommended!

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Valentine's Day

Start Them Young

It's a great marketing ploy to have this released over the Valentine's Day weekend, and more so with that extra number of holidays thanks to Lunar New Year to ensure the halls are packed with couples planning a night's out with a movie. And what better way than for a romantic flick with dozens of eye candy cast, each playing characters with various love issues (or not) to tackle, and basically deliver a crowd pleasing romantic-comedy to top the box office in receipts.

I was thinking whether having a not-so-easy-on-the-eye cast will have as positive an impact though. Given the names in the cast list, if I have to rattle off, tell me who's not “hot” - Jessica Alba, Jessica Biel, Jennifer Garner (I was comparing who had the better toned biceps,, and Biel is the undisputed winner), Anne Hathaway, Emma Roberts, Julia Roberts, Taylor Swift, or if you swing the other way, then feast your eyes on Ashton Kutcher, Patrick Demsey, Topher Grace, Bradley Cooper, and the list goes on, covering the entire spectrum from kids to the elderly, ensuring that there's something for everyone, with all kinds of narrative threads from first love to mature ones, from heart-breaking moments (hey, not all V-days stories end on a happy note, you know?) to reaffirmation of best friendships and family too, which I'm sure the former would be missed out by a lot of folks focused only on the romance.

An ensemble cast also means a rather mixed treatment in the stories told, with some given short shrift and being nothing more than just a lightweight filler segment in between other tales, and mostly centered primarily around Ashton Kutcher's floral shop owner who sells flowers at 55 bucks per pop (what the!), since it's one of those staple items that the day has to revolve around, and provides a convenient platform to weave that web of relationships between characters. And if you dread your mind going into overdrive to figure out who's related to who and what's what, don't fret as the filmmakers had done a decent job in keeping things under wraps until the right moment to show and tell, which to a certain extent, worked wonders for some “voila!”moments to be revealed.

In some ways this can be viewed more like a Los Angeles, I Love You with an ode to the city of angels, given the landmarks that sneak in, and the landscape backdrops especially with the pick up shots for continuity between narratives, although everything here happens within a span of about 17 hours from morning till midnight, and I mean everything, such as realizing who your one true love is, suddenly, within hours of an emotional flip-flop even. If it is only that simple. As mentioned there are some touching moments in the film, but these are few and far between, and in my opinion, didn't evoke as much feelings or move as much as I would have preferred it to, with even “lessons learnt” being terribly sterile and straightforward.

Surprisingly, I felt that the film had a lot of negativity going for it, given that it's supposed to be a film that celebrates love, with a title like that. Like in real life, not everything turns out happy or the way we would like it to be. Deceit turns out to be the name of the game, and hesitation for honesty and and lack of frankness being very much some of the tools here, given that hurt, though temporary, is easy to bring upon. It's as if to say that honesty is not the best policy, and that ignorance may be bliss. If there's one takeaway from the film, it's that love blinds us all to the not-so-good traits of someone which of course should be accepted wholly, but it is almost always up to the people around who can sense some warning signs that things aren't going too well, and should knock some sense back to a lovestruck friend to cut short the suffering and misery, especially if you've found out some deep, dark and dirty secret. I may be wrong of course since I'm sitting on the other (single) side of the fence, but hey, it's just a personal takeaway.

I suppose with the film's success, we'll likely see more of such ensemble films for commercial festivities such as this one, with a ready market to milk. In previous years there had been Love Actually, He's Just Not That Into You, and I'd like to bet that there are already plans for something similar next year. A clear winner as a date movie, but with a runtime of slightly over two hours because of a bloated story that can do away with some subplots. Sit through when the end credits start to roll for some blooper reels, and an inconsequential coda at the end.

Monday, February 15, 2010

[DVD] Ip Man (2008)


One of the main reasons I decided to pop this movie into the DVD player to rewatch the film, is none other than the debut of this Teaser Trailer release of the sequel to the highly successful Ip Man. Sammo Hung has moved from behind the camera as action director in the first film, to starring as quite the bad ass as seen in the clip below. Yet another one on one duel with Donnie Yen, this time with the latter executing the lightning fast Wing Chun moves, I only hope that this gets released here soon enough, since the extremely short clip has whet my appetite through and through.

You can read my review of the film here.

The 2-Disc Collector's Edition of the film released by Universe Laser & Video Co. Limited comes Region Free, and is presented in gorgeous anamorphic widescreen, where you can re-watch the movie just as it was intended on a proper screen aspect ratio. As for sound, you can get to choose between Cantonese DTS-ES 6.1, Cantonese Dolby Digital EX 6.1 or Mandarin Dolby Digital EX 6.1 The choice is clear to go for the former 2, and even then, the Northern Chinese speak Mandarin, and everyone in the south speaking in their Cantonese tongue. If only the version shown in the theatres here then could have been in the original language track, that will be bliss. Otherwise, get to experience it with the proper DVD release at the very least. Subtitles are available in Traditional Chinese and English, and scene selection is available over 15 Chapters.

The Special Features in Disc 1 are quite limited since Disc 2 are where they are parked under, but nonetheless, it contains the Teaser (2:20, letterbox) and Trailer (1:17, letterbox), which I thought could be a possible mix up in labels.

There's not much difference between the Pre-Production (2:02, letterbox) section and the Shooting Diary (3:28, letterbox) section, since both contain a random mix of behind the scenes clips. The more interesting one will be the former, which has the press conference from the announcement of the project, where you can see the original title - Yi Dai Zhong Shi - included in the stage backdrop, which of course due to some wrangling with the other production (currently shooting) helmed by Wong Ka-Wai, that title was dropped for the more simplified - Ip Man.

The Deleted Scenes (4:46, letterbox) consists of a total of 5 scenes which have not gone through post-production yet, sometimes with key sound missing from what you see here. Containing English and Traditional Chinese subtitles where available, the scenes left out are (with spoilers of course):

  • Ip Man cycling through a field, which doesn't add much to the plot anyway
  • Ip Man doing battle in a tea house, with incomplete audio and the video presentation not coloured corrected. I can't quite figure where this scene could have taken place, but with Simon Yam's Zhong Qing Quan cradling Ip Man's child, my guess would be to place it in Hong Kong after they escape, and Ip Man continuing where he left off with the propagation of Wing Chun. After all, Ip Man did have 2 children, and this could be the 2nd child.
  • Master Jin (Fan Siu-Wong) meets up with General Miura (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) and Li (Lam Ka Tung) to tell them that Ip Man has something to do with the cotton mill. This would have taken place after the bandits' losing battle at the location, and just before Li runs to Ip Man telling him to take cover. Li continues his habit to misinterpret what the Chinese has to say, much to his own detriment, and the ending of this scene obviously suggests Master Jin's a goner, which runs contrary to the re-use of the character in Ip Man 2.
  • An extended scene with the mob invasion after Ip Man is shot, it gives a more sympathetic view of Li's plight of being mistaken for a traitor, and being beaten to death by the mob. I suppose the filmmakers wanted to keep Li from certain death as seen here, hence it's removal.
  • Japanese General Miura commits Hara-kiri after presumably losing to Ip Man publicly. A more definitive finish here, other than the crippling moves that Ip Man had delivered on him. Probably removed since whatever bones were broken in his duel with Ip Man would have left him paralyzed at least.

Photo Gallery contains 20 stills from the movie.

Rounding up Disc 1 is an About the Movie section which offers an English and Mandarin text based coverage of The History of Wing Chun, and biographies of Master Ip Man and the cast and crew of leading man Donnie Yen, action director Sammo Hung and director Wilson Yip together with their filmographies.

Give Me More!

Disc 2 is the dedicated features disc, presented in letterbox format with English and Traditional Chinese subtitles for all segments.

The Making of (18:36) is standard behind-the-scenes with cast and crew talking about the creation of the film, as well as talking about their involvement at various levels. For instance, we learn how Donnie Yen never had any experience with Wing Chun and had to devote 9 months to studying the martial art and practicing on the wooden dummy whenever he had time, and the decision to have Sammo Hung come on board as action director since he had experience in Wing Chun. Plenty of nuggets of information, although more details could be gleaned from the individual interviews of the cast and crew in a later segment of the disc.

