Friday, April 30, 2010

Away We Go

Where's the Tummy?

It's a personal bias that I must warn you of – I am such a fan of road trip movies, if only for the expected madcap encounters we follow our protagonists through from start to end, complete with quirky situations, out of this world characters, and pretty much not knowing what's next to be dished out. Away We Go fits this mold of a travel movie, but filled with tremendous heart that's easy to identify with since it deals with the re-connection with friends and family members whom we seldom see, and to try and hit it off again from where we last left off.

Naturally, things change, and in this Sam Mendes picture, he tackles this genre (hard to believe, eh?) and shows his versatility without compromising on his strengths based on the showcase of character relationships forged, as well as a number of poignant moments being presented that will set you off thinking. Even though you're not a would-be parent, you'll be pondering and identifying with the issues being presented, which will keep you engaged throughout, coupled with a light moment or two which are well placed to earn a chuckle.

Oh yeah it's probably the first film I've watched that opens with oral sex!

You can read my review of Away We Go at by clicking on the logo below.


Thursday, April 29, 2010

Iron Man 2

Ass-Kicking Partners

As far as comic book heroes making that contemporary leap to the silver screen goes, at DC's end, The Dark Knight did it over Batman Begins. At Marvel's, Iron Man joins the ranks of its other A-listed heroes Spiderman and X-Men in having its second film trounce the first. Actor-Director Jon Favreau lived up to the hype and expectations of the Iron Man sequel and delivered everything in double doses, being double the villains, the fun, and even the drama.

Yes, some may complain and scratch their heads about the action being too sparse apart, but I thought it was a nice strategy to allow the characters greater opportunities to shine in dramatic moments in a superhero film. After all, there's a wealth of talent on display - Downey Jr, Paltrow, Cheadle, Johannson, Rockwell, Rourke, L. Jackson, Shandling, Bettany even and the list goes on...

Downey Jr continues his smirky role as the playboy and laissez-faire persona of Tony Stark (no Downey Jr, no Tony Stark I'd say!), now facing a life-threatening intoxication situation, and constantly having to deflect the US military's interest in and compelling him to turn over the Iron Man suit. Then of course there's the romantic angle with Gwyneth Paltrow's Pepper Potts who gets expanded screen time here, to whom he hands over Stark Industries to by appointing her CEO. I had enjoyed all the scenes between Paltrow and Downey Jr as they shared great chemistry, and didn't mind that the film took the pause from the action to throw the spotlight on this. In fact, Stark is pretty much the Santa Claus in giving away things, having to face his mortality and to put some business continuity plans into motion. A little too bad that the scene in the teaser trailer highlighting the banter in the plane didn't make it to the final cut.

But all work and no play makes him a grumpy soul, so enter Scarlett Johansson as Natalie Rushman, his new sexy private secretary from the legal department who is more than meets the eye. Johansson has now proved that she's got it in her to be in an action film, and her limited action scenes here will surprise and leave you breathless. Mickey Rourke seem to have picked off from his Wrestler role in playing the Russian villain Ivan Vanko, riding on the parallel and theme of Fathers and Sons, whose father was seemingly played out by Howard Stark, and is finding it apt to finally take it out on Stark Industries using similar technology the earlier generation developed, and now backed by sugar daddy industrialist Justin Hammer, played by Sam Rockwell. Rockwell plays the classic business rival bitterly humiliated by Tony, and from observing Ivan's potential, decided to bankroll the Russian's capability for the US military. Hating a man in common make for strange bedfellows indeed.

Cameo wise, there's Stan Lee if you can spot him in a brief moment, probably his easiest and non event-filled one to date given he's just standing around, Samuel L. Jackson continuing his role as Nick Fury of SHIELD, now assessing Tony Stark to determine if he's indeed the man they need for his top secret boy band, Gary Shandling as the senator pursuing the weaponization of the Iron Man suit for the military, and of course, director Jon Favreau himself who continues his role as Stark's chauffeur Happy Hogan, and you can tell his acting itch from his expanded role in getting in on the fun rather than just standing solely behind the camera.

But of course the tongues will wag whether Don Cheadle can pick up from where Terrence Howard left off. Whatever the reason may be for the latter's departure, he will likely be kicking his behind now for leaving the project. That anticipatory look Rhodes had in the first film at the metal suit worn would bring a smile to any fanboy in the know of what would be the next logical step, and frankly speaking I would have enjoyed some continuity here. But having a different actor in a role done by someone else in a preceding film isn't something new, and Cheadle stepped in confidently from the start, helped by the script which puts it in point blank terms that he's there now, and they should move on. Well said, and great job on being War Machine, in a best-friends-temporal-fallout subplot which accounted for the action at the midway mark.

Justin Theroux, who wrote the screenplay for Tropic Thunder, took over the scriptwriting for this film, doing the narrative justice with plenty of fan-moments, and oh-not-so subtle merchandising opportunities that Tony Stark would be proud of. The excellent casting has the brilliance of Theroux's story to thank for in keeping the many subplots in check, making Marvel fans happy through the plenty of easter eggs peppered around, coming up with an intoxication of a different sort for Tony Stark to deal with and a chance for him to go back to the drawing board, getting his hands dirty with the building of something.

Action-wise, yes there is only a handful of them, but each of them brought something to the table in terms of excitement, thrills and spills. The special effects and graphics here were one up against the previous film, and it was a definite visual feast especially when suits got up against suits, warranting a second look at the film just to catch everything that's happening at the same time. Watch this in a theatre with a proper sound system set up, and you'll be richly rewarded. The finale was a full 30 minutes worth of action end to end and features the Iron Man-War Machine tag team up, which served up a lot more than what we've all glimpsed from clips here and there. Singapore, this is yet another opportunity to be proud of with our compatriots also involved in the visual effects department, ala Kick-Ass.

Iron Man 2 is set to convert the non-fan, and is crafted so that newcomers to the hero could jump right into the fun without needing to watch the first one (why haven't you!). For Marvel fans though, you have Jon Favreau to thank for whetting all our appetites in making this film the teaser to the other upcoming Marvel films such as Captain America, Thor, and I will be right there to holler Avengers Assemble! when the time comes. Stay until the end of the credits for a scene which will make you salivate. A-One!

I Need My Suit for Another Sequel

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Ip Man 2 (葉問2 : 宗師傳奇 / Yip Man 2: Chung Si Chuen Kei)

Grandmaster Showdown

You would know from my review of the first Ip Man film that I had enjoyed it tremendously, being that breath of fresh air for the martial arts genre in the creation of a hotly contested biopic starring possibly one of the hottest Hong Kong action stars right now in Donnie Yen, who had balanced dramatic flair for hard-hitting action in sequences that is now icons for the film, and whose popularity made it the subject in a number of spoofs in various Hong Kong comedies. The sequel is highly anticipated, though if I were to sum it up, it'll be same same, but different. It didn't surpass the original, yet didn't fare too bad by itself too.

Continuing the narrative straight from where we last left off with Yen's Ip Man and family escaping from the Japanese to the British colony of Hong Kong, he's about to find that his luxurious lifestyle is a thing of the past, and that the attitudes of the Chinese people now is clearly different, where friendly sparring sessions are nothing but a time-honored, forgotten tradition. Eking out a livelihood takes first priority, and he soon discovers that opening a Wing Chun martial arts school is as simple as requesting for permission to play in another's sandbox, only that the rest of the players have their own established rules and don't take it too well with newcomers, especially when they have impetuous students like Wong Leung (Huang Xiaoming, playing a character based on Ip Man's disciple who would be responsible in tutoring Bruce Lee) who resort to the use of fists to settle issues.

Edmond Wong's screenplay, like the first film, focused more on drama and had moments where questions such as integrity and the living of one's life according to ideals get raised, whether it is, for the sake of the greater good, worthwhile to forgo those ideals in order to make a living, and allow those who work for you, to make something out for themselves too. In essence, which of the lesser evils are you willing to compromise on. There's also time taken to devote to the corruption of Caucasian police officers, as well as how the Chinese used to fight their own, before learning to unite in the face of stronger, external opponents out to humiliate and insult long held values because of ignorance and prejudice.

The second half of the film, with what we've seen in the trailers involving yet another East versus West matchup that have been covered in contemporary martial arts films and biopics like Fearless and True Legend, was quite the worry for me, in that it would be another opportunity for meaningless bashing and the championing of nationalistic messages. It's that sense of deja-vu that you fear arising from a similar situation from its predecessor, but thankfully, we get a fight that's quite compelling to watch, with Ip Man now being properly challenged by an opponent who's skilled with plenty of power and dexterity, with that lack of honour in dishing out a fair fight. Darren Shahlavi who portrays Twister the boxer, gets top marks for making you all riled up with his constant air of superiority.

