Saturday, July 31, 2010

Bangkok Traffic (Love) Story (Rot Fai Faa... Maha Na Ter)

Three's a Crowd

I must admit I was curious about this film because of its box office champ status in Thailand, and not just being a film with a romance set in and around Bangkok's BTS Skytrain system, which agreed to lend its name to the movie as it celebrates its 10th year anniversary, providing a rare glimpse into its depot locale and the acknowledgement to the unsung heroes of the transportation network - the nocturnal track maintenance engineers. Singapore has our own feature film shot from within our MRT depot, so look no further than Lucky 7 since one of the segmenets (by Ho Tzu Nyen) was shot entirely there.

Bangkok Traffic (Love) Story is just that, a romantic comedy about girl meeting boy and their falling in love. It doesn't try to disguise itself as something cerebral, and goes about its cliche narrative about modern day romance in a typical big, bustling city. Directed by Adisorn Trisirikasem and written by the team of Trisirikasem, Benjamaporn Srabua and Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit, they craft a tale centered on Mei Ly (Sirin Horwang), a single 30 year old female who's soon finding her social circle shrinking no thanks to friends being married, and embarks on her own quest to find Mr Right from somewhere out there in Bangkok.

Like a friend too who also feedback on how difficult it is to get his friends out as the usual excuse is "got kid got family" to take care of, the story deals with how lonely one can get when friends start to break routines and the difficulty in meeting up when they're free (if at all), and it requires a serendipitous hand to bring someone whom we fancy, and vice versa, to step into our lives. So enter Lung (Theeradej Wongpuapan), but not everything comes on a silver platter, with his career being quite the challenge in maintaining any semblance of a relationship, since his work is during the graveyard hours, when the rest of the world is sleeping.

The narrative takes its time to tell the story of this romantic liaison, and focuses pretty much on Mei Ly, not that I'm complaining since Sirin Horwang is quite the cute looker from certain angles. She brings about a likable demeanour with plenty to laugh along with in her desperate attempts to try and hook up with Lung, taking advice from a prettier friend Plem (Unsumalin Sirasakpatharamaetha) who turns out to be quite the third party in wanting to use her tricks to work toward Lung's heart herself. But being a romantic comedy, this is kept up until the middle act, to allow the three a crowd to become a two's a company.

Many have claimed the story sprawls, and truth be told that's one of the positive things that went for the film. I felt that, for instance, the extended dwelling on Mei Ly's introduction, and the pains she experiences with the public transportation system is something that almost every commuter will be able to identify with, even here as our system becomes packed like sardines for the lack of infrastructure supporting the growth in population. Played out purely for laughs with some exaggeration in meeting some of the most obnoxious characters all in one nightmarish trip.

While Theeradej Wongpapan makes for that dreamy leading man who sends the heart of our heroine aflutter, it is Sirin Horwang in her role as the desperate modern woman complete with Japanese anime influences in peeking into her inner motivation and drive that makes her all the more alluring (if I may use that term!) to follow. Her klutzy portrayal of Mei Ly and at times that narrow-naturedness also brought about a certain vulnerability in being someone confused in the game of love, in not knowing what to do, yet exasperated in wanting to do something. Don't we all at times, experience the same thing?

There are already a number of romantic comedies in the cinemas now, with Au Revoir Taipei, Taipei Exchanges, and now this Thailand edition that stands worthy of the other two side by side. Yes it's fluff, and it's saccharine sweet, though it did make its lead characters work doubly hard to reach their intended finale, but yes, this one worked wonders despite the cliche and formula it conforms to. A perfect date movie, this one I will unabashedly give the recommendation to as well.

Friday, July 30, 2010

Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai

Who's Bad?

You can probably name a number of films with titles “Once Upon a Time in...” where we go back in time to eras in cities or countries past, with room for plenty of astounding stories to be told, complete with that nostalgic peek in a time long gone. In Once Upon a Time in Mumbaai, writer Rajat Arora and director Milan Luthria bring us back to the 60s to 80s Mumbai, with the city having to taste the onslaught of the Mafia operating from within, carefully carving territories amongst themselves so that they can each operate in their own spheres of influence as mooted by a certain Sultan Mirza (Ajay Devgan), with him forsaking land to his peers and opting for control over the sea routes for his smuggling activities.

So begins the tale of a much respected gangster, well known throughout the city for his no-nonsense approach and honour amongst thieves, yet possessing that heart of gold and compassion in his willingness to help impoverished folks where the authorities can't, himself having started from an almost impossibly poor beginning and working his way up through a variety of con jobs. But one gangster alone doesn't make this the blast from the past tale it got touted to be, with the story enveloping two other key characters, with Shoaib Khan (Emraan Hashmi of Tum Mile) the protege gangster wannabe who looks toward Sultan as a source of inspiration, but possesses a hungrier and larger ambition and an obsession to emulate his idol, and on the other side of the law, ACP Agnel Wilson (Randeep Hooda) who at first thought that taming the city will be a piece of cake, but soon finds himself embroiled in a battle larger than what he alone thought could handle.

It is the intertwining of the lives of these three characters that propel the narrative forward, with the two gangster characters Sultan and Shoaib finding parallels with real life mobsters Haji Mastan and Dawood Ibrahim who reigned over the Mumbai underworld during the same era. It charts their respective path to infamy, with each having to take a different route and approach in terms of what morals they are willing to compromise in their grip for power and ownership of the city, with Mumbai herself becoming that object of desire. The story takes pains to tell how each possesses a certain amount of ingenuity in their dealings as gangsters to make up for the lack of action sequences, while also highlighting their differences that will eventually see them cross paths into foes, with the police willing to take a backseat to see how it will all play out.

As with a typical Hindi film, romance is never left far behind, and ample time is given to mirror the kind of relationships each man develop with their lady love. Kangana Ranaut glams up for her role as the superstar actress Rihana who sweeps and got swept off the floor by Sultan in their fairy tale like whirlwind romance, while that between Shoaib and Mumtaz (Prachi Desai) is almost the exact opposite with a more down to earth relationship riddled with issues since Mumtaz cannot reconcile Shoaib's desire to rise to the top through whatever means possible. Worst of course come the humiliation that Shoