Saturday, May 29, 2010

[In Flight] Exam

1 Invigilator, 8 Candidates

It's been an extremely long time since I sat for an examination, and frankly to have anything filmed about an exam will likely be boring stuff, since it consists of a quiet setting, and candidates furiously burrowing answers penned onto the answer booklet, or looking worried as they realize they haven't a clue to what's being asked. Being on a relatively short flight, I thought this film will be something right up my alley to watch tortured souls being put through the rigours of an exam, only to find myself constantly engaged in a modestly budgeted film done right.

Writer-director Stuart Hazeldine managed to craft an intriguing, taut thriller that will entertain, however, being a first timer, Hazeldine sometimes trips up with a less than deft handling at some elements that will give the cat away to an alert viewer. The premise begins with 8 individuals, on the surface being all the stereotypes covering different races and physical builds, put into a windowless room with individual desks, a pencil and a question sheet in front of them. A stern invigilator (Colin Salmon) lays down the ground rules, and they're off to provide their answers, only to find a surprise in store.

It's a recruitment exercise, and these individuals have to provide the ultimate answer as to why this particular high profile organization has to offer their lucrative job opening to one of the candidates. In Reservoir Dogs like fashion, each candidate is given a nickname according to skin colour (not very PC, but it'll do) and the film slowly develops into a psychological study into what a group will do in a co-opetition (cooperation-competition) setting since they each have to rely on the abilities of others toward their collective goal, yet the goal being available to only the last one standing.

So the stereotypes emerge, such as the arrogant windbag Mr White (Luke Mably), his opposite number Mr Black (Chukwudi Iwuji), the uptight, secretive Mr Brown (Jimi Mistry from The Guru), the women nicknamed by their hair colour Blonde (Nathalie Cox), Dark (Adar Beck) and Brunette (Pollyanna McIntosh), and the quiet Deaf (John Lloyd Fillingham) slowly unravel what's more than meets the eye, and while the first few challenges do prove that they can work their strengths together, the usual human failings of greed, cunning and selfishness soon rear their ugly head and that's when the film ups its ante as you'll start to see alliances being formed, and guessing just whose innate background and ability will see them through right to the end.

There are some little sub plots thrown in to spice the premise up, such as a disease that's spreading across their country, and ultimately what price an individual have to pay to make it to the top, and as much as I had enjoyed this thriller, there was room enough for improvement, such as to try and be a little bit more subtle than to wave Chekov's Gun around. It's nothing too fancy, but the storyline and delivery packs a wonderful punch in holding onto your attention for a gripping 90 odd minutes. Recommended!


... to the Middle Kingdom, be back next week. By the time you read this the plane should have left the tarmac at Changi.

Meanwhile, whatever you do, set some time aside to catch Echoes of the Rainbow, one of the best films from Hong Kong this year, if not one of the best this year thus far. Forget about Freddie's new nightmare (as if we still need another one), or yet another Hollywood talking mutt show (as if we still need another one of those too).

Other films opening next week will be
1. the Ashton Kutcher-Katherine Heigl comedy Killers which seems to have fired the first salvo at Tom Cruise-Cameron Diaz's Knight and Day which opens later in June
2. Japanese master Yoji Yamada's latest film About Her Brother
3. Controversial Bollywood film Raajneeti for cutting very close to the corruption of the democratic process of elections, the first film of 2010 starring Ranbir Kapoor who had a very good run in 2009, and Katrina Kaif.

See you back here, next week!

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Sex and the City 2

Back in Luxury

I suppose you just cannot postpone a girl's night out, not when these famous, fabulous four still have a firm following worldwide to greenlight a sequel to their 2008 feature film, though seriously, are we really that interested in the married life of Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker), and the expected troubles from a modern day girl with plenty of emotional issues still too immature (she still continues to be oh-so-whiny here) to deal with?

While waiting to get some flak for that last statement made, I wonder how writer-director Michael Patrick King felt like having to craft interesting stories and challenges for the female fab four, after all, it does seem like a natural progression of problematic issues all generically laid out waiting for someone to put them into the narrative. The sequel is set some 2 years into the marriage of Carrie and Mr Big (Chris Noth) as seen from the first film, and as the relationship matures, the petty issues start to creep up, though from a guy's perspective, pray tell what is wrong with just wanting to be laid back a little, stay at home, plonked down on a comfy couch and to watch a little telly? But for Carrie, it translates to a lack of commitment and interest.

So that's Carrie's challenge to address. As for her gal pals, Charlotte (Kristin Davis) has to deal with the notion of her husband's possible temptation by her new Irish nanny Eric (Alice Eve), who is naturally endowed by Nature with humongous hooters, and the preference to go braless (which contributes to the nudity rating of the show, so there). As for Miranda (Cynthia Nixon), as the career legal eagle, hers is the feeling of not being appreciative at work, having her arc take a backseat here after a major one in the first film. As for resident slut Samantha (Kim Cattrall), it's having to tackle her post 5 decades with multi-vitamins so that her sex drive is kept at an equilibrium instead of nose-diving.

We spend the first hour in New York establishing all these issues and to attend a gay wedding for the sake of (and watching Liza Minnelli in a cringeworthy Beyonce performance), before Samantha's reputation of PR extraordinaire wins her and her pals an all expenses paid trip to UAE (well, actually Morocco doubling up), courtesy of a rich Sheik (Art Malik) who wants her to handle the PR for their hotel. The film's setting in the second half will make you wonder if it's a little out of date, with its throwaway extravagance and opulence being showered and pampered upon our quartet, from mansion like hotel rooms with breath-taking balconies, right down to personalized butlers who can warm your milk and act as confidantes dishing out good advice.

With Samantha's high sex drive in tow in a conservative Muslim society, expect comedy to come in the most politically insensitive / incorrect manner to try and draw laughter, though sometimes one wonders how such jokes could have gotten away with it. Most of them fell flat on their face, while those that did earn a deserved chuckle, seemed to be grouped amongst jokes told for the sake of, sometimes quite jarringly out of the blue, as one character mentions, she saw the punchline and went for it. Those into fashion will find the usual labels on display here, coupled with Middle Eastern influences.

It's fun while it lasted, but this again is nothing more than a glorified television episode set to rake in box office gold from fans and curious non-fans wondering just what the fuss is about. There's nothing deep in the film as themes are casually handled on the surface, but as popcorn fare, it will likely prove that it has enough gas in the tank for another romp in another city of decadence, if that should be the formula it so decides to stick to. Perhaps Singapore next, since we have shiny new IRs to tempt them all to come over?

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

Through The Looking Glass

I suppose being awarded the Crystal Bear for Best Film by the Generation Kplus Children's Jury of the Generations competition at the Berlin Film Festival would have piqued tremendous interest in the film when it got its theatrical release back in Hong Kong, and when I was there during the HKIFF in March, it was still playing to sell out crowds, even the late night shows. Surely that award alone isn't enough to sustain such a popular run, so much so that I didn't have an opportunity to watch it, until back in Singapore now. And I can now attest to why it's box office gold.

Written and directed by Alex Law, Echoes of a Rainbow drips with nostalgia and bucket loads of sentimentality without going overboard into melodrama. It's a capture of the struggles of a working class family in 1960s Hong Kong with the constant change and hardships of society, and the story is top notch, at the surface being able to entertain, and beneath filled with intense, poignant filled moments and scenes that will tug at your heart strings. With attention paid to detail in its art department and direction, to sets and costumes, it seemed that nothing was spared in recreating scenes, moods and behaviours from the past.

And nostalgia is something which I feel that a sub section of contemporary Hong Kong cinema is currently going through, with bio-pics like Ip Man 2 providing a glimpse into the injustices suffered by the Hong Kongers then, being bullied on both the lawful, and unlawful fronts, by foreigners and triads alike. Soon to be released Gallants also captures the yesteryears of cinema in a fun filled manner, with martial arts being the order of the day, but with Echoes, this film is steeply rooted in drama, centering upon the lives of the Law family members. Special effects got effectively used to recreate things that no longer exist such as the old tram climbing up Victoria Peak overlooking a different skyline, and in a brilliant opening sequence involving a large fishbowl from which becomes the looking glass on which old Hong Kong got superimposed through a series of archival clips representative of the times.

But special effects cannot take the place of wonderful acting. Simon Yam, who also recently won the Best Actor award at the recent Hong Kong Film Awards for his role here (and the film garnering a lot more accolades as well) and Sandra Ng are two veterans who put on expert performances here, leading and paving the way for its able supporting cast to shine as well. We all know Simon exudes a sense of debonair cool in a number of gangster flicks, and Sandra is comedy queen extraordinaire. If there's anyone questioning their serious dramatic acting chops, this film will let those eat their words, and be truly flabbergasted by their nuanced performances of those from a generation past.