Action choreography continues to be designed by Sammo Hung, and personally three action sequences stand out. I didn't enjoy the fish market brawl, as I didn't take to Ip Man fighting with an unruly horde, except that there's a moment of truth there when he shows by example his philosophy of "running away" (not that he's a coward) which continues from where he left off from an answer to Wong Leung. Two scenes which stood out involves Shahlavi's battle with the Chinese grandmasters, and frankly, despite being a "boxing" match, it was really imaginative of Sammo to deliver something that's quite different from the usual action sequences in Chinese films involving battling a Caucasian in a ring.

But the number one action sequence, albeit a little bit short, would be that which you've been teased by the trailer, with Ip Man versus Sammo's Hung Jan Nam mano a mano atop a flimsy table, in what would be Wing Chung versus Hung Ga Kuen. Naturally, not to offend real life practitioners means the result of the fight would be understood, but to see Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung match up against one another, is an action film fan's dream come true again, from SPL, especially after Ip Man dispenses with the side show phonies. If I had a gripe, these two really went all out with the speed of execution, that you just want to beg the camera to stay put from afar in slow motion to allow us all to gaze.

And because of the enigmatic presence of Sammo, somehow I feel that Ip Man the character got diluted screen time because ample time has to be set aside to prevent Sammo's Master Hung from being just the supporting character, but one that's properly fleshed out. He's there to be the contrast as the older martial arts practitioner who's well respected by his peers, and providing that glimpse of how Ip Man could progress, and whether to want to compromise ideals for those dependent on him for livelihood. Sammo being Sammo also chews up the screen with his charisma, and you can hear gasps of reverence reverberate around the cinema hall when he first appears on screen, his persona just screaming that he's one bad mo-fo not to be messed around with.

So Ip Man's thunder did get stolen a little, and the air of invincibility of Ip Man also got shattered in this film, as Wing Chun gets practiced and delivered by others, and we see him drawing or even beaten, which is something rare and unseen thus far. Of course this makes his character even more believable that he's no Superman, and that it provides an opportunity for us to cheer him on in continuing to combat and stand for his ideals. Yen continues to deliver Ip Man in a relatively low key style, preferring smiles and the occasional smoke to wanting to show off that he's one of the best martial artists out there.

Simon Yam, Calvin Cheng, Fan Siu-Wong and even Lynn Hung who plays Ip Man's Wife from the first film were all sadly underutilized, and the introduction of Kent Cheng was something like a direct replacement of Lam Ka-Tung's character from Ip Man (which means the deleted scene in the earlier film could be considered canon if you wish), being the default translator between the Chinese and the British, and more often than not is seen siding with the Westerners in order to keep his cop job. Huang Xiaoming brings a youthful energy as Wong Leung, and I suppose his inclusion is to capture the Mainland market where he's got a huge following.

One wonders whether the box office receipts will warrant a third film, and it does seem quite complete with clear historical enemies like the Japanese and the British soundly defeated. I'm not sure if the third film will deal with Ip Man's relationship and tutelage of his well known pupil (the the epilogue once again reminds us), since Yen will need to be visibly aged. And with a slew of copycat films / television serials expected to come out in the wake of this release either about the Grandmaster or Wing Chun in general, l guess it's probably wait and see. Same same, but different, is my verdict of Ip Man 2, being just as enjoyable but lacking a certain inexplicable X-factor that could have made the second outing surpass the first.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Back-up Plan

Your Abs are Distracting Me

J Lo's behind is still making waves as far as this film is concerned, having the actress in self-deprecating mode, and being very sensitive to her growing rear all thanks to the wonderful joys of being pregnant. Playing Zoe, a self-made career woman who's now pursuing motherhood before her biological clock goes berserk and gives up, she opts for the modern science of artificial insemination as her chances of finding The One is zilch, but Fate has that cruel sense of humour to present her the ideal man Stan (Alex O'Loughlin) the minute after she got her procedure done.

You'll probably not care about the romance bit, which is more like a tale of two halves, but rather be quite engaged with the encyclopedic look at the woes and crankiness that comes with a pregnancy, from the woman's point of view anyway. This film covers the entire spectrum, and I'll be hard pressed to think of a contemporary peer that had the whole nine yards covered in the same manner. And of course, that quick reality check that bringing up children in a metropolitan city, is not all that affordable if you haven't had your sums done up correctly, as Stan will slowly come to realize, and fear.

You can read my review of The Back-up Plan at by clicking on the logo below.


Sunday, April 25, 2010

[DVD] Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi (2008)

Double Dip

Shahrukh Khan's films before My Name is Khan which reunites him with Kajol, have introduced two new actresses to Bollywood. With Om Shanti Om, we got introduced to Deepika Padukone, and we know how well her career has progressed since then. Anushka Sharma's though seems to be a tad slower, though her second film Baadmash Company will be coming out soon, after Padukone's pairing opposite Akshay Kumar in Housefull. Well, better late than never, and hopefully it'll turn out to be something entertaining as well as this film under the Yash Raj banner. It's always easy to be watching a Bollywood film with the family because they are family friendly, and as proven, I was pretty confident my folks will enjoy the film, which they did.

You can read my review of the film here.

The Region Free two-disc edition of the film comes packaged with a lenticular cover that shows Shahrukh Khan as Surinder Sahni with Anushka Sharma as Taani in one view, and the other with her paired up with SRK's Raj persona. Presented in a pristine anamorphic widescreen format, Audio is available only in its original Hindi language track in either Dolby Digital 2.0 or 5.1 options. Subtitles are in English, Dutch, Arabic, Tamil and Telugu, and scene selection breaks the lengthy feature into 34 chapters.

Disc One contains the no extras other than a Forthcoming Attractions section that contains the trailer for New York, which also autoplays when the disc is popped into the player. Then there's the standard staple feature of Bollywood DVDs with a section that contains the Songs featured in the film.

If you were to ask which of the here is my favourite, I'll be hard pressed to give you an answer since I like all of them. Give them a listen and you'll see what I mean, and placed within the context of the film, pure magic. Only 5 songs for the film - Haule Haule, Phir Milenge Chalte Chalte (see if you can spot the female stars for each segment here, from Kajol to Rani Mukherjee), Dance Pe Chance, and the hauntingly beautiful Tujh Mein Rab Dikhta Hai in two versions, each option allows you to sample the songs as they are, although once selected it'll autoplay into the next song. Subtitles are available as well.

Disc Two is the Special Features disc presented in 4:3 aspect ratio without subtitles, and contains a couple of content-rich extras, starting with the Making of the Film (44:47), which contains the standard talking head interviews with the producer Yash Chopra and the actors Shahrukh Khan and Anushka Sharma talking about their characters, and especially the latter on her selection and audition process, which comes complete with the audition footage. Presented in a mix of Hindi and English mostly, you'd also get to see the on-location, behind the scenes shoot.

The Making-Of also contains the behind the scenes look at the making of three musical pieces in the film - Haule Haule, Dance Pe Chance and Phir Milenge Chalte Chalte, where you're likely to appreciate such song-and-dance sequences even more when you discover the sheer amount of work and logistics that go on to make them work the way they do. Interviews are mostly with the different choreographers, music directors and costuming even, as they recount the various challenges to get the look and feel for each sequence right. from the long takes in Haule Haule to the casting of the various actresses in Phir Milenge Chalte Chalte.

The Deleted Scenes (6:14) presented do not contain any subtitles, though it's not that hard to understand what went on and why they were omitted from or shortened for the film. The scenes are Suri and Taani Arrive in Amritsar which will of course break the very silent nature the film opens in, Taani Prepares Breakfast for Suri that expands the first meal they share on the dining table and the first utterance of Sur's "A-1" rating which brings a smile to Taani's face, Bobby Gets Emotional which was something that can be done without, Taani Tells Suri That She Has Lied which I suppose deals with her marital status in the dance class not being an issue anymore (which was of course never discussed in the actual narrative), Taani Talks about her Dad to Raj, and Bobby's Sermon on Being Macho

SRK Unplugged (61:53) is all Shahrukh Khan talking about various topics about and outside the film, some snippets which you will have seen in the Making Of segment. SRK talks about the Actor-Director Relationship which covers his friendship with Aditya Chopra, An Actor Prepares talks about his approach to acting and the inspiration behind his two characters, about Imagination, discussing about newcomer Anushka Sharma as The Face that comes with words of encouragement, about Vinay Pathak as Bobby Macho, Cinematography, Vaibhavi and the Famous One Shot in Haule Haule, the Choreographer Shiamak Davar and low body fats associated with dancers, the Homage in the song Phir Milenge Chalte Chalte, working for Yash Raj films and his gratitude to Yash Chopra,

Unfortunately for the non-Hindi speaker, the feature Shahrukh Khan and Anushka Sharma in Conversation (42:53) is in a mix of English and Hindi, and in a very relaxed mood, both actors banter with each other as they relive the moments in their film, talking about a whole range of issues with SRK serving primarily as the interviewer, covering topics from acting to even singing and dancing impromptu during the session.