Major Scenes celebrates the art direction and the details which you would probably miss when focused on the characters and the action sequences. Split into 3 dedicated sections, we have Simon Yam introduce the Cotton Mill (2:24) which was a set created in a 30 year old abandoned factory, Fan Sui-Wong introducing the Fo Shan Main Street (2:00) and Mo Goon Gai (Martial Arts Street) where his character went from school to school to challenge the masters, and director Wilson Yip himself introducing the details to Ip's Residence (2:04) which is filled with a 30s decor with East and West influences.

Interviews with Director & Cast is probably the highlight of the disc, split into individual subsections with the interviewees sharing candid information about their roles in the film, and talking about working with their co-stars, the director, and for some, their working experience with the action director Sammo Hung. Segments here include those with Wilson Yip (23:11), Sammo Hung (8:03), Donnie Yen (22:08), Xiong Dai-Lin (7:48), Simon Yam (2:53), Hiroyuki Ikeuchi (7:45), Lam Ka-Tung (8:55) and Fan Siu-Wong (4:49).

Ip Chun. Director. Sammo (3:27) segment has the trio Ip Chun (son of Ip Man), director Wilson Yip and action director Sammo Hung talk about Donnie Yen as an actor and their joint admiration in how he's a natural in combat and action scenes, interspersed with behind the scenes clips.

Disc 2 concludes with some clips from the Gala Premiere (1:51) which was held in Hong Kong on 16 Dec 2008 at Causeway Bay.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Bright Star

Not Hot

Just as how Nine failed to garner critical acclaim, I'm quite surprised at the accolades that Bright Star received, for its biographical story of one of the greatest Romantic Poets, John Keats. This should appeal to fans of the poet in watching a film regarding his romantic episode with Fanny Brawne, but for the casual movie goer (ahem like myself), Bright Star was anything like the brightness it got touted, and is pretty much an acquired taste.

For a film that proclaims to be that of a romance, and what more one would have thought Keats was a romantic at heart to have churned out some of the greatest poems, Jane Campion somehow sucked the romanticism completely out of her film, and the performance by Ben Whishaw as Keats can be summed up in one word - dry. It didn't help that his character spends a lot of time brooding, while best friend Charles Brown (Paul Schneider) spends a lot of time behaving as the opposite, loud mouthed braggart who thinks the world of himself.

It's a period piece, but one which had its plus points drawn from its locales (the Spanish Steps at the end had a lot of significance, and to be filmed on site void of people is simply amazing), and costumes thanks to the plot device of Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) being her own strong-headed fashion designer of sorts who sews and modifies her own clothes. You know the drill by now, man meets woman and they fall in love, much to the opposition from friends and family members.

What took the cake was that the film was an extremely long poetry recital. Heck, Keat's poems were read aloud from time to time, by the characters themselves. If I want to know more about the poem, I'd get an audio tape, or read it from a book. Having it done the way it is in the film, just reeks of pure laziness. We neither know nor explore, nor were even given a whiff of a suggestion how his inspiration for his poems came about, other than being hopelessly smitten by Fanny. Letters to Fanny too were read aloud against some dull visuals, and I think someone forgot to remind Campion that we're dealing with film here, so please, let me see something that the movie stills seem to purport - that of Keats and Fanny spending one heck of a time together.

This film proves a point though, that putting two eye candy cast together does not automatically spell magic. True that one cannot expect big bang fireworks given the social rules that govern meetings between singles, but surely this is worst than watching paint dry on the wall. Uninspiring, and a Bright Star that's just like a comet, shining bright before crashing and burning. You've been warned, unless you're a poetry fan, and even so I'd advise you to go for a recital instead.