As head of the household, Simon's Mr Law is a cobbler and a man of few words, with business never booming and constantly struggling to make ends meet. Sandra Ng plays his more talkative wife steeped in a traditional caregiver role, in total departure from the madcap ones that we're so used to, as the mom who's always there for her two kids, played by Buzz Chung as the little Big Ears, and Aarif Lee as Desmond, their family's pride and joy for being in a famed school and its star track and field athlete. We see events unfold through the eyes of the little one, and Buzz Chung steals everyone's thunder in a role that encapsulates innocence, with that twinkle of mischief especially with his kleptomaniac ways. Newcover Aarif Lee also shines as the elder brother on whom hopes of a better life for his family hinges on, and Alex Law's narrative provides for that teenage romantic love with Evelyn Choi's Flora, who turns out to be someone from a different social class than Aarif (hey, it's a Victoria Peak address no less) which proves to be the chief obstacle for both to overcome.

And Alex Law's story packs plenty to keep you thoroughly and emotionally engaged throughout the 120 minute runtime, with subplots and themes revolving around the hardships that the working class face in that era of change, in a time steeped in corruption from all areas of society from the police to healthcare workers. I especially liked how Law primed the audience for the negative aspects of life then with the very subtle technique of mentioning how both sides of the law put pressure on legitimate businesses through the celebration of the mooncake festival, since we were treated to all things good such as the communal spirit stemming from close neighbours and relatives living on the same street ever willing to chip in, and share resources such as telephones and televisions.

The film encapsulates the look and feel, the music, and its attention to detail of the times is key to its success. There are moments big and small that just bring a smile to my face, be it the pop tunes of yesteryears, the identification of directors such as Ann Hui and others who pop up as supporting cast, or that smattering of the Shanghainese language that got retained in the dubbed version here, and some which left me heart-wrenched, such as when the family members have to band together to overcome a notorious natural disaster, and other difficulties that get thrown their way. As they say if Life gives you lemons, make lemonade, this family finds that will alone is sometimes never enough, although Mrs Law will have you believe otherwise through her earnestness in positive thinking. The second half of the film was also my favourite as the narrative shifts into full gear, and allows for Simon Yam and Sandra Ng to really shine through their chemistry shared as screen husband and wife. Don't be surprised too if you can identify with some of the moments and issues that get portrayed and brought up, and goes to show the superb storytelling craft that Alex Law had adopted to present his masterpiece.

Echoes of a Rainbow is now playing at limited screens, but please don't miss this just for the sake of watching the loudest blockbuster from Hollywood. It is the sincere films like these that need to be watched and appreciated, especially so when blessed with an excellent storyline, and with a myriad of characters all of whom you'll genuinely feel for, and be moved. This film gets my vote and is a definite shortlist to be amongst the best this year. The DVD will be out soon, which will mean a second, necessary viewing in its native Hong Kong language track. Highly reccomended!

Monday, May 24, 2010

Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

Medieval Indiana Jones

Unfortunately I do not have an iota of experience with the Prince of Persia games, given that they were all the rage some 20 odd years ago when I was still in school, being the oddity that used the Apple ][e computer before Apple became sexy, amongst a group of geeks swapping their latest adventures as the titular character on some computer based adventure. I'm sure Prince of Persia by now has a seizable fan base to warrant a large scaled action adventure slated as a summer blockbuster, but if only had Mike Newell's execution made it less meandering than a medieval Indiana Jones.

With three scribes working on Jordan Mechner's story from the game, the film suffered from the lack of coherence as it strung together premise after premise of mindless mumbo jumbo to pass off as mythology involving time travel with a dagger as the DeLorean and some precious sand as the fuel for its flux capacitor. And I wonder just who is responsible for the plenty of plot loopholes and conveniences found littered throughout the film, that you'll roll your eyes no sooner at the next cliche that managed to find its way on screen. Cliches so bad, you'll want to reach out and utilize the dagger of time yourself to escape from a horrible story.

Take for instance, the usual bad guy monologue, and the trust to an unidentified, faceless minion to finish off the hero, which led to an embarrassingly bad take (ran out of film?) on how an interrupt occurred to save our Prince. Or how by keeping mum instead of trying to kick our hero's rear in front of an adoring army just didn't make much sense other than to provide for a means to a more conclusive finale. And what about the inexplicable ego boosting of needing to have a precious artifact put in a display case for all and sundry to see and admire, with an "alarm system" of only 1 dagger throwing minion, again a faceless and glorious extra?

There are many of such strange set ups that you wonder if they should just junk the story, and show action after action. After all, with computer wizardry employed in full glory to bring about plenty of sand buffering around, and that tinge of thick orange that drenched the film, nothing seems to be impossible as our hero had to overcome jealous brotherly rivals, betrayal, a feisty princess (played by Gemma Arterton whose star is slowly but surely rising), with a mouth that just wouldn't stop spewing sarcasm (with lips always so seductively pursed that one wondered why it took so long for the Persian Prince to plant a big fat wet kiss to shut her up), and go up against enemies like the precursors of Assassins, soldiers, and ostriches even. Yes, I kid you not, as Alfred Molina's Sheik Amar runs an underground betting ring with expertise on ostrich races, and provides some laughter as an anti-government critic if you translate his lines into a modern day context.

Jake Gyllenhaal put on plenty of muscle to be that swashbuckling hero so sorely missed by Hollywood standards, and going by the skills of his character Dastan, one may mistake him for being Prince of Parkour as well, with his various leaps and jumps overcoming various terrain and enemies constantly. Gyllenhaal may just cement his reputation as a summer film marquee star with enough chops to take on action, and does a pretty decent job as the hero with street smarts and a devil may care attitude. As mentioned, Gemma Arterton's star is growing, and finds herself comfortable in period roles, though she has not much to do here other than to banter with Gyllenhaal, and be that obligatory love interest in the sea of men.

Prince of Persia may be Jerry Bruckheimer's hope of a franchise to be spawned, emulating the success of The Pirates of the Caribbean, but frankly requires a lot more stars and a solid story to begin with. Then again, hey it's a summer popcorn movie, so cut it some slack you may add, especially when the special effects here made time travel look good from a visual perspective. Sure, if you park your brains at the door and approach this with low expectations, you may just enjoy the roller coaster ride from start to finish, but it's no crime to ask for a little bit more.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Hallelujah! (Le Missionnaire)

Hello Is That You, God?

Once in a while a little gem of a film will hit all the right notes when you least expect it to happen, leaving you the viewer grinning with glee by the time the end credits roll out. Gallants, with its theatrical release in Hong Kong soon, did that for me, and now Hallelujah!, which has been playing for some time already, did it for me this month, in presenting a story so deceptively simple and humourous, had a lot going for it in knowing just how much to bite off and chew.

Directed by Roger Delattre and written by the leading actor Jean-Marie Bigard who takes on the role of Mario, Hallelujah! takes the quintessential fish out of water story, and it's not since Hot Fuzz that I kinda enjoyed this genre since you'd come to expect the formula that usually gets employed, with the reluctant hero being put in a premise against his wishes, and trying to make the best of it, in particular, with the help of the earnest supporting characters who teaches the protagonist a thing or two about humanity, or vice versa.

Bigard's Mario is a jewel thief having served the last day of his 7 year prison sentence, and is about to start a new life except for two ex-colleagues who come knocking on his door to demand a cut of the jewels. A bad-ass himself but knowing that the odds are not against his favour, Mario seeks the help of his brother Patrick (David Strajmayster), a priest who decides that the best way to help Mario will be to disguise him as a fellow member of the church, and send him to a small town to hide. Little does he know that his contact and fellow brethren had kicked the bucket, and Mario had no choice but to pick up the mantle and become the beacon of hope to the town folks, where hilarity is just about every turn of the corner.

I will not deny that I had to rely on the English subtitles to get me through this film given my lack of mastery of the French language, and certainly in this case there will be a number of jokes that will get lost in translation. But for what it's worth, this subtitled version managed to get me in stitches, in particular Jean-Marie Bigard's straight faced performance as the no-nonsense gangster who found himself stuck knee deep in helping the simple town folks who see him as their messiah. On one hand he can't wait to shrug them off so that he can get his hands on his stolen jewels, and on the other, slowly but surely, find himself being endeared to the rich supporting characters that pepper the scenes, in particular with the police led by Jean Dell's Le Capitaine de Gendarmerie.

On the other hand, there's the story of Mario's brother Patrick, who is tasked with the responsibility of helping Mario retrieve the stolen treasure, and as a religious man we see him slowly degenerate into a life of vice, in stark contrast to Mario who had, in his limited capacity tricking everyone of his theology expertise. Before Patrick's scene got too over the top, there's a superb performance and premise during a protracted negotiation that will surely leave you laughing out loud. For Patrick, it's the exploration on the corruption and temptation that money can bring.

But it's not all just laughter without substance, as the film does have its very clear message which came as the final sub plot of the film. Some may find it being shoved down one's throat, but I thought it's nevertheless a critical reminder of the times we live in, which calls for the message of love, peace and tolerance despite differences in religious beliefs, since almost all preaches the same positive aspects on how to lead one's life to fulfillment, with responsibility and acceptance toward fellow human being. It's an ideal that the film tries to spell out to the audience, that it's nothing impossible once we get past our bigoted views, and see beyond surface differences to realize we'll all the same deep down, holding onto similar hopes and dreams.

If this was to be remade, I can see how Hollywood would adapt this, and Robert De Niro will fit in the role of Mario easily. In fact, if there's a Japanese version of it, Beat Takeshi will also not be far off in his ability to translate this role of a gangster being forced by circumstances to lead a life filled with offbeat comedy. Hallelujah! earns the distinct honour in being one of the films that is likely to end up in my shortlist of favourite films of the year. With great performances all round and a story with its pacing kept tight, it's highly recommended, so do catch this on the big screen while you can before it disappears for good!

Once a Gangster (飞沙风中转 / Fei Saa Fung Chung Chun)

Not Again?

Ekin Cheng and Jordan Chan as gangsters all over again, why not? After all, these two chaps have been what was one of Hong Kong's most enduring cinematic icons with regards to the Gu Wak Zai in the 90s, and this is a reunion of sorts with both of them playing gangsters backed by rival factions within a triad group up for an election of a new triad leader.

Written and directed by Felix Chong, who had given us Overheard of last year, and Lady Cop & Papa Crook which I felt could have been onto something great if not for bowing down to Mainland China pressure for a more politically correct finale, this film somehow straddles between the two - It's not an all out serious fare with its penchant for comedy whenever possible, and it's not all nonsensical when you sit down and mull over its themes under the premise of reluctance.

In some moments, it's an absolute parody of Hong Kong gangster flicks like Johnny To's Election movies (borrowing its seeking a triad head and element of the Dragon Head/Tail baton), and the Infernal Affairs films with an undercover cop (WIlfred Lau) amongst them, and in other times, laden with great nostalgia of the fore-mentioned partnership between Jordan and Ekin in their Young and Dangerous days. The film is almost schizophrenic in treatment, not know what it wants to achieve, and hence it blew hot and cold throughout, which can get a bit perplexing as it stumbles its way through an erratic pace to a tight finale with plenty of blood-laden violence played out for laughs. See my point?

So what this boiled down to, is its characters and their struggles to keep their personal ambitions fulfilled. Alex Fong stars as Kerosene, who as a young man in the lower rungs of the triad society had recruited a bunch of new hoodlums, including Jordan Chan's Roast Pork, and because of the latter's tenacity in battles, Kerosene slowly rises to become chief, and rewards Roast Pork by funding his desire to open a string of restaurants. For Roast Pork, a life in the triads is not what he's seeking, but rather, a culinary one where he can find some stability to bring up his family.

Which gets a little complicated when Kerosene's leadership is under scrutiny for the embezzlement and losses from the triad's coffers due to dwindling members who had gone legit, and business models challenged by the latest technologies, and hence a new leader has to be found. Roast Pork becomes Kerosene's successor of choice, but rival gangster played by the overacting Yu On-on, pushes forward her son Sparrow (Ekin Cheng) instead, from a deed that he had undertaken for the triad group, and also using his lineage as the descendent of the triad founder as leverage.

Fans of Ekin will be wondering why it took almost half the film to run by before he turns up, but I guess it's better late than never, given a somewhat stylish introduction, only for the bombshell to be dropped that leadership is not what he's seeking, but an entry to the university to study Economics. So we have two reluctant would-be leaders, each trying to overcome their nominations to pursue what they prefer in life. And frankly by the time we hit this point, it's one more scene to the finale sequence only, leaving little room to dwell between the friendship/rivalry between Sparrow and Roast Pork. We want to see more screen time with the two sharing the same frame, and it's somewhat too little too late.

The only positives from this film is the dialogue, especially in a scene where Roast Pork launches into a discussion with his closest allies, that deviates into anything but the agenda at hand. I reckon that this portion will be side-splitting hilarious in Cantonese, but alas we have to make do with the Mandarin version here, which I suspect had taken the oomph out of many witty lines strewn all over the narrative. And watch out for WIlfred Lau's hilarious spoof of Tony Leung in Infernal Affairs, in what would be a running gag throughout the film and probably the best and most hilarious role here.

Once a Gangster should appeal to the Jordan-Ekin fan base without a doubt, and it's probably all worthwhile if we get to watch it in its original language track. You've been warned though of its erraticism and eccentricity, so you'll have to approach this with the mood to laugh along and laugh at its antics.

Roman Polanski: Wanted And Desired

For those who want a quick snapshot of the entire hullabaloo surrounding acclaimed director Roman Polanski and the slew of charges against him, one for having sex with a minor of 13 years, then this documentary by Marina Zenovich will present everything on a silver platter in digestible portions, though with any documentary, objectivity sometimes gets a little bit skewed. If you ask me for an opinion, I'm still a firm believer of serving time if done the crime, and under an imperfect system, there are always instances where we see the rich and the famous escape jail terms, like in Law Abiding Citizen which preached that truth is only what you can prove in a court of law.

In presenting facts and the case itself, Roman Polanski: Wanted and Desired did a brilliant job in establishing the premise and providing that broad background of the director and his life, which seemed to have been rooted in tragedy from his childhood days during the Holocaust, and including the senseless murder of his pregnant wife Sharon Tate under the hands of the Charles Manson family. Clips from his iconic films were also included, and parallels somehow uncannily drawn from his darker films to mirror the darker days of his life, which worked in emphasizing his twisted state of mind if you're standing on that side of the fence.

Zenovich also spent considerable time painting the picture of the media frenzy which surrounded Polanski during his younger heydays, and especially during the trial, where a distinction was made between the European and American press, one still fascinated by yet another twist and turn in his life, while the latter firmly demonizing a stranger in their midst, whose demeanour and physical built made it almost perfect as that classical villain out to exploit the meek. It's a media circus built around the director's reputation, which served as a double edged sword according to some as it is this repute that allowed the sensationalism to hit the roof in terms of selling papers.

What's more intriguing in this documentary, is how Zenovich assembled and presented the crux of the film, that on the appointment and backgrounds of the legal eagles handling the case, with talking head interview segments with the lawyers involved. It's a pity that the judge Laurence J Rittenband was not included in modern day interviews because of his passing, but from the archived clips, court documents and testimonies gathered, his is the key which probably made Polanski flee. After all, how can one trust a court presided by a judge with ulterior personal motives ranging from wanting to get the limelight from such a high profile case, to having personal emotions play such a huge part in deciding on punishment, and the benefits of lack thereof to personal reputation.

It's down to Zenovich's skill in assembling the timeline of events, recounting court incidents and evidence that makes this documentary a compelling watch, especially when she launches into a tirade that questions the integrity of the judge through his gerrymandering of the entire legal process and the perversion of justice, and how a judge, competent or otherwise, holds plenty of cloud over the proceedings and punishment, despite flip-flopping on bargains and promises made.

It's been decades since that faithful day of the deed, and both the director and the child back then had already moved on in their lives. It's quite clear that both want to put this episode behind them with even the victim forgiving Polanski, and public opinion as well as that of peers are divided between forgiveness and punishment nonetheless, it's interesting to see how things will develop hereon, after all it has been left hanging in the balance already for so long. Like I mentioned, this documentary somehow portrayed Polanski as a victim of an inconsistent court process yes, but you cannot deny that a crime is a crime, and one has to face the music, famous personality or not.