Rounding up the special features are the Theatrical Trailer (2:06) and Promos (6:16) utilizing clips fromt the songs Haule Haule, Dance Pe Chance, Tujh Mein Rab Dikhta Hai, Phir Milenge Chalte Chalte, and 4 Dialogue Promos.

Singapore International Film Festival 2010

Personally, I felt that the festival somehow took a major step back from last year's edition. Somehow the buzz disappeared, and there were a number of logistical issues which could have been better to engage the movie going audience out there.

  • The festival booklet was late, and could only be obtained a day before the festival started proper (anyone would like to counter-verify this?)
  • Updates to the official web site was painfully slow. The template from last year was used so that's some help in figuring out the navigation, but the main page updates were not forthcoming. For instance, it would probably help ticket sales if interested parties knew in advance whether cast/crew were going to be in attendance
  • The UniSIM venue was too far flung. A central location would have been preferred
  • If tickets were sold out, it would have been great to be told on the website. Then again, was any session sold out? You can't tell unless you attempted to buy the ticket or turned up at the venue
  • I'm a stickler for punctuality. Despite having minimal ads (just 1), the films rarely started on time, though because I didn't buy any back to back tickets for films at different venues, I didn't feel the pinch, but sparing a thought for others, then this will wreck havoc to their viewing plans
  • Not starting on time also meant that any Q&A planned for after the session, will involve shifting of the masses to locations outside the hall, resulting in a waste of time / lost souls
I shall stop here lest this turns out to be a bitching session. Here's looking forward to a better edition next year.

Conversations on Sago Lane
Ek Tho Chance
In the House of Straw
Memories of a Burning Tree
Roulette City
Shake Hands with the Devil

Q&A Sessions
Memories of a Burning Tree / Conversations on Sago Lane
Roulette City
Shake Hands with the Devil

Saturday, April 24, 2010

My Life in Ruins

Life's a Dance

I still haven't checked out My Big Fat Greek Wedding in which actress Nia Vardalos is most famous for, but I suppose there's a fan in one of the distributors here to bring in yet another of her film this year after I Hate Valentine's Day. While it's nothing cerebral about the films she starred in (so far that I've watched), one cannot discount the fact that her sunshine demeanour has brought about some positive vibes and feel good factor to her movies, that it's somewhat of a delight to sit through her romantic comedies, thanks to sheer charisma.

Written by Mike Reiss and directed by Donald Petrie, My Life in Ruins isn't as dire sounding as its title, touching upon a snapshot of a tour guides stint and rapport developed with a group of tourists under her charge. It's been some five years since I last enrolled myself into a tour group to discover far out places, and the premise of the film brought back some of these memories, good and bad. And in some ways the filmmakers hit the concept right in the head, given how we normally perceive strangers we met for the first time through a pigeonhole concept, classifying them based on prejudices or little nuances that we pick up, and nickname them after.

The film in that way, mirrors real life experiences from tours (as far as I'm concerned with my personal participation) and how the tourists slow grow from strangers to friends who have forged strong bonds, some even after the parting of ways. It also plays on the stereotypes of typical tourists from various (Western) countries, such as the clueless American and the friendly Australians, though of course not every caricature gets painted in positive light, in a comical way not meant to offend.

Nia Vardalos plays Georgia, an American-Greek expatriate in Greece whose temporary job while waiting for a college teaching appointment, is that of a tour guide in a dingy tour establishment. Being rated consistently as an average performer as compared to her irritating peer, it seems that she's in for yet another tough time with a motley crew of tourists, and paired by with a terribly bearded bus driver Poupi (Alexis Georgoulis). Using her expertise knowledge to good but boring use, she constantly finds it a challenge to connect with her charges, until the joker of the group Irv (Richard Dreyfuss) begins to impart some words of wisdom to help her out. Frankly speaking if I was on a guided tour, I'd appreciate such a tour guide very much, rather than someone who brings you to various shops all the time for kickbacks in the form of commissions earned when you shop at their preferred outlets.

It's a romantic story as Georgia soon finds love in the unlikeliest of persons, and with her new found optimism, begins to address the issues of those in her tour bus as they build on their camaraderie, culminating in the hilarious solving of their bus's air conditioning problem. Expect plenty of light comedy being peppered throughout the film, especially since it plays on the abilities and nature of its characters, such as the kleptomaniac, and the pair of divorced friends. Some jokes aren't politically correct, and look out for Vardalos' real life husband playing a sleazy hotel employee trying to proposition her.

Unfortunately most of the backdrops, save for the more famous Greek monuments, were shot in Spain instead of in Greece. It would have been quite the Greece-101 for those who have not visited the country before, but alas this is not the film. But what it is though, is a reminiscing look back into the days when anyone had gone on a tour with a group of strangers, and emerged with new found friends and experiences. Offhand I cannot think of any film that has this as a premise, and for that, I'd say to give this film a chance. After all, it stars the ever-chirpy Nia Vardalos, and it's about time I visit her fat Greek wedding!

[SIFF10] Shake Hands with the Devil Q&A

It's a little strange that everyone had to get off from their seats and adjourn to the Lido foyer for a standing room only Q&A with director Roger Spottiswoode, but I guess having not started on time meant that it's not ideal to allow another group of festival goers having to stand outside for the next film to begin, or to have the director in attendance shorten his session. So here's the Q&A, but pardon the quality of the audio because the space was large, the speakers not turned up, and having other curious folks mingling around just added to the ambient noise.

Part 1 of 2

Part 2 of 2

[SIFF10] Shake Hands with the Devil

When the SIFF programme came out, Roger Spottiswoode's film Shake Hands with the Devil was automatically the first to have gone into my list of must-watch films from the festival, as I thought and correctly so, that it's easily a companion piece to Terry George's Hotel Rwanda, both being films that will definitely provoke a reaction and bewilderment why people tend to turn a blind eye to problems from the African continent, and why nothing was done to prevent the genocide when the powers that be under the auspices of the UN could have intervened.

But as we learn through Romeo Dallaire's autobiographical book of the same name, things are not always as easy as it seems, and like any organization, the UN is bloated with bureaucracy made worse when politics and self-interests of nations take precedence over any humanitarian crisis, as we would have bore witness to world events and disasters time and time again. Played by Roy Dupuis who had done an excellent job in bringing out the pain and the tremendous frustration of General Dallaire's tour of duty as head of the UN peacekeeping troops in Rwanda when the massacre broke, we follow the events that unfold through the eyes on the other side of the fence, which in Hotel Rwanda you would have questioned why the UN was a toothless tiger, well, here are the answers.

It's incredibly frustrating as any working person will know and experience, how as dutiful employees, you have to follow the chain of command even though it runs against what you know from the ground, and probably against solid common sense. And this is definitely made worse in a uniformed organization, where it's an innate expectation that troops have to listen to orders, lest they be punished and court marshalled. A career solider, Canadian Dallaire had ambitions that he and his UN peacekeeping troops will have their work cut out at maintaining the peace between the fragile government in Rwanda and the rebels up north in the country, a truce most difficult to police given limited resources from supplies and manpower to ensure that duty is done.

As expected, credible intelligence get turned away from the suits occupying the ivory tower in New York, and not before long, civil war is at their doorsteps with the crash of an aeroplane in Rwanda carrying the President as well as important members of the government machinery. And in breakneck speed, the opportunity for lawlessness erupts, and a crisis is at hand. As Spottiswoode revealed in a post screening Q&A, each UN soldier were lightly armed had only 1 magazine of 11 rounds each, hardly enough to do anything, and clearly spelling out their intended involvement in being nothing but sheer observers. Rules of engagement get passed down, and to the Rwandan militia, it is clear that so long as they do not engage the UN troops, they can practically do what they want.