My Name is Khan

For My Love

I'd say the film's release cannot have been more timely, where on our shores we face the rather public rebuke of an incident of religious bigotry and intolerance, and ignorance too if I may add. There will be those who hijack the religious platform to spread their message of hatred and destruction, and society on a whole has to reject these zealots who obviously have some personal agenda very much in contrary to the message of peace and love they ought to bring. Early in the film the tone is set, where Rizwan Khan (Shah Rukh Khan) is taught by his mom that there are only two groups of people in the world – those who do good and those who do bad. It may be an oversimplification, but if you think about it, that's is exactly what it boils down to, regardless of language, religion and the colour of one's skin.

And it is this message that Rizwan, who suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, brings along in his extraordinary journey in the United States, and to the people he meets along the way. Schooled by the love of his mother, Rizwan finds himself migrating to the USA thanks to his brother's early entry into the country, and Rizwan's job as a salesman brings him to the love of his life, Mandira (Kajol). In some ways the film provided a tinge of reminiscence to Robert Zemeckis' Forrest Gump, where a simple man with a disability and living on values of love that his mom had imparted, embarks on the journey called life, encountering love, helping people, and inspiring everyone to become a better person.

Karran Johar wrote and produced Kurbaan last year, starring Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor in yet another film which touches on terrorism on US soil, and how intolerance and violence aren't proper solutions to air one's grievances. That film didn't do too well at the box office, probably because it's somewhat of an actioner and a love story rolled into one, and perhaps everyone got distracted by the real life couple in Khan and Kapoor starring opposite each other. In MNIK, Johar takes up directorial duties, and in a stroke of casting genius, put the evergreen SRK with Kajol, who together in their 5 films long before had resulted in nothing other than box office success. My bet is this will likely continue for MNIK.

And bringing people by the masses to the cinemas would mean that it's ample opportunity to re-emphasize the strong message of peace, love and tolerance. Yes it has a strong religious flavour to it, especially when it goes on the quiet offensive to take back a religion of peace, and to straighten out the negative effect of misconceptions and prejudices no thanks to extremists hell bent on furthering their selfish gains. Rizwan may not have a quip like Gump's chocolates, but here he stresses from the onset, that his name is Khan, and he's not a terrorist, with childlike earnestness and honesty, in a film of almost an equal stature in its epic scale.

As with most Bollywood films told in two halves separated by an intermission, the first part comes off much stronger than the second, where we learn of Rizwan and his medical ordeal, where in India his mother struggles to bring up a child who's different. We learn more about Asperger's syndrome as the film wore on, and get enlightened on elements (with dramatic license of course) such as the hatred and fear of the colour yellow and loud noises, an inability to lie and to tell it like it is without sugar coating, a demeanour unable to express feelings easily, and in the mastery of a skill, in which case here it's being a technical expert. The romantic angle also gets drummed up as we see how Rizwan courts Mandira in his own way, with the narrative told in flashbacks (with nicely done transitions) as we move forward in time with Rizwan's quest to meet the President of the USA, which we will find out why.

The later half focused very strongly in that quest, as we see how others touch and lend their support to Rizwan, as much as he reciprocates. Ample time also gets dedicated to the post-9/11 America with its growing suspicions and mindless attacks on those on the wrong end of racial profiling. The story in this part goes two-pronged, with Rizwan's quest as well as Mandira's thirst for justice to be done. More time gets spent away from each other, and Rizwan's journey proved all the more interesting, with episodes such as that with Mama Jenny (Jennifer Echols) and Funny Hair Joel (Adrian Kali Turner) which will tug at your heartstrings, bringing back to mind that Bollywood hardly lets up on moments to turn on the melodrama if it can, complete with amalgamated imagery from different religions. Between the two halves, it's likely to feel that the initial half is the better of the two, though with minor plot loopholes aside, the second did suffer from a last minute gasp of a sub-plot involving religious radicals, but wrapped everything up rather nicely in a full circle fashion.

SRK disappears into the role and becomes heart and soul of the film as Rizwan, no longer the mega-star boasting an awesome physique, but a simple man who lives life as best as he can given his condition, seeking to help others and to become that symbolic beacon of light against bigots. SRK gives a superbly sensitive performance and it's likely the unfortunate, uncontrollable antics of Rizwan would endear the character to you, eliciting support as you root for him to complete his mission despite the challenges laid out for him to overcome. In his last two major films, he had introduced the likes of rookies Deepika Padukone and Anushka Sharma to the world, but I guess one probably needs a seasoned veteran in Kajol to hold her own opposite the Khan rather than a lightweight unknown, when he delves and immerses completely into what could probably be his best role to date.