Friday, May 21, 2010


Star Crossed Lovers

It is Hrithik Roshan whose superhero film Krrish which was shot in Singapore piqued my interest in taking that plunge into watching Bollywood films on the big screen, so it's been quite the ride following his film career with the star studded actioner Dhoom 2, then the sprawling period epic Jodhaa Akbar, and the last one to date was that supporting role as the bratty star actor in Luck by Chance which I thought he excelled in. My personal brush with Hrithik was spotting him at one of the local cineplexes here almost incognito, only to confirm his identity with that of his right hand, though in any case he's hard to miss with his good looks, curly locks, and those steely green eyes, making female fans swoon at his feet.

Which of course is to say to have him casted in an outright romance, is pretty much a no-brainer. He doesn't make a lot of films like say, Akshay Kumar, so his deliberation in making his next film comes with plenty of anticipation, and expectations. Kites had its trumpet blown early with the marketing machinery churning at full speed, and unfortunately, Anurag Basu's film somehow didn't hit all the highs it was aiming for, save for the casting brilliance of Mexican actress Barbara Mori as Natasha who holds her own, and more, opposite Roshan's Jay.

Kites takes its name from the notion of two beings seemingly carefree without a worry, dancing in the sky in their freedom, only that the harsh reality of life meant someone else is pulling the strings from down below, making them nothing but mere puppets in the whole scheme of things that is called Life. So sets the premise of star crossed lovers who have to jump through plenty of hoops just to get together, and given that romances usually tug at your heartstrings when they make you feel and shed a tear for the characters.

But in true blue Bollywood fashion, there's always a little time for song and dance, since Jay is a drifter in Las Vegas trying to carve a living through 1001 jobs, with the one he loves most being a dance instructor which doesn't pay a lot, and supplementing his income through green-card schemes by marrying illegal immigrants in a scam set up by his friend Robin (Anand Tiwari). As chance would have it, daddy's rich girl Gina (Kangana Ranaut who disappears to make way for Mori) has the hots for Jay, and the latter only reciprocating because of her money and legacy of her casino-owning father.

Enter Natasha, the fiance of Gina's brother Tony (Nicholas Brown), who also is set to marry the casino scion for the sake of money, never mind his constant ill-treatment and bad temper, and soon we have everything set up for the lovers Jay and Natasha, who go way back because of that green-card scam, to decide if they will risk everything, including their initial prime motivations of striking it rich the easy way, for true love, despite not being able to communicate directly except through broken, halting English phrases, since she's Mexican, and him Indian.

Told in non-linear fashion separating two timelines present and past through a series of flashbacks, this technique actually managed to draw plenty of emotions at the last major sequence where all is revealed about a key character, which is delivered brilliantly so much so that you'll be hard pressed not to reach for a tissue. It's shot in a peculiar fashion as well though with plenty of close ups on its beautiful leads, that offers plenty of opportunity to milk those symmetrical facial expressions in a very in-your-face fashion, which I suppose nobody in the audience will mind having to gaze at good lookers anyhow.

Hrithik Roshan's performance is almost flawless, but somehow I felt that his Jay is one of his weakest cinematic personas thus far. Opportunities to show his toned body comes by the by the bucketloads (and makes those struggling to fight flab extremely envious), and so does the chance to dance, being one of the best dancers Bollywood has to offer. He demonstrates once again he's Mr Flexible, and his dance number opposite Kangana Ranaut actually sizzles, with Ranaut actually showing that she can dance to the demands of a Hindi film heroine.

The revelation of the film though, as I mentioned, still belonged to the charismatic presence of Barbara Mori, who is likely to gain plenty of adoring fans from the Indian continent for her heartfelt portrayal as the drop dead gorgeous heroine who's vulnerable, yet able to show who's boss by wearing the pants in the relationship. She's no flower vase, having to take charge most of the time especially when Roshan's Jay goes into puppy dog mode, and frankly, in my opinion, her Natasha has him all wrapped up around her little finger. Mori makes the character believable, has moments where she injects natural comedy, and possessing a smile that is able to disarm the most stern of demeanour. I'm certain that most reviewers will find positivity from her performance even if they somehow adopt a lukewarm response to the hype surrounding the film which is basically a simple love story told in a roundabout manner.

Even if it clocks in at 130 minutes which is short by Bollywood standards, Anurag Basu still managed to throw in so many sub plot and elements into the film, that it pretty much travels at breakneck speed from start to finish unfolding in quite an expected manner. Action sequences in the film somehow had a ring of familiarity to them, and sadly none of them excites or puts you at the edge of your seat, being nothing more than peripheral for the major love story. Basu seemed to champion cars smashing against cars followed by noisy explosions, and exploits this so much that it becomes generic and a formulaic yawn. The action sequences needed to be more imaginative, just as how main villain Tony has to be more than a one-dimensional caricature to add to that sense of menace and danger.

It's reported that two versions of the film were shot simultaneously, one with the language predominantly in English, while the other in Hindi, the former for the Hollywood and Western markets. So enter director Brett Ratner who's re-editing it for a more "international" audience which promises no dance sequences and a lot more sensual scenes than what's shown here (where a simple kiss can raise eyebrows), while yet keeping true to the nature of the story, with Hrithik Roshan even moved by this version. I don't mind sitting through another round actually, just to compare and evaluate if the Ratner version is superior. Here's hoping the DVD will come with both!

Thursday, May 20, 2010

Shrek Forever After

You Got A Friend In Me, Again

It was 2001 since the first Shrek burst onto the screen, providing us a mean, grumpy and really green ogre as the reluctant hero counted on to save the day, and within this decade spawned a series of shorts, videos and even an amusement park feature. It's probably - and I say probably because box office receipts dictate whether another feature is worthwhile - the final chapter, and how gimmicky can it get to also jump onto the 3D bandwagon?

Some of you will already know I'm giving 3D films a miss because frankly, I need to conserve funds. Moreover, the downside of 3D films is already widely publicized, coupled with the cheater-bugs who convert 2D to 3D during post production which I say is a poor man's cousin of the real thing. Unless a film really warrants it, 2D in a digital format will suffice, and so Shrek Forever After falls into this category. Which I thought was still nicely done up since the film has no lack of animated detail, though I shudder to think that because of the plenty of dimly lit, night based scenes, that in 3D format it'll prove disastrous.

Anyway, Shrek as a trilogy worked, where we have our protagonists Shrek and Donkey fall in love (not with each other of course) and by the end of the third show, it's happy families all round. But profits dictate that another film be made, and Josh Klausner and Darren Lemke's story seemed to pull out the cheat sheet in now knowing how to move forward with the story, and hence, why not do a little time travel backwards cum alternate universe jig no thanks to the main villain Rumpelstiltskin (Walt Dohm) harbouring an opportunity to rule Far Far Away back in the first installment, if not for our hero's rescue of Princess Fiona (Cameron Diaz).

The story taps on the mundane existence of our every day lives, devoid of adventure which Shrek (Mike Myers) yearns for, becomes something quite unbearable as he goes through the motions of a routine from dawn till dusk, having to perform the same chores all over again, listen to friends Donkey (Eddie Murphy) and Puss (Antonio Banderas) recount their past adventures ad nauseam, and not having that all important personal Ogre time to relax in a mud pool, or have human beings tremble and run at the sight of him, becoming more of a celebrity hero instead.

The themes cannot find the leeway to break out of the formula of learning to appreciate what you have before they're lost, and what true love really means since destiny has it all planned out, no matter how meandering or different the journey now becomes. For Shrek fans, watching Shrek Forever After is like a test of your trivia knowledge, since events and characters start to turn up albeit differently from originally conceived, and fans will likely have a kick out of knowing intimate details on the differences between what's canon, and what has tangent off from the original.

As far as laughter and spoofs go, the film adopts a relatively darker mood and tone, with comedy being void of the physical approach, and the smart-alecky modern day references quite absent in this installment. The objective by director Mike Mitchell seems to be one of reinforcing the themes behind what Shrek and friends stand for, rather than to tell a tale of new adventures with new fairy tale characters. After all, this film is an attempt to milk the trilogy one last time through a rehash of premise and characters, so hopefully, Shrek the Ogre can finally find some much needed rest rather than to become a dead horse who's flogged way past its shelf life.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

1st Experimental Film Forum


20 - 23 MAY 2010

Entry by Donation, any amount for all screenings and workshop.

Experimental film is an important medium for the expression of concepts and ideas otherwise inaccessible or inexpressible through traditional mediums. Similar to experiments in the physical world, these cinematic experiments in light, sound and image have the potential to produce wondrous and explosive results which can help expand our understanding of cinema.

This year's festival aims to put experimental film in the spotlight featuring a screening of experimental works, a forum and a workshop.