So how does one negotiate with barbarians who only understand rules if at the other end of a gun barrel, and not the rule of law? It's likely you share Dallaire's pain in having his hands tied behind his back, and having his every plea and request turned down, and having country ambassadors taking flight as soon as they can without an inkling of hope that they will return, or lend support in any way. Somehow it's as if the civilized world doesn't want to get its hands dirty with solving the issues in the African continent, so we should expect contemporary issues like piracy off the Somalian coast to continue, so long as there is no direct vested interest by anyone strong and courageous enough to champion a change. I guess that's the way that things have become with our humanity, with those able to help not doing so unless there's something substantial in the what's-in-it-for-me.

Dallaire's opening speech to his team at the beginning also touched on setting the rules, of understanding their role as being there to maintain the peace, but conceding that soldiers probably aren't the best party to be doing so. And we see how they struggle to keep their composure as they come up against, as the title already suggested, the devils themselves, where one has to grit one's teeth and bear with it, knowing any proactive action will require resource beyond current means, and then the necessity of sustaining any operation to clean up the mess. Dallaire has to depend on expert negotiating skills on both sides to try his best to keep some semblance of order even though chaos reigns all around, and being shot on actual locations, you can't help but to bear witness to a recreation of humanity's destruction and atrocities being unravelled in vivid terms, coming complete with disturbing images.

Spottiswoode doesn't mince his words through the film, and as explained by the director himself during the pre-screening introductory speech, he was told two things by Dallaire before the film got made, and that's not to make Dallaire a hero, and to tell the truth as it is. The opening inter-titles have squarely put where the root cause of the problem is, something that had sown the seeds for potential discord many years back. And again, it's innate human nature somehow, to want to have pissing competitions to know who's better than another, and who's in the majority and minority. The introductory slide is incredible informative with just a few lines, setting the tone for the atrocities to come, and talking about missed opportunities to set things right, the exasperation that follows instructions that don't make much sense to begin with.

Under very limited release and distribution, I hope more will get a chance to watch this on the big screen, especially those who have watched Hotel Rwanda and want to know more through a film, then this one will sit right up there to provide a perspective from an angle from an outsider, and an organization that for inexplicable reasons, decide to sit back and watch the unfortunate spectacle unfold.

[SIFF10] Ek Tho Chance

New Dawn

Saeed Akhtar Mirza's Ek Tho Chance unravels itself over 24 hours in the city of Mumbai, and provides a kaleidoscope of story threads that get linked together sometimes through characters and events appearing in another, before converging in quite a forceful manner for the finale. With statements made about society in general or specifically targeted at certain groups, this film seemed like Crash-lite, though with stories that were quite ordinary, compared to the shots of what the real Mumbai looks like.

With an ensemble cast delivering a wide array of stories ranging from a dedicated, non-corrupt cop (Pawan Malhotra) tasked with looking for a thief (Vijay Raaz) who had stolen from an ex-Minister (Saurabh Shukla), the emotional connection between the thief and a beer lady (Ashwini Kalsekar) where they find solace and peace in each other, the relationship problems faced by a rich family, the cliche rich playboy (Ali Fazal) going after an ingenue model (played by Amrita Arora) who's also admired from afar by her nerdy friend (Purab Kohli), and the adventures of two brothers (Zaki Kazi and Zafar Karachiwala) who have left their village in Utta Pradesh looking forward to a modern city life.

Mirza weaves a kaleidoscope of stories and emotions through his narrative, about the search for real friendship in a city of strangers, of that innate human need to connect with others, or the quest for true love, of sticking together in the face of adversity, and the likes. There's no big moment in the film as it touches on a wide spectrum of feelings on a fleeting basis, and contains pointed barbs at things like how irresponsible rich youngsters who think they own the whole world can be, how politicians or ex ones tend to throw their weight around like a spoilt brat, and the notion of a sliver of hope that there are a few good cops left in a corrupt system, although I chuckle at and am quite amazed that cops, if what's depicted in the film is true, that they can bitch-slap just about anyone during routine questioning. There's also a heavy highlight on the clash of conservative values with modern cultural influences from outside.

One of the staples of most Indian films are the song and dance sequences, which when done properly adds an enjoyable dimension especially when it moves the narrative forward. In the case of this film, they come on quite jarringly, and were very out of place as characters inexplicably break into song, though credit goes to one sequence which had the Mumbai residents writing the performer off as a nutcase, which works of course.

Beautifully shot without going overboard and making it look like a touristy video, Ek Tho Chance gives that glimpse of the hopes and dreams of residents in a metropolitan city, and provides that opportunity to gaze at the different parts of Mumbai, from different angles.

Friday, April 23, 2010

[DVD] Zatôichi (2003)

Draw on Three!

I'm always up for a good swordfighting flick, and it'll take a while to plough through the incredible backlog on the adventures of the Japanese blind masseur and master swordsman Zatoichi, so I'd figure it'll make some sense to just jump into the Takeshi Kitano version. There's something romanticized about having a blind swordsman possessing a superb set of sword play that literally catches everyone offguard, ripping things up into shreds in a blink of an eye, and Takeshi Kitano's Zatoichi does that with plenty of aplomb.

As the story goes, Zatoichi is wandering yet again, and soon befriends a compulsive gambler Shinkichi (Gadarukanaru Taka) and his aunt Oume (Michiyo Ookusu), as well as taking pity on two Geishas, or so it seems, who are out to avenge the murder of their household some ten years ago. Then there's the gang versus gang feud going on, which led to one side employing a skilled ronin Hattori Genosuke (Tadanobu Asano) desperate for any job so long as he earns enough for his wife's medical treatment.

The narrative seemed a little bit choppy with the incessant need to insert something arty, such as the farmers ploughing the land which comes with a commendable soundtrack which is music to the ears, and transitioning from scene to scene was sometimes jarring, not due to moments being left on the cutting room floor. The swordfights were also few and far between, so don’t hold your breath for something to happen. If it does, then because of his extreme prowess with the kantana hidden within his walking stick, fights rarely extend to a few minutes since enemies are dispatched mostly with a singular slash, which does get a little boring after a while, and turning fights that happen in the later parts of the film quite anti-climatic since it takes a gargantuan effort to inflict some damage on our blind swordsman.

Some would have complained about the copious amounts of CG blood flying around the screen, and it was more stylized than bloody good to be honest. Each slice and dice by his Zatoichi's blade comes complete with unmistakable sound effects to accentuate the swiftness of the sharp blade, and with blood either spraying out from arteries, or oozing in large amounts from muscles being sliced apart or skewered right through. With the CG blood the end result looks a little bit cartoony even.

There’s a twist to the Zatoichi tale that may have purist fans go up in arms about the change made, which I thought suited Kitano’s version pretty well, although it did rub off some of the shine of the legendary character. What didn’t sit down well with me was the Bollywood inspired dance ending that came complete with tap-dancing. It’s really out of place, and worst than how Danny Boyle did for Slumdog Millionaire. It brings you out of the era and the setting, so I’m not exactly sure why the need to do so, as surely there will be better ideas to end the film.

The two-disc Code 3 DVD comes presented in an anamorphic widescreen format, with a dubbed Cantonese audio track besides the original Japanese language track in 5.1 being made available. Subtitles are available in English and Traditional and Simplified Chinese.

Thursday, April 22, 2010


Splash Down

In case you're not already aware, today marks Earth Day as we sit back and reflect upon the evils that we do on a daily basis, through our actions and inactions causing the planet great stress in its ability to sustain life, and the systematic eradication of creatures with whom we share Nature with. Things we don't see we fail to understand, and Earth the documentary film provides that rare glimpse into the far flung reaches of the Earth, from Pole to Pole through the course of a year and its seasons, from the depths of the oceans to the highest mountain peaks. It's almost Planet Earth digested into 100 minutes, with an environmental message that all will be lost should we continue doing what we're doing.

The version shown here is the UK version with the venerable Patrick Stewart providing the narration. Other versions include James Earl Jones doing the same for the US one (I would love to hear his deep resonating baritone voice), and Ken Watanabe in the Japanese version. With nature documentaries, one will appreciate the intricate details and craft in creating a story out of the footage shot, and leaving it up to the narrator to keep it engaging through expression alone.

Then there's the unforgettable, gorgeous cinematography that will leave you spellbound and taking your breath away each time, be it satellite inspired wide angled shots seen from outer space or high up in the atmosphere, or microscopic time lapsed ones that show the many changes over the passage of time. What's definitive about this film is its never shying away from the circle of life, where hunter and prey jostle for survival of the fittest, where the slightest mistake by either party is a matter of life and death. For this, the deliberate slow motion accentuates the sense of danger and adrenaline felt, and like poetry in motion, we bear witness to how a leopard goes all out to capture its prey, or how the great white shark beautifully emerges Jaws like at its prey, complete with a twist and choreographed fall back into the ocean.

It's witnessing a Noah's Ark worth of animals trying to make sense of the inexplicable changes to their habitats, which turns the world as they know it topsy-turvy, as they go about their season routine now with greater difficulty. We see how the melting polar caps wreck havoc on the Polar Bear's hunt, and how long distance the Elephant herd have to trek in search of water, desert land slowing creeping up the composition of land mass on Earth. Or how far the Humpback Whales must swim, no longer fueled by the plankton required for energy along the way. It's a little painful and heart wrenching even to watch how the animals struggle to keep their offspring and species alive, while we contribute directly to their challenges, and continue to plunder and waste.

I'm pretty glad and somewhat surprised as well that the theatre chain showing this, decided to go the distance by screening it in one of the largest halls available, where it can easily do so in one of the very small ones given the unfortunate lacklustre response to a nature documentary. A misbehaving projector aside which got repaired before screening began (and a prompt notification of the offer of a refund, which nobody took up), it makes it all the more worthwhile to witness Nature digitally on the big screen, with an awesome sound system.

If you watch this and don't feel a thing or a need to change, then surely you do not have a heart. Time to reduce even further, and reuse and recycle even more. Do something, not nothing. Don't let this slip your grasp, and visit for more information.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

How To Be

Thumbs Up, Not!

One of the films featured iin last year's edition of the Singapore International Film Festival, How To Be still managed to find itself a theatrical release in Singapore despite its indie leanings, and it's not rocket science to deduce that it's perhaps the presence of teenage heartthrob Robert Twilight Pattinson's being one of the chief reasons. Cashing in on his popularity and the huge fanbase already set up, I still don't think that the Twilighters (do we call them that?) will turn up in droves for this.

Unless they're into watching Pattinson give one of his award winning performances (yes, I kid you not) at being all whiny and moping about how life is unfair. This angsty teenager role is soon going to have him pigeon-holed into a stereotype if he continues to play such characters. His character Art is so much of a whiner that you'll soon find yourself wanting to give him a wake up call. A wannabe musician who gets no love nor attention from his parents and having his girlfriend dump him, he decides that all he needs is for the self-help guru Dr Ellington (Powell James) whose book he is reading, to turn up at his doorstep to provide that one on one consultation, for a fee of course.

Most of the best scenes here involve Dr Ellington spewing his words of wisdom with great aplomb and conviction, and has some of the best, hilarious lines in the film to keep it afloat. But it takes a while for Powell James to appear on screen, during which you'll have to tolerate the very quirky characters that pepper the narrative, especially friends of Art who are aspiring to be a great rock band together with him as the frontman.

Robert Pattinson, sorry Twilight fans, just cannot act to save his life here, and coupled with a storyline that tried too hard to engage, everything about the film seemed more like a turn off with its contrived scenes, that it's just plain painful to sit through this. It's indie, it's low-key, and Pattinson is seriously in need of a good character role soon enough before he gets pigeonholed and typecast.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

[DVD] Dynamite Warrior (Khon Fai Bin) (2006)

Knees to Chest

Dan Chupong probably got the role of his career so far when he got cast as the mysterious masked Crow Ghost in Ong Bak 2, and kicked Tony Jaa's rear in the film. It's a pity that he still doesn't get much recognition on his own accord given what's essentially his marquee films such as Born to Fight (which I had watched some time back on the big screen, and enjoyed), and this one titled Dynamite Warrior.

Which is one heck of a ride as well, as far as an action movie is concerned. Chupong plays the titular character, aptly named because of his arsenal containing rockets of all shapes and sizes, which can be used as an offensive weapon such as projectiles with an explosive tip, or defensively to provide a quick boost in a modified escape vehicle for the late 19th century. Alternatively, some are large enough for him to ride on as well. Yes, you read me right, Chupong's Jone Bang Fai is the quintessential explosives man, complete with Muay Thai elbow and knee moves to mop up and cripple opponents lucky enough to survive his shock-and-awe missile barrage.

But of course you know the story can't be all too serious, since it's a fusion of science and mythical elements, with evil wizards and spells being part of the equation on the villainous end, which our hero has to do combat with. In his quest to search for the killer of his parents, Jone Bang Fai conducts raids on buffalo traders, and soon come up against Lord Waeng (Leo Putt), an evil aristocrat with a cleft lip, whose invention the Tractor gets no sales because the Thai farmers are still used to their buffaloes. So Waeng hatches a plan to eliminate the traditional competition, and this sets him on a collision course with Jone.

Part of the fun here is the sword and sorcery type of storyline and characters, especially with Nai Hoi Sing (Samart Thipthamai) who proves to be quite the combatant since he's magical tattoo gives him superpowers and the ability to discharge blows from a distance, making him quite untouchable. He also has the ability to ignite his followers Bak Paen (Wichai Promchan) and Bak Kaan (Ampol Rattanawong) into using fighting monkey and tiger moves, which adds to the fun factor somewhat, as they go up against the Black Wizard (Panna Rittikrai) who has a secret weapon through the use of a virgin's menstrual blood (Yes, you read this right too!), and backed by Lord Waeng and his tough guy henchman with a voracious appetite, played by Somdej Keawlue.

The story contains its usual twists and turns and provides for some nice, though expected, development of the plot, and the only time when it sagged, was when it decided to focus on the romantic aspects between Jone and the Black Wizard's daughter Sao (Kanyapak Suworakood), in a shy guy meets outcast girl routine, which took quite a while because well, we the audience accompanies Jone in waiting for her next menstrual cycle. But everything was worth the wait as it was a precursor to one of the largest fight sequences to take place in a cop station, before the finale all out assault on the baddies lair.

Chupong dishes out plenty of of punishment as Jone Bang Fai, and if you're a fan of Tony Jaa, I don't see why you won't take to Dan Chupong and his brand of martial arts. The supporting cast, especially that of Samart Thipthamai also makes many of the fight scenes in the film worthwhile, and sequence after sequence just builds on what the previous had accomplished, making it a more than satisfying finale battle between good and evil, with plenty of bone crunching action to satisfy action fans anywhere. It's not a perfect film, but it contains many elements that make this a fun movie to sit through being entertaining at its core. Dan Chupong really should have made a bigger impact, and that remains to be seen with bated breath.

Code 1 DVD by Peace Arch Home Entertainment comes presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer, with audio available in Dubbed English Dolby Digital 2.0 or 5.1, and in its original Thai language track in Dolby Digital 2.0 and 5.1 as well. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish, with a 16 chapter scene selection, and the disc autoplays with trailers for The Host, Severance and The Signal, with an advertisement for HD Net.

Special Features are all subtitled, and presented in full screen format. Strangely though, all of them, save for the Original Theatrical Trailer (2:11, without subs) featuring primarily the best fighting scenes from the movie, end rather abruptly. As always, most of the features contain spoilers, so watch the movie proper first.

The Making of Dynamite Warrior (13:59) doesn't have much behind the scenes look, but focused on getting interviews with the main cast and the director in talking heads style, with clips from the film itself. Discussion range from their individual characters, to the lifestyle of North Eastern Thais. Behind-the-Scenes Stunts (1:54) and On-set Footage (2:31) are all rather short to be of much value, and the Special Effects Makeup (2:06) gives a quick look at how the Black Wizard got made up. A real pity that there isn't much substantial making-of material put together for this DVD release.

Monday, April 19, 2010


Have a Look

Based upon a story by actress Jennifer Jason Leigh who also had a bit part to lay here, and directed by Noah Baumbach who share screenplay credits, Greenberg is a tale that deals with the anxieties of the 40 year olds who are starting to wonder how half their lives had passed them by without anything to show for, and how much courage they have to try and reinvent themselves for the remaining half. Usually at a mid-life crisis, one would find a certain itch to want to break away from the norm and routine, but scratching that itch would depend on how severe it is, and how hungry one actually is in wanting to embark on change and do something different.

Despite its title being the last name of its male protagonist, Greenberg opens with a typical day in the life of Florence Marr (Greta Gerwig), the ever capable personal assistant to the Greenberg family headed by Phillip (Chris Messina), and because this part of the Greenberg family is heading to Vietnam for a vacation, Phillip's brother Roger (Ben Stiller) decides to move in temporarily from New York to Los Angeles for 6 weeks in order to do nothing, and in return for his brother's provision of a roof over his head, Roger's carpentry skill will be called upon to build a doghouse.