And that character's name is Khan, and he is not a terrorist. Highly recommended!

Saturday, February 13, 2010


This is the Life

I wonder why so little love was given to this film, given its bad critical reception toward what I felt was an enjoyable musical with filmmaking as a backdrop, based on the Broadway equivalent which was in turn inspired by the story of Federico Fellini's semi-autobiographical film 8 ½. Adapted for the screen by Michael Tolkin and the late Anthony Minghella, Nine the film version is lavishly produced with a mix of film and stage elements thrown in to straddle the thin line between reality, fantasy and memory in which the protagonist, fictional Italian filmmaking maestro Guido Cortini (Daniel Day-Lewis) experiences at the cusp of his next film production.

Only that the problem is the film was announced, the anticipation is high, the cast has been selected, the crew assembled, but there's no script and no story. Try as he might to explain or not explain himself, you know that he's throwing up a lot of smoke and mirrors, lying, side-skirting, and telling everyone that explanation of even the plot of his next movie Italia will kill the essence of the film. Which to me is what I think of all pretentious filmmakers in the first place, that they do not have anything but a vague idea in their head, and they try really hard to produce some semblance of meaning that they do not comprehend in the first place, but leave it to others to extract something out of it. It still amazes me how they continue to receive funding for their next movie, and how stars continue to flock to want to be in their films,

But for Guido the pressure is now on him to deliver since his last two films had flopped, and is running out of excuses and things to say in his next film. So we meet him now at this crossroads, and observe how he grapples with his professional troubles when he pours out to his confidante, his costumer Lilli, played by Judi Dench whom I thought had some of the best lines in the film about directing, and how he fumbles time and again with his personal relationships with all the women in his life, which we see in both the narrative as well as various song and dance sequences.

Which was where most of the fun of Nine was buried under. For the seven women of his life – Lilli as mentioned, estranged wife Luisa (Marion Cotillard), mistress and actress Carla (Penelope Cruz), Saraghina (Fergie), mother (Sophia Loren), reporter Stephanie (Kate Hudson) and his actress-muse-international star Claudia (Nicole Kidman), each were dedicated a number in which we learn an episode of Guido's life from the past and present, which will shape the course of his immediate future. And given Rob Marshall's experience with musical adaptations on film, he does his best with these segments, each bringing out the personality of the women, and adding plenty of colour through lavish costumes and set designs.

Daniel Day-Lewis continues to impress, no less of course, with his Italian faux-pas accent, as do the rest of the cast who play the various Italian characters here, and how he handles his character's tremendous weight that comes crashing down upon him, having to continuously run away from his problems, only to compound issues, especially when he's trying to reconcile with his wife. Marion Cotillard hasn't impressed me much since her La Vie En Rose, and here she more than makes up for it with a powerful performance as the neglected wife still holding onto a sliver of hope to make up with Guido, only to find disappointment each time when she thought they could be on to something.

Some of the actresses had really bit roles, like Fergie though she had an extended song sequence to perform in, Penelope Cruz as usual looked extremely sultry as the tragic mistress (with a dirty killer line!) and Nicole Kidman was just plain luminous in her role here (with a Bardot quality) that it's hard to imagine she did this role just 4 weeks after delivery. Then there's Kate Hudson's sassy performance in her number Cinema Italiano, which has become my personal favourite amongst all the songs here, with Marion Cotillard's My Husband Makes Movies coming a close second. Hmm, I guess I hate to admit that one of the chief reasons I take to the film, is because of the excellent eye candy which was actually the icing on the cake.

Oh yeah and stay tuned when the end credits start to roll, because you can get a sneak peek into what went on behind the scenes during rehearsals for the song-dance sequences. I say again, Cinema Italiano rocks!
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