Thursday, 20 May 2010
(7.30pm) Opening Film - MYSTERIOUS OBJECT AT NOON
Apichatpong Weerasethakul | Thailand | 85 mins | PG

Friday, 21 May 2010
(7pm) Singapore Experimental Shorts + Spotlight on Tania Sng
Curated by Victric Thng
Additional Features:
Q&A with Filmmakers-in-Attendance / Moderated by BK (Duration: approx. 20mins)

22 May 2010, Saturday
(2pm) Introduction to Super8mm Workshop by Russel Zehnder / Gozde Zehnder

(5pm) International Experimental Shorts

(7pm) Discussion Forum - Trends in Experimental Cinema

23 May 2010, Sunday
(3pm) Experimental film projects and distribution – A talk by distributor Lowave
+ an intro about the "Human Frames" project by Silke Schmickl

(7pm) Closing Film - Earth
Ho Tzu Nyen| Singapore | 2009 | 40min | TBA

For more details please visit - or call 63377535

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Losers

That's Who We Are

A group of highly trained soldiers got framed for a military crime they did not commit, and these men promptly escaped to the Bolivian underground and are trying to figure things out and get home to the USofA. In the meantime, if you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you and find them, maybe you can hire, the A-Team, not!

The premise of The Losers well, sound very much like the other upcoming summer blockbuster and television remake The A-Team, with a group of military black ops men getting betrayed by the hand that fed them, and decide that it's payback time, their only clue being a voice at the other end of the line called Max (Jason Patric) who didn't have the compassion to abort an airstrike given the presence of children on the grounds of a drug baron. So our Losers - Colonel Clay (Jeffrey Dean Morgan of Watchmen's Comedian fame), 2nd in command Rogue (Idris Elba), sniper Cougar (Oscar Jaenada), vehicle expert Pooch (Columbus Short) and tech wizard Jensen (Chris Evans) - decide to hit the ground, only to find themselves become "ghosts" by the end of their ordeal.

Needing to gather resources to get home, it's basically seek and you shall find as the Losers hang around the Bolivian underground. Which is what Zoe Saldana's Aisha did, when she sought them out to help in her objective in eliminating their common enemy, the secretive Max. But Aisha herself is a bit of a wild card and serving as the romantic interest of Clay, brings about some tension between the well-oiled group of men. So essentially the story follows everything you see in the trailer, where the group get transported back to home soil, before their tasking for Aisha unravels a diabolical plan of Max's to seek out new high-tech WMDs (made by Indian scientists, rather than the usual Euro/Russian bandits) set to detonate at the LA Port.

There's only one singular objective in watching the Losers on the big screen, and that's to see how creative the action sequences can get. However, Sylvain White seem to have run out of fresh, innovative ideas, since almost everything here is something which you've probably seen before. Most of the action scenes were featured in the trailer, so that's just about spoil any would-be surprises, if at all. The fun of course is always when the Losers head into a mission utilizing the spectrum of their skillsets, although this sometimes would call for the suspension of belief.

For instance, there's the activation of bombs and the firing of weapons toward an armed motorcade in broad daylight in a busy major intersection, coupled with noisy helicopters flying overhead, and simply put, there isn't a single figure of authority around to give chase. Granted it's not that kinda movie, but still it makes everything seem really implausible, and can only come straight out of a graphic novel. Plot loopholes are aplenty as well, with the usual monologues and the why-must-I-line-them-up-to-shoot/kill-them routine, which is simply inexplicable.

The only way to enjoy this action flick, is to just accept everything at face value. It's not without positives though, and my vote goes to Chris Evans' role as Jensen being the live-wire character (as per the source material) in wise-cracking through the film, and fans of Captain Marvel will take note from this film that he's already bulking up in time to be that super soldier Steve Rogers.

The Last Song

You're a Hannah Montana Fan?!

Once in a while, I'm game for a good dose of sappy romance, and what more than one by Nicholas Sparks, who have had a number of his books, from Message in a Bottle to Dear John all being translated from page to screen. But I guess too much of anything rarely work wonders, even if you throw big name stars in the film to shore up and try and mask all the cliches, and frankly off the heels of Dear John, The Last Song just feels like the neglected twin clamouring hard for attention.

Miley Cyrus finally sheds her Hannah Montana persona for the big screen, and it's about time she takes on a role without putting on that blonde wig, or break out into song (although she does for a while here when singing off a few phrases of Maroon 5's She Will Be Loved) and dance. And when I say being too close to Dear John, I mean it through her character Ronnie Miller (Miley Cyrus) being just about the xeroxed copy of Channing Tatum's John Tyree, being taciturn and mean toward the father. But of course with the promise of a budding romantic relationship, all that is about to change, doesn't it always?

Enter Will Blakelee (Liam Hemsworth) as the car technician (some brains) / volleyball player (some topless brawn) / aquarium volunteer (with that heart of gold) / tycoon of a rich son (always helps), whose initial arrogance provided that gung-ho spirit in trying to woo Ms Grumpy, before slowly melting away to reveal surprise after surprise that he's Mr Perfect through his patience and troubled backstory that involves an unhappy household. But that aside, boy and girl spend plenty of time frolicking in the sand, sea, and aquarium even, before jealous parties and ex-girlfriends come spoil everything so that it's not as smooth sailing as we'd like to think.

Being in love probably means becoming a better person, and through that comes the narrative opportunity for Ronnie to bond with her father Steve (Greg Kinnear), who's spending a lot of time with son Jonah (Bobby Coleman) given her daughter's new found relationship and the trouble in connecting with her nasty demeanour slowly unravelled by Will. I found this part about reconnecting with a loved one a lot more powerful than the romantic one, which in part is thanks to Kinnear's superior performance over Liam Hemsworth, who;s like a cross between Keanu Reeves and Hayden Christensen.

For all the real life romance between Cyrus and Hemsworth that came out from this film, I can't deny that it's likely curiosity more than anything else that would put bums on seats, wondering if kisses shown were for reel or for real (I'm inclined to think the latter from what's seen in the film). But the one thing that will irritate, though Twilight fans will come to adore, is the ever-flipping mood swings that Ronnie will have for Will. Oh someone said something bad about you, I'm breaking up with you. Oh wait a minute, your father owns a huge mansion and you're that pained son, I'm so sympathizing with you here's some loving. And it goes on a wash-rinse-repeat cycle. One scene causes problems, the next one patches things back up, and seriously, it's fickle-mindedness and confusion of the highest order.

Trust Nicholas Sparks to include into his story more than just the notion of romantic love, and complete with little saccharine sweet things such as sea-turtle hatching, and to break your heart with some tragedy as always. If it's a card to send, you'll likely make it Hallmark, and if a romantic story, you can rely on a NIcholas Sparks written film if only you can stand repetitive thematic cliches getting thrown at you, constantly. It's not perfect, just what you'd come to expect. For once, I'd beg Miley Cyrus to break out into song and dance to shake things up.

[EUFF10] Portugal S.A.

Opening with the narration of portions from Machiavelli's The Prince, which continued to pepper the film throughout in pseudo-chapter style - the narrator when revealed will be a bit of a surprise - Portugal S.A. has all the trappings of a film steeped with relevance in today's world, where power corrupts, and highlighting the constant stream of those clamouring for a whiff of the elusive, never mind about morals and friendship.

Beginning with the wedding of Jacinto (Diogo Infante) to Rosa (Ana Bustorff) in a marriage which the former's mom (Maria do Ceu Guerra) frowns upon, it is this single scene that sets up the monumental yet surface links between characters such as Jacinto's current boss, the powerful businessman Alexandre Boaventura (Henrique Viana), whom we learn has returned from a self-imposed exile and is on the verge of concluding the purchase of a majority stake in a bank. Cowering to nobody and accepting no threats, we soon learn that Boaventura is keeping plenty of cards close to his chest, while orchestrating his vengeance against the current crop of political leaders in the country.

Then there's Pedro Branco (Joao Vaz), Jacinto's pal who's the current Finance minister, and with whom Boaventura had brokered a gentleman's agreement for the minister to back the purchase in view of creation of jobs and investments. But soon enough Jacinto will constantly find himself torn between the scenarios that present themselves to him, which calls for his loyalty to either party, or risk being labelled a two-headed snake. But of course there's another path ready to be charted, if only his ambition will surpass both men, and to look toward self-interest as a priority.