But this film is not about showing off his carpentry skills, but more of how he builds up new relationships with the household mutt, and Florence to whom he has taken a strange fixation and fancy to, while on the other hand still holding a candle for his ex-flame Beth (Jennifer Jason Leigh). And having just come out of a mental institution for a psychological issue didn't help either, as we see how temperamental and volatile Roger can get, where relationships he built with such difficulty, can be utterly destroyed at his uncontrollable blow ups.

In a way, this film is quite the depressing one, where folks like me and of course the older generation, may feel some pangs in wondering, like Roger, how we ended up the way we are, and the contemplating of the What Ifs and missed opportunities from relationships and family, to friendship and that of a professional life which could have possibly lifted Roger to fame and fortune, if not for his inexplicable rejection of that single chance that could have changed his life for the better. For the optimistic, this will be a strange film to sit through, as there's very little uplifting moments. Heck, even the door falls sick to some little known disease, and many faceless characters come and go without having any emotional resonance with Roger.

Which makes him yearn companionship in whatever means possible, even if it means sleeping with, or trying to, with his brother's assistant Florence, who somehow likes Roger for the very low key way of leading his life built on the basis of doing nothing, without the pressures of expectations, or imposing one's will on the other. Wait, scratch that last point, as Roger does make their friendship/relationship complex no thanks to not knowing what he wants, and not admitting things he desires. This forms the basic anchor for the film to develop upon, with commentary during a house party filled with youngsters about the impetuousness of youth, and the rather throwaway lives they lead with the drinking and drug abuse, and the lack of responsibility in clearing up the mess they leave behind.

It's a refreshing change to see Ben Stiller in a non comedic role, where he plays serious for once, and showcase some dramatic chops. Paired opposite him is Greta Gerwig who managed to hold her own as Florence, who's top notch at organizing other people's lives, but really zilch in looking after her own interests, succumbing to sex with strangers as a relief of sorts. Despite the nice casting in Greenberg, this indie film is not an easy one to sit through, not appealing to the depressive since its themes are quite the downer, and neither gaining fans from the optimistic since they'll likely be in deep thought once the show ends. But endure and stay for the top notch performances, with a proper, well deserved payout waiting for you right at the end of it.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

[SIFF10] Memories of a Burning Tree / Conversations on Sago Lane Q&A

Here's the coverage of the Q&A with Sherman Ong, writer-director of Memories of a Burning Tree, and Wong Chen-Hsi, director of Conversations on Sago Lane. It's relatively short since the screening of the films got delayed (last year's festival was quite the stickler for punctuality, which was a good thing), and it didn't help that the total run time of both films gave only a less than 15 minutes breather before the next film.

Part 1 of 2, beginning with Sherman Ong recounting getting to Tanzania to make the film

Part 2 of 2

[SIFF10] Conversations on Sago Lane

A short film that accompanied Sherman Ong's Memories of a Burning Tree, this documentary consists mainly of talking heads involving a group of senior citizens talking about a time from the past, about what made them choose to come to Singapore, their experiences during WWII, and how they are living out their twilight years amongst their group of peers. Split into 8 chapters over 27 minutes, we get an oral history lesson from a time bygone, and opens our eyes to their plight of today, having to live alone and numb to loneliness, living off public welfare assistance only if they qualify.

As this was not filmed on HD, it looked quite grainy when projected at Sinema Old School. Production wise it looks somewhat like a simple school project that went through its chapters of Arrival-War-Sago Lane-Ghosts-Madam Leong's Flat-Food-Quiet Times-Future quite literally in a series of interviews, some chapters focusing specifically on one interviewee and not consistently asked across all its subjects. Contains some fascinating insights into history of the Chinatown location that no longer exists, but only so in the memories of the older generation.

[SIFF10] Memories Of A Burning Tree (Kumbukumbu Za Mti Uunguao)


If at any time I were to be given an ultimatum to have a film made given limited resources, time and in a totally unfamiliar setting, the first name to pop into mind to be in my corner, will definitely be Sherman Ong. With three feature films already under his belt (Hashi, Flooding in the Time of Drought and now this), each of them is a testament to his tenacity and ingenuity in grabbing the bull by the horns, in digging deep and with tremendous innovation and creativity, come up with a work of art through various improvisational techniques that work like magic. You may be surprised or apprehensive about that approach, but with Sherman you're in safe hands.

With Hashi, he crafted a tale with his actresses in a collaborative format and coxed believable performances from them, despite not speaking the language. He repeats that when venturing into Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, not being able to speak Swahili, but what's to deter a determined man? Through friends of friends and yet another collaborative effort with his assembled ensemble cast, Sherman creates a feature film that sometimes look like a documentary, and blurs the lines between fictional, created elements, with that from the cast's experiences and what unfolds before their very eyes during the production process.

A commissioned piece by the Rotterdam International Film Festival for their programme FORGET AFRICA (which you can read more about through this blog), we embark on a journey of discovery, and through the filmmaker's lens (interesting to note that Sherman shot this using the video function of a still camera, in HD which looks gorgeous when projected digitally) get to see locales that would otherwise not be seen because somehow, Tanzania didn't feature in our travel plans. A trained photographer, Sherman also doubles as the cinematographer, and captured enough beautiful landscapes through its contemplative narrative long takes.

At its core, the story centers on Smith (Smith Kimaro) who is looking for his mother's grave, and he enlists the help of local tour guide Link (Link Reuben) to assist him. This of course meant a significant story time got devoted to being set in this quest, and the graveyards. The narrative then expands to include a gravedigger Abdul (Abdul Khalfan Malaika) and Toatoa (Khalid Saleh Bilal) a metal scavenger whose story arc includes his silent sister with the red headscarf, and his girlfriend Miriam Emanuel, who just seems to be about the only one who managed to strike at her goal and got out of her predicament.

With characters perpetually stuck in a rut they're struggling to get out of, the film steers clear of the conventional or cliched stereotypical poverty storylines, though maintaining a bleak outlook nonetheless. There was some fleeting talk on female circumcision that got snuck in during a female to female talk, and a brief moment on an exorcism being carried out by a witch-doctor of sorts, but my favourite scenes will have to be that of role playing during drama class, where we see actors and actress wannabes being put through the training paces.

Like how the film opened with a rambling man without subtitles available since he was probably speaking using his own created language, Sherman Ong, as his feature-length filmography demonstrates so far, may be onto something quite signature in the way he crafts films using his own terms. I missed this movie by a whisker when it premiered in Hong Kong last month, and my friend Wisekwai likes it, though another friend found it to be at the other end of the spectrum. Perhaps it's not about the destination but indeed about the journey taken to get to this point, and I felt that the end product is but a tip of the iceberg of what could have been percolating during the production process, which you can read from SINdie.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Youth in Revolt

So What Next?

Ah, what one can do for love. Based on the novel by C.D. Payne, Miguel Arteta's Youth in Revolt tells of a one man, or two if you like, tour de force hell bent on forging his own path toward his loved one, regardless of whether he has to burn down half a city to get to his prize. It's a full on comedy about the impetuousness of youth under influences of American Pie proportions, who happens to be personified by the meek virgin boy Nick Twisp, played none other by Michael Cera.

Cera has this corner of the market monopolized. If anyone's looking for "meek", or "by the book", or wants someone with that worrying look, then he's the go-to person at the moment. But this film provides an opportunity for him to play something of the exact opposite, that of an imaginary French romantic lover with that debonair flair, Francois Dillinger, made up to take over his subconscious because the girl of his dreams Sheeni Saunders (Portia Doubleday) happens to like all things French, from the language to music.

The film chronicles the desperation of Cera's Twisp in hell bent of not wanting to be a virgin any longer, but for his lack of an alpha-status, he finds this objective quite close to naught, until mom Estelle (Jean Smart) and her boyfriend of the moment Jerry (Zach Galifianakis) decide to hide out in a trailer park, and it is there that he got swept away by the girl who decided to pay him a little bit more attention than he ever got his whole life. Then it becomes a road trip movie of sorts back and forth, when the Twisps have to relocate, and Nick has to plot a way to get back to his lady love, who's whisked off to a boarding school.

Part of the fun here is to journey with Nick in his single minded objective of being led by his prick to get laid, and in doing so, with the help of his alter-ego, he gets from trouble to more trouble, each building on the previous in terms of the scale of destruction he left in his trail, culminating in something of an unbelievable and unfortunate betrayal, with morality thrown out the window. He becomes what he loathes, just because the good guys don't get the girls, and girls of his age are after the bad boys. Cera excels in being, well, Cera, complete with his signature irrepressible adlibbing, and while some moments may have you wincing, others may cement his knack for great comedic timing.

The casting's the other thing that made this film a fun one to sit through, with the supporting roles being quite random, and peppered with the likes of Steve Buscemi as Nick's dad, Fred Willard as the overly helpful neighbour, Ra Liotta as an opportunistic cop and Justin Long being the brother of Nick's loved one, who's a mushroom junkie, spreading the need for a high to folks around him. Adhir Kalyan's Vijay Joshi though seems like a more intellectual Harold from Harold and Kumar, driven though not by weed but by the opposite sex, and playing up on the Indian stereotype unfortunately.

The film runs a breezy 90 minutes with two animated portions in the opening credits, and one segment of a road trip. But with no disrespect, while all the others can possibly be replaced by substitute actors, Cera marquees the film because he stood out in a role that seemed tailor made for him. He is in danger of getting pigeon-holed and stereotyped (or already is!), but I guess for fans, this is something that they will not get enough of.

[SIFF10] In the House of Straw

Which Piggy?

Making its World Premiere at the Bangkok International Film Festival last year, Chris Yeo's In The House of Straw finally makes its way back home for its local premiere at the Singapore Panorama section of the Singapore International Film Festival. This year's section only offers 3 feature films compared to the bumper crop of yesteryears, but one thing to take note is the emergence of 13 Little Pictures (13LP), which in my opinion is gaining strength from its slew of edgy, thought provoking films released around the world so far that is tangent from the mainstream local offerings, and serving up an eclectic mix of a showcase of what local filmmakers are capable of when they bandy together. Out of the three films at the Panorama, two are from 13LP's filmography, and a look at their webpage will whet your appetite with what's in store.

Those who have seen an earlier 13LP film called White Days, will likely know who Chris Yeo is – the actor giving the cockroach speech with aplomb and something that will unfailingly provide heaps of laughter. Now with Chris Yeo on the director's chair and coming up with the story, one will more or less know what to expect from his film whose title spawned from the tale of the Three Little Pigs. given a little spin with Chris' reimagination of the story that paints a less than rosy picture of pig helping brotherly pig, dealing with the reality that sets in once the evil threat of the Wolf is gone, and getting on one another's nerves since each bear different characteristics, and for the lack of a better phrase, a mountain cannot hide two tigers.

Such is the parallel drawn between what can be thought of as the narrative of the film, and that of the Little Pigs' brought to life solely by the grave narration and sombre soundtrack. Told in very episodic fashion with each episode lasting a mere few minutes before the intertitles come up to introduce the next segment, the film happens to be more fantasy as it moved along, especially since it's a tale told in two parts, with the second part lasting but a fraction of the first and more of a cinematic experimentation in going full circle back to where it all started. One of the rare times where an episode is given an extended run, is when it documents the Har Par Villa, accentuating its interior of deity statues and steep mysticism, which the film at times seem to want to align itself with.

The three pigs in question are namely the unemotional Zhi Wen (Daniel Hui) who decides to move out of his family home and away from a senile dad, over-concerned mom and manic depressive sister (Tian Low), for the greener pastures of independence through the bunking in with flatmates Mark (Eustace Ng), a priest in the making, and Ah Pin (Felix Huang), the bicycle thief with a secret past, and who seems to be the unofficial ringleader of the trio for his straight talking loud mouth. Part 1's the Soliloquay, which follows Zhi Wen through his rise and fall, introduced to us as being quite the robotic empty vessel without a backbone and waiting to be nourished and ripe for influences both good and bad. It's also a look at his relationship with his girlfriend Lee (Lynn Chong), which seems set for disappointment given one side's enthusiasm, and another's rather indifferent attitude, especially when there's no tinge of protection rendered when one party is put in a pretty difficult spot.

Now to make sense of the film will be a tall order, and what could be said are the story threads running quite independently throughout, each with scenes and dialogues which stand firm on their own. The people here spend time dancing, gambling, drinking and mimicking films, that you wonder if there will be anything more to it than the television series Friends without the comedy. It is multi-layered so much that frankly I am hampered by the notion of trying to unravel the series of mysteries in the film, that I think will be best left to film theorists to postulate. But that doesn't mean that one cannot simply enjoy the film on the surface, as there are countless of moments that will fascinate you, and one of my favourites happen to be a tense scene involving the three male leads around a table with cans of beer, playing a drinking game that has them provide insights about one another.

Part 2 puts the entire film on topsy-turvy and it is here that you'll get a mental workout. Aptly titled Discourse and explaining that it's with Characters played by Other Actors, it's narrated in Mandarin, and have the different folks partaking in roles that call for different attitudes. I'd like to reckon this to the aftermath of influence, which I think after you hung out with certain friends for a long while, there will be something that will inevitably rub off you, and the scenes in this part just amplifies this influence in attitude changes. It's a characterization merry-go-round, and of course this allows for the actors to flex their acting muscles.

Chris Yeo also put in some conversations about god, or at least a character having one with a higher being, and therefore may earn this film its adult rating, which also could have been brought on by a sex scene that you see nothing (as compared to what you can see in other commercial films with the same rating). I had always thought that local films have to face an uphill battle in film classification, and this one just reinforces the point. Still it was a full house at its local premiere at the Arts House Screening Room, and if you're up for a mental workout with a tale about escape and influences that mold us as a person, perhaps this is a house that you may want to enter!

Friday, April 16, 2010

[SIFF10] Roulette City Q&A

Here's the complete coverage of the Q&A with writer-actor-producer-director Thomas Lim with two crew and two leading female cast members.

Part 1 of 2

Part 2 of 2

[SIFF10] Roulette City (輪盤)

Roulette City is an ambitious project, set to maximize its returns with the odds stacked up against it through its limited budget. Like a calculated gambler, Thomas Lim spreads his wings over to Macau takes on multiple roles of producing, directing, writing and acting, diving right into his first film (of any sorts), and probably emerged a winner through the filmmaking experience gained from the school of hard knocks. Like most first films, Roulette City came across with grand plans, and capitalized on its expected raw look and feel to mirror the kind of gritty tale that Lim aimed to tell.

Filmed in the Cantonese language, it is somewhat of a cautionary tale of sorts, reminding us (with those shiny new Integrated Resorts right at our doorstep) that there will always be stories that toot the trumpet of those who have gone up against the house to win, but there are always the heavier flip side of those who have walked away with tails between their legs, and head hung low. For every improbable millionaire made from the gambling table, there will be the probable family destroyed under the same circumstance. Roulette City embraces these two aspects, and like the Roulette game where you can bet on even and odd, there's plenty of duality found in the film, from characters and their intentions, to Tak (Thomas Lim) and his dalliance with two female friends Wynnie (Josephine Chai) his flame from China, and the easy going Armanda (Annie Loi), a croupier in Hong Kong who's working to forge a brighter future for herself.

Yes it took a love story tangent when things started to go awry for the reluctant gambler Tak and his more enthusiastic and optimistically hopeful Uncle (Kiu Po-Chung), who have taken savings meant for the treatment of Tak's ailing mum (Corinna Lee). Since Lady Luck decided to smile and allowed them to make considerable amounts of cash from the underground casinos, only for the latter to be swindled, followed by a grave incident that had Tak and Wynnie wanting to leave Macau through whatever means possible, only to find that there are a number of hoops to jump through, starting with the befriending of Armanda and her border-patrol brother, from whom they think favours can be extended. Unfortunately the narrative became somewhat non-linear with flashbacks later on putting back the missing jigsaw pieces, with a key revelation that plugs the holes in the narrative which will leave you bewildered for a while.

As the film is relatively compact at 75 minutes, the narrative also moved at breakneck speed that can feel choppy with its fast cuts and quick camera movements, which at times called for the sacrifice of a more detailed development of scenes. Things happen as they do and you're left to connect a few dots simultaneously, which of course takes its toil in making Tak's whirlwind romance with Armanda seem believable, and especially how Armanda's brother can flip flop with his trust issues. Some scenes didn't compel you to endure for answers, and I thought they were there to provide more screen time as a showcase for the actors, since a feature can't be a feature if the run time didn't extend enough.

But to be honest it's still a commendable effort to craft a story with its explicit alarms at reminding us there's no short cut to the road of material wealth. Don't be expecting the glitz and glamour associated with the many renowned casinos in Macau in this film, but rather a tale focused on the miserable, negative aspects of Man set in the edgy underground.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Gurushetram - 24 Hours of Anger

The second feature length film funded by the Singapore Film Commission's Feature Film Fund, Gurushetram - 24 Hours of Anger, is being touted as Singapore's first Tamil film, unless of course if you're considering a Tamil-speaking local film then Eric Khoo's My Magic would be ahead of this effort by TT Dhavamanni, who directed and co-wrote the story with Cheong Tze Chien, which touch on Indian gangsters dabbling with drugs as a way of life.