And of course to complicate matters, writer Carlos Vale Ferraz and screenwriter Alberto Fernandes throws in a lot of other supporting characters such as Jacinto's ex-flame Fatima (Cristina Camara), who's back to Portugal and helming her father's company in order to clear his name, and willing to make concessions and deals, even going back to manipulate Jacinto through the affairs of the heart, and Father Francisco (Luis Madureira), who demonstrates that even the Church is somehow involved in positions of power politicking, given the fact that as chief confidante to many of the major characters here, he has intimate knowledge of their troubles, and is able to turn them into personal advantages, or pulling strings to make sure things go a certain way.

It's about the accumulating and harnessing of power, each person for their own interests, in order to fulfill personal objectives. The film does sprawl needlessly at times, such as the background of Rosa and the subplot about the journalist seduced by promise of position, but all these get thrown in if only to demonstrate how corruption and personal favours can extend beyond our own sphere of control, and at times, because of environmental factors and the decisive actions of others, things may not always go according to plan, no matter how meticulous one may seem to have move the chess pieces about on a board.

For those who are interested in watching how businessmen and politicians make strange bedfellows, with manipulation at each end to try and constantly gain the upper hand, then perhaps this film will be your choice at this year's European Union Film Festival, where it plays tomorrow at GV Vivocity.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Robin Hood

Man In Tights

My experience with the cinematic legend of Robin Hood is just modestly made up of clips from the Errol Flynn film, and that of the Prince of Thieves directed by Kevin Reynolds and starring Hollywood's It kid at that 90s moment Kevin Costner, a film memorable only for its Bryan Adams ballad that played during the end credits, Alan Rickman as a hammed version of the Sheriff of Nottingham, and that American accent. Then there's Disney's foxy animation, Sean Connery's veteran Robin Hood and Maid Marian that I caught on television, and a made-for-TV movie that hit the screens here titled Robin Hood with Patrick Bergin in the titular role, and Uma Thurman as a feisty Maid Marian.

The thing with legends is that there's enough bandwidth for different interpretations because there can be nothing definitive about it other than the underlying concept, which to the mythos is Robin of the Hood and his Merry Men's robbing of the rich to give to the poor, who have to put up with ever increasing taxes in England as ruled by well, an unpopular king whose identity depends on where the tale is set. In Brian Helgeland's story, it takes on epic proportions of political intrigue involving betrayal in the English court and a French king ever looking to conquer the English Isles through an insider set to incite an uprising and civil war before crossing the Channel with an army, and in some ways the opening resembles Ridley Scott's film of 10 years ago, Gladiator, which also starred Russell Crowe.

Beginning with one of the limited action sequences in the film (yes it's true this film's more talk than action), the premise can also be considered to follow up directly from Scott's earlier effort Kingdom of Heaven, which dealt with the Crusades. Here, King Richard the Lionheart (Danny Huston) is leading his knights back on a retreat to England to reclaim his throne, and amongst his soldiering ranks are archers Robin Longstride (Crowe) and his men Will Scarlet (Scott Grimes), Allan A'Dayle (Alan Doyle) and Little John (Kevin Durand) with whom Robin befriends through a sleight of hand game, rather than the iconic meeting in Sherwood Forest through a challenge of skills at a river.

And like the Gladiator format, we see how Robin steps up to assist in the capture of castles and land, before a new coronation takes place which spells trouble eventually for Longstride as he goes up against a jealous monarch, who condemns Robin Hood's to an outlaw status in due course. But in the meantime, Robin Longstride decides to abandon the erratic King Richard, and not before long will stumble upon the mentioned huge conspiracy against his country. So it's up to the reluctant hero and his men to interfere and interrupt corrupt regimes with the very glossing of that involving religious leaders, plus crossing swords with chief villain and friend of Prince John (Oscar Isaac), Godfrey (Mark Strong).

So where's the usual nemesis the Sheriff of Nottingham (Matthew Macfadyen) you may say? He's still featured in the film albeit in a smaller role, and Helgeland's story being set in the formative years of Robin Hood means whatever we know of Sherwood Forest and the adventures of Robin and his Merry Men, has not even begun yet. This allows for Ridley Scott to bring his vision of the sword and sandals epic and apply it on this English legend and I think probably the first to feature the skilled archer using a warhammer charging into battle. Expect violence, though most happen off-screen. Compared to the last big budgeted Robin Hood film Prince of Thieves, Ridley Scott's vision and version is a lot grittier, with so much dirt and grim in every scene to highlight the impoverished conditions in the aftermath of the much funded Crusades, that it makes the other version look like a romp through a forested theme park with fancy pulley-lift rides.

Scott and Crowe is one of the enduring director-actor partnerships in Hollywood these days with this film marking the director's fourth consecutive collaboration (A Good Year, American Gangster, Body of Lies and this) with Crowe, who seemed a little pudgy as a much older man in tights, though the finale did make him look the part a lot more. Since this is something of an origin story in itself, we see very little of his interaction with his motley crew which leaves plenty of room to do so in a follow up film, and the focus is on establishing Robin Longstride as a hero, exploring his past, and his romance with the widow (gasp!) Maid Marian, played by Cate Blanchett.

Yes, Maid Marion's married, and possesses plenty of spunk just like Uma Thurman's 1991 version, and a tinge like Eowyn from Lord of the Rings who's equally adapt with armours and weapons in battle. The Sheriff of Nottingham takes a backseat in the hall of infamy, and Mark Strong steps into the villainous lead, cementing himself as a dangerous stereotype in playing evil characters, here as an adviser who exploits the name of King John to stir trouble, dressed in a billowing black cape like Darth Vader, and has a half Joker-ish scarred mouth no thanks to Robin Hood. Oscar Isaac almost steals the show toward the end with his desperately comical turn as a King under siege, and luminaries such as William Hurt and Max von Sydow complete the star-studded lineup, with Mark Addy as Friar Tuck never failing to contribute some light hearted moments in the film.

And whatever you do, don't shortchange yourself by walking out of the cinema hall when the end credits start to play - you're treated to a stunning animated (and bloody too I may add) sequence that recounts the last 2 hours in reverse chronological order ending with the Crusades, and what more, aurally enjoy the hauntingly beautiful music by Marc Streitenfeld as well.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Red Dragonflies Wins at JeonJu!

At the recently concluded 11th JeonJu International Film Festival, local indie film Red Dragonflies bagged the Special Jury Prize, which marks the first time that a Singapore feature film had won at JeonJu., up against a keen international competition selection that included winners at Venice and those showcased at Cannes.

I was fortunate to have caught the World Premiere of director Liao Jiekai's first feature film at the Hong Kong International Film Festival, and I share my thoughts in my review here. Hopefully audiences in Singapore will get to watch this soon enough, if not this year, then perhaps during next year's SIFF, just like how another 13 Little Pictures film, In the House of Straw, had returned from its World Premiere in Bangkok last year and from its touring of film festivals worldwide.

You can read more about the winners from the official festival website, where the Jury which comprised of Philip Cheah, Nacer Khemir, Bae Chang-ho, Lav Diaz and Michael Witt had commented that they had "valued above all for its mysterious evocation of Singapore’s disappearing history - both social and personal - and its gentle depiction of innocence and passing youth", and also added that they "felt that there were moments in this small, relatively low-budget, non-formulaic film by first time director Liao Jiekai that displayed great sensitivity and promise for the future."

Congratulations to the director, and to 13 Little Pictures!

Related Links
- 13 Little PIctures Official Webpage
- Red Dragonflies Official Movie Website
- Production Talk at SINdie

Monday, May 10, 2010

Broken Embraces (Los Abrazos Rotos)


There's so much going in this Pedro Almodovar film that it'll take more than a review to try and explore the many aspects and facets of the film. Involving multiple, multi-faceted characters across two timelines and a film within a film, Broken Embraces reunites the Spanish director with his muse Penelope Cruz, and takes on a sprawling narrative involving a blind scriptwriter who was a director before he lost his sight, an affair with the mistress of his producer, with themes covering obsession and revenge.

For film buffs, it's a tale spun at the production of the fictional film "Girls and Suitcases" within Broken Embraces, which of course looks like a typical Almodovar tale, treating audiences to a colourful visual feast, and ultimately engaging you into its pseudo-mystery. All round fine performances by the cast makes this a compelling watch and propelling interest forward as the narrative shifts between the different times. If there's a film that has almost everything thrown into it, then Broken Embraces will stand out as one of the contenders.

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


Sunday, May 09, 2010

[EUFF10] The Offsiders (Boisko Bezdomnych)


It was a Lynn Lee and James Leong's documentary Homeless FC that first introduced the existence of the Homeless World Cup to me, and unlike that documentary which traces the backgrounds of a group of players who herald from Hong Kong, The Offsiders is a tale of fiction that deals with almost the same subject, following a group of Polish players en route to the biggest outing of their lives, the participation in the same tournament in Germany.

The film opens with the introduction of a youthful Jacek Mroz, a member of the Polish football team and one of its brightest prospects, only to be cut down by a career ending injury before even kicking a football in his first cap for the country. Such is the cruel fate that is dished to him, and the current Jacek (played by Marcin Dorocinski) is a broken man estranged from his wife, childhood sweetheart Ewa (Maria Seweryn) and daughter Aniela (Maria Lozinska). An unpopular teacher and a coach of integrity, he soon finds himself homeless at Warsaw's Central Station, before an idea sparked him off to recruit his fellow residents to form a team for the Homeless World Cup.

In some ways, this film resembles the typical zero to hero storyline, except for the hero bit because it omitted a large part of the narrative in its expected big bang section to establish just that. Instead, the focus is on the players themselves, and the story's pretty heavy on the drama as it explores each individual character in logically split chapters introduced by inter-titles, showing us just exactly how these characters get to be where they are, and in the process lifts them from being mere caricatures, and transforming them to people with whom we share an affinity for. Thanks to Przemyslaw Nowakowski's story, each of them have a very interesting back-story to relate, and being quite the rag tag team assembled given their diverse backgrounds.

For the football fan, you have to be contended with the very few minutes of football put on display. There's one in the middle of the film which is simply exhilarating to watch, and quite stylishly executed in an action-sequence sort of manner which I enjoyed following, though less polished with no special effects ala the definitive football film Goal!. Other very nifty moments include one singular sub plot which puts Jacek at loggerheads with a security detail at an invite-only event, and the closing credits (one which I hope was just something premature, really!) that had you pumped up with anticipation, only for director Kasia Adamik to pull the rug right under you.

Still The Offsiders remain an extremely engaging dramatic tale of the down and out given a new lease of life with a new found passion to focus their energies on, and in a way encourages us all to seek out that passion and to excel in it, never mind about the goal at the end, but it's always about the journey in which to gain experience and to have a little fun.

The Offsiders plays tomorrow at GV Vivocity's European Film Festival.

[DVD] Mountain Spirit (Jin Hutan / 山精) (2009)

You Have Been Warned

This goes into my books as one of the worst films this year, and even this decade. Malaysian films have made leaps and bounds in the festival circuit, though something like this reminds you that for every gem out there, a dud will provide that counterbalance. At best this looks like a school project, but with insipid acting, a bad storyline and a laughable monster/spirit who looks happy with army styled camouflage and vegetation stuck on his back, with everything made worst by the non-existent acting, coupled with a mixture of languages used that require on-screen translation between characters.

Don't waste your time watching this. If I had a choice, I wouldn't, but hey, someone's gotta jump into the fire and bring you the lowdown to extinguish any would-be attempts to view this on DVD. Don't. You have been warned.

You can read my DVD review of Mountain Spirit at by clicking on the logo below.


Saturday, May 08, 2010

Mother and Child

Code of Conduct

It's the Mother's Day weekend which may account for the slew of films either being centered around motherhood, romance or women, but of all the offerings for this week, none is as tender a tale as writer-director Rodrigo Garcia's Mother and Child, which to one's surprise, an insightful film about woman condition, but a project with a man at the helm. In a way the film celebrates womanhood, but seen from another angle, it's pretty focused on negativity, the exploitation of sexuality, and indecisiveness.

Containing 3 main narrative threads, the presence of a man is almost a token, with David Ramsey playing a fellow colleague who romances Karen (Annette Bening) with great difficulty, David Morse playing Karen's old flame who was guilty of impregnating her when she's a minor, and whom Karen still holds a candle for, and the biggest mo-fo in cinematic history to date, Samuel L. Jackson as Paul the founder of a law firm, in what would possibly be his most docile role in recent years, yet for his character's age, still has in him a very potent output in which to penetrate tied-up fallopian tubes.

Writer-director Rodrigo Garcia's Mother and Child is an extremely poignant attempt that celebrates the inevitable motherly bonds that form between a mother and her child, and central to the story is the basic premise of Karen at 14 years giving up her child for adoption, and for years to date continue to feel guilt and constantly wondering whether her child is still alive, and if so just what she is doing. Therapy comes from writing letters in her diary to her child to keep herself sane, as her grumpy, caustic nature puts her off in people relationships, including that of her mother, which gives the title a different spin where Karen is perhaps the conduit.

Naomi Watt's Elizabeth is the open secret that the audience are told is that child Karen gave up as a baby when born, and has so far lived a life that's singular and responsible for only herself. An alpha-female who's a hotshot lawyer, she relocates back to LA and joins Paul's law firm, and slowly her wistful demeanour gets peeled back to show a domineering woman who doesn't hesitate to exploit her sexuality to pull strings, as well as having that mean streak in her through the seduction of her neighbour and the deliberate objective to just screw up their happy married life just because she couldn't stand her neighbour's inquisitive, chirpy wife. One would have thought that she would be intrinsically bitter about her beginnings and hence her surgical procedure, only for Fate to play a cruel game to have her become like her mother with the same options made available, and for the audience, to keep us guessing.

Kerry Washington's Lucy is a woman who cannot conceive, and through her storyline the callous nature of adoption is explored. It's not easy on either side trying to find suitable adoptive parents for one's child, and almost emotionally painful for one to give one's child up after 9 months of carrying the foetus, and on the other side having to deal with the doubts that inevitably creep into such a business like transaction, rather than one which involves nature. The character of Lucy also is someone who's not very likeable as she's the classic case of always pushing the blame to someone else (and here her long-suffering, child-loving husband) and constantly teetering on the borders of a neurotic pessimistic whiner, and you're more than goaded to pass judgement on her, whether it is her just desserts in not being able to have children so that her evil genes don't get passed on to the next generation.

With all round fine performances by the actresses, Mother and Child has enough to keep you engaged as it plods along to poke and prod the many issues brought up in its narrative. It's easy to connect the dots as the film moves into the last act, but it's the cast's riveting delivery that keeps you glued to the screen. If you're up for some female centric story, and want to finish up that packet of tissues you have in your pocket, then this film will be your automatic choice.

The Runaways

Sizzling Jailbait

There's Johnny Cash, the Supremes, and there's Ray Charles, and now get ready for Hollywood's latest biopic on the all female rock group The Runaways, based on lead singer Cherie Currie's book Neon Angel: A Memoir of a Runaway, from which the screenplay was adapted from. Written and directed by Italian filmmaker Floria Sigismondi, as far as biographies on musical legends go, this film still adheres to the same formula, but only because the fate of the stars are such that temptation to go wayward comes stronger for anyone who's a somebody, and frankly such meteoric rise and fall makes for an engrossing drama.

With bands though, an additional element comes in the form of inflated egos that have to be massaged. Unfortunately out of the five members, only drummer Sandy West (Stella Maeve) share some of the spotlight up front, with the remaining two Lita Ford (Scout Taylor-Compton) and Jackie Fox (unmentioned by name in the film) relegated to draping the background almost anonymously and one might think that The Runaways are a trio. And similar to what Alvin and the Chipmunks Squeakquel did as a parallel to real world happenings, band managers, in this case Kim Fowley played by Michael Shannon in an arresting performance who knows exactly what's required to survive in the dog-eat-dog industry, almost always want to sex up and boost the lead's popularity even further, which will cause unhappiness amongst the others in the same group. But who can help it, since from the onset both Kim and Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) wanted a Brigitte Bardot sex kitten to front the lead vocals for their band, who comes in the form of Dakota Fanning's Cherie Currie.

Much has been said of Dakota Fanning's performance as Cherie Currie, and true to form she shows again why she's probably the undisputed actress of her generation. I strongly believe if she stays the course and not get distracted by the glitz and glamour that most teenage stars in Hollywood will likely succumb to, then movie fans, and fans of hers, will be in for many treats in store as she expands her filmography. So far she has been confined to playing her age over the last few years, and her role here as the jailbait of a rock star allows for a descent into vice coming all at once, dabbling with almost every vice you can think of. Her Cherie pouts as she experiments with fleeting same sex relationships with Joan Jett, swearing, no hesitation in showing the middle fingers, puffs away on cigarettes, does cocktail and hard drugs almost everywhere, and like a one-up in portraying the state of drunkenness as to what she had done in Push, though still not very convincing. It's Dakota Fanning like you've never seen her before.