It's interesting to see how Singapore society gets portrayed through the lens focused on a different cultural segment than what has been dished out so far in a Singapore film, continuing with that fascination of the underbelly of society. From the get go we are introduced to a very dysfunctional family, where a mother of two gets sent to the gallows no thanks to drug trafficking, leaving behind a her husband who disappears soon after the funeral, and the sons being taken care of by their uncle who's chief gangster of the North, priding himself and his gang with delivering some of the best coke for the country's elites, and being quite blatant about it through their mixing and preparation with the windows of their hideout wide open, and doing so in the living room. Talk about having balls and dicing with the death penalty!

There were moments in the narrative that the film comments on how those in positions of power exploit the working class and the desperate, in making them take tremendous risk in order to fuel the elite class' pleasures and highs. There were also enough scenes which may have you question just how it mirrors and parallels the power of the law in this land, but of course this allows for some bandwidth for our top cop Anbarasan Segar (Matialagan) to flex some of his unorthodox methods in getting the job done, despite being played out by his secret informer a number of times, or so he thought.

Yes, Gurushetram is also a cop film with Infernal Affairs proportions, where trust serves as a precious commodity and is one of the key themes in the film, especially as the narrative develops itself and dishes out a number of pleasant surprises along the way, despite a plodding, and some false starts. Central to the tale is that of the close knit relationship between Prakash (Vishnu) and his mentally challenged brother Subra (Prakash), where the former is always on the lookout for the latter, with both being drawn into the drug trade by family ties, their uncle Vinod (Sivakumar) who runs a catering business (check out that retro blue color Volkswagon van!) used as a front to their clandestine operations.

I will not say I have intimate knowledge of the cast here, though I do note that Matialagan is fairly familiar, probably from television, and he does have a debonair flair of being a no-nonsense cop. There's a very small subplot trying to explore the estranged relationship with his social worker wife, who is coincidentally tasked to take care of Prakash and Subra many years back and a key source of her marriage breakdown, but unfortunately this was somewhat glossed over in favour of a greater focus between the two brotherly siblilngs. While Vishnu and especially Prakash in his role as the slow Subra do enough to convince you of their close ties, they do get repetitive especially when the plot calls for the same old device of hide-and-seek to cast the Subra character aside for a while.

Narratively, as mentioned, Gurushetram is a slow brew, picking up toward the second half of the film complete with flashes of brilliance as the story moves at breakneck speed, though it did stutter sometimes with scenes that were crafted in quite cartoonish fashion, for instance when Segar and his partner come face to face with a group of Malay thugs. Editing, especially with its flashback scenes could be kinder in its transitions, with flashing back being done too often which stuttered the narrative flow. For instance, a scene going back in time was inserted so as to show how Subra will behave when in a similar situation, which is too soon a deja-vu for the viewer.

As usual with Indian cinema, the soundtrack is always excellent, which accentuate scenes really well, and one almost cannot escape from having song and dance opportunities worked into the story, such as the X-plosion Night competition which allows for a quick snapshot at the dancing talent readily available. As a first feature film, Gurushetram had plenty of potential to be that decent commercial film our industry so seldom sees, although one gripe that I do have, is how its references to the Mahabarata do not go beyond just subtitling to let you know of some direct references, which will likely leave the non-Tamil speaking audience guessing for the most parts how its references mirror the moment on screen directly. Would have loved to know the intended deeper meaning for such scenes.

With two down and seven more features to go, it's perhaps uncanny to note that the first two films released under the Feature Film Fund banner are tales which have got to do with revenge, with a violence begets violence narrative. Hopefully there's a lot more diversity in the remaining features which are currently in various states of production.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010


Who Wants Their Ass Kicked?!

I wonder if any guys out there would like to admit that once in a while, we'll fantasize about being that fantastic superhero with powers that can make us demigods, emerge victorious over the bad guys and get the girl in the end to walk toward the sunset. Kick-Ass plays on that fantasy where we imagine a what-if scenario leaping straight out of a comic book, and except for Batman/Bruce Wayne with a world-class accountant, everybody else seemed to require one to be born an alien, or be physiologically affected by anything ranging from spiders to lightning bolts.

But Kick-Ass itself is based on an ongoing comic book series by Mark Miller and illustrated by John Romita Jr, so one can expect plenty of references both explicitly made and indirectly so, which to comic book fans will be quite the thrill to discover the easter eggs peppered within. Director Matthew Vaughn has a knack for adapting works based on literary sources, from his first feature film Layer Cake, to Neil Gaiman's Stardust, both of which I have enjoyed tremendously, and he makes it three in a row with Kick-Ass, which clearly doesn't apologize for the way it handles on profanity and on-screen violence, which I must admit is brilliantly choreographed and designed, and sets itself a mile apart from the trend of quick cuts and shaky cams.

What makes this film stand out besides its plot which has maintained its essence from the comic book narrative, is how the characters got introduced and developed for this roller coaster ride. There are enough ups and downs as we follow the protagonist Dave Lizewski aka Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson), who decides to take on the vigilante superhero persona because besides being fodder for bullies, he feels that it's time someone in the big city had the balls to stand up for the little man, with mask and some special ability of course, which in a way he obtains through the school of hard knocks for imbeciles, the first incident which indicates just how straight Vaughn will play the film out without unnecessary, cliche bullshit, which will raise some eyebrows at first, before you realize and be thankful that cliches are going to be out of the window.

For all his shortcomings, Dave serves up enough pathos almost equivalent of a cooler Peter Parker, sharing similar concerns and pangs as a schooling and growing teenager, only without the input of a radioactive spider. It's true when you put on a uniform that it can compel you to turn into someone else, and watching Dave stumble through that, with his taser and Eskrima sticks, you can't help but to feel for his character, and to eventually root for him to achieve something other than Youtube/Myspace glory.

Then there's the "real deal" heroes in the film, led by Nicolas Cage in a Batman lookalike costume. We know Cage had lost out on his opportunity to play Superman, so his Big Daddy isn't that bad after all, in what I thought was one of his fun, contemporary characters to date, especially when there's a really poignant backstory fleshed out through superb comic book panels, and tells of why he's so dogged in his pursuit to bring down the villainous drug dealer Frank D'Amico (Mark Strong). McLovin' Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Red Mist also departs from his usual pigeon-holed typecast and gets primed to showcase a lot more despite his limited screen time, so it's quite nice to see him step out of his comfort zone, and step up to the plate.

The one who clearly stole the thunder from everyone though, is Chloe Moretz's role as Hit-Girl, the uber-violent, take no prisoners vigilante with a foul mouth to go along with her martial arts skills. Raised under exceptional circumstances, she's a would-be assassin from day one, and owns just about every action sequence that she gets to flex her muscles in. There hasn't been a child character that had exuded so much caution thrown to the wind, and that's what makes her role refreshing (some parents will frown upon naturally), especially when her alter-ego is a cute, innocent looking schoolgirl who is obviously more than meets the eye, and one that comes with a glint of mischief as well. She's the biggest ass-kicker in the film, and she rocks big time, with the best lines, and the best moves. A definite favourite who has the potential to seal this film into cult fandom, the Fannings and the Breslins of the world better sit up and take note!

To say anything more of the story will be to give it away, but suffice to say it also dealt with the modern day apathy, and obsession with popularity, online hits and virtual friends, where you find no-one lifting a finger to help a fellow man in need, but plenty of those standing around the sidelines recording everything for a youtube upload. It's almost anti-superhero in a way with its take on copycat wannabes who get into an awful lot of needless trouble, and deglamorizes or even shatters whatever notion that we earthly mortals will have about powers, to confine it within our dreams. It takes on the what-ifs, and plays it out in almost realistic terms on the kind of trouble we would expect, with threats obviously made to loved ones should secret identities be exposed, and that we'd really be psychopaths of sorts if we were to don a costume and start fighting crime in it, like the characters here who are living our fantasies, on screen.

Fused with great comedic timing and a rocking contemporary soundtack, my verdict of this film is that this Kick-Ass kicks ass aplenty! Oh, there's a Singapore connection in the film as well, so keep your eyes peeled when the end credits are rolling. I'm quite confident this film will have a placing in my shortlist for the best of the year when the dust settles. Highly recommended, don't miss this, and yeah, the M18 rating means this film gets released here uncut, so kudos to the distributors for not opting to dumb down the level of violence and profanity, which will butcher the film badly, and rob it of a layer of Kick-Ass-ness!
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