Kristen Stewart managed to barely hold her own against her co-star's more charismatic and iconic turn, and thankfully the opportunity came in the last act of the film with the formation of Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, who are heard rather than seen since this is The Runaways biopic. It served the narrative quite well though in ending the film with the unfortunate demise of one and the creation of another, highlighting Joan Jett being the brains and creative force behind the bands. Between the two girls, hers is the edgier role playing very well opposite the sex-kittenish one that Fanning has on her hands, and put together they just crackle and come alive with plenty of energy on stage, or when practicing in their trailer park behind closed doors, working on new songs. Forget Twilight, as Stewart shows that she has enough mettle in her to take on more challenging roles rather than a girl who has to deal solely with relationship woes with unreal creatures.

The Runaways contained enough subplots happening outside of the music industry to give it an all round experience, and since the story's adapted from Currie's book, there's an examination into the sibling rivalry between Cherie and her sister Marie (Riley Keough), and some had mentioned the more controversial aspects of her life had been omitted from the film, such as instances of sexual abuse when young. Then there's the entire episode of their visit to Japan recounted as well, and became the fulcrum for possibly the best stage performance by the stars in their roles, and to sow the seed of discord as well. The pacing of the band's formative years, success and downfall

The film has its production sets and art direction to thank for in bringing back the nostalgic 70s, as well as the rock-n-rolling songs from the mentioned bands, some performed by the real deal, while others ably imitated and covered by the reel ones, which is oh-so-important to be convincing. It's a film that deals with girl power in an almost alpha-feminist way, but human failings affect everyone regardless of gender.

[DVD] Arthur and the Minimoys (2006)


Well, you can read my review of the film written way back in March 2007 during the Hong Kong International Film Festival, or plough through a redux version of my DVD review of Arthur and the Minimoys at by clicking on the logo below.


Friday, May 07, 2010

Badmaash Company

Karan's Quartet

Some may come to the conclusion, from the trailer alone, that this looks like 21 with the characters having spend time in Las Vegas probably scheming against the casinos in their get rick quick ploys, but the truth is much further than that. Credit has to go to actor turned first-time writer-director Parmeet Sethi who adopts the same glitzy look and feel of the Hollywood production, but steering clear into his own story, allowing the characters to rest and relax instead at Sin City, and hatching plans that even Danny Ocean will be proud of.

The film opens in the mid 90s Bombay, and spends considerable time in the opening credits scenes with shots of the streets, setting the stage for Shahid Kapur's Karan, a bright young man whose plan is to make a lot of money, being quite averse to the life of an average salaryman like his father (Anupam Kher). Together with his friends Chandu (Vir Das) the womanizer and Zing (Chang Meiyang, from the 3rd season of Indian Idol) the drinker, they meet up with the attractive lass Bulbul Singh (Anushka Sharma) during one of their early forays into the smuggling business, and soon strike up a fast friendship, with Karan and Bulbul hitting it off extremely fast as a romantic couple.

Taking the advice of big plans churning out big money, they form Friends & Company as their front for their get rich quick schemes, exploiting business and loopholes in the law, as well as society's innate corruption in order to get ahead on India's position on the cusp of a consumerism explosion. Karan hatches plan after plan for Kiran's Quartet to execute, which allows for plenty of montage opportunities where the players don different disguises and personae in order to cheat their way through their pathway to riches. And like yuppies, they spend as hard and play as hard, since at that age the sky's the limit, and the feeling of invulnerability is seductive.

It's akin to Ocean's 11 with the mantra of greed being good, and the film examines how the excesses of money can influence and change relationships, and corrupt the inner soul of a man into thinking he's a god, especially when his ego gets super inflated, thinking that they are all nowhere without his ideas. Shahid Kapur shines in this transformation from rags to riches, and puts on quite the charismatic charm in order to pull off his schemes. In his Chance Pe Dance released earlier this year he plays a man looking for his big break, and here his Karan scores both the girl and the cash before ego gets in the way and begins that systematic destruction of what's dear to him.

But being a Bollywood film, there's plenty of room in its 144 minutes to set things up and down, and made right again. The supporting cast also made this film a delight to sit through, with Anushka Sharma in only her second film outing after the highly successful Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, and what more for a Bollywood film to have featured her first on-screen kiss with Shahid as well, which of course is a big thing besides having to don her obligatory bikini to frolic in pristine beaches. Being quite the clothes horse here, her role is a departure from the more demure one in her film debut, being a lot more joyful and playful, and hardly sulking.

Credit too must go to the co-stars who make up the quartet, with Vir Das' Chandu given plenty of chances to get into disguises as he plays an integral field agent in their plan to pull the wool over their unsuspecting victims. But the one who will invariably get the attention is Chang Meiyang as Tanzing, or Zing. My only wish is that I can converse in Hindi as well as him, undoubtedly being the butt of most race related jibes (in good nature I must add), but holding his own just as well.

Shot in India, Thailand and the USA, Badmaash Company's strengths lie in the chemistry amongst the main leads, as well as the little moments of nostalgia and cheeky references put in to good effect. It's not the perfect film, but it has plenty on offer especially when learning how to make it good while doing all the bad things, which at times does call for a certain stretch of the imagination to work, sprinkled with doses of humour in between the more exciting scenes of witnessing Karan's bold plans unfurl. Recommended!


Tinselgurus organized probably what is Singapore's first Bollywood film gala premiere screening, and for the price of a gala ticket there are plenty of gifts in store for all the attendees, which includes a flower given at the door too. For those who attended, stay tuned to the Facebook page as there was a roving camera around the hall this evening, and hopefully, this event turned out successful enough to get a Bollywood star come grace the next one :-)

Thursday, May 06, 2010

Banlieue 13 - Ultimatum

Look Ma No Wires!

You'll hear it here first, since nobody else bothered to highlight this to the man on the street. District 13 - Ultimatum suffers from what the dubbing disease, and it's not just the Hong Kong films that aren't given the respect they deserve, to have its language tracked dubbed over by another language. For some inexplicable reason, we got the piss poor English dubbed version of the film, which means that the mouths don't sync with the words being spoken.

It's irritating to say the least, because it's in-your-face distracting. Worse, the voices of the dubbers lack enthusiasm, and everyone sounds like everyone else (no budget to get one dubber for each actor?) droning on and on that you'll likely find the insipid plot dabbling with corruption from government forces and private enterprises a tad of a turn off, if not for the nicely designed action sequences to redeem some of the contrived acting and storyline in the film. Yes some may argue that a film like this should be focused on the action and not what's said, but the overall experience is nonetheless irrevocably marred.

Picking off directly where we last left off with Captain Damien Tomaso (Cyril Raffaelli), Leito (David Belle) and Leito's sister Lola (being forgotten in this sequel) parted ways to jog your memory on who the top dogs are, the opening few minutes brings us up to speed where Damien and Leito are in their lives. We get a special effects laden camerawork zooming in and out of a digitized city during the opening credits, before ample time's taken to show Leito still being the pain in the behind for the police with his District 13 antics, while Damien continues in building up his reputation as the go-to man for police stings, having single-handedly (ok, with fists and kicks) bring down an entire vice operations.

Which provides for plenty of action in the film as Damien fights his way out of a trapped club, and probably one of the longest action sequences with hard-hitting action involving the playful maneuver of a Van Gogh piece. Fans of Parkour though will have to wait a little longer for David Belle's Leito to strut his stuff, and the co-founder of Parkour doesn't fail to impress, especially with his one man escape from the cops atop rooftops, which warrant this particular segment a second watch as it's likely to serve as inspiration to all Parkour practitioners.

Other than that the plot forces our dynamic duo to cooperate once more as they take on corrupt internal security who has been stringing the French President along with their naughty plan of creating havoc between the cops and the denizens of District 13, now with five different ethnic groups trying to fill a power vacuum created from the previous film, and Luc Besson tries hard to make it something of a political thriller as well, which director Patrick Alessandrin tended to shelve aside and include only as a necessary filler in between action sequences, which get larger and louder, only for the climax to falter with too many cooks spoiling the broth.

To be honest i wasn't that impressed with the first film other than to witness Parkour in action, and this film continues with that impression. As I mentioned, the damage was done with the lines that were spoken, and I'd imagine whether it was Besson's responsibility for some of the corniest lines ever uttered in cinema, or was that the result of not treating the source material with respect, and hiring all the wrong guys from translating to delivering that ultimately proved to be the real letdown. If given a chance I'll watch this again, with the proper language track thank you very much.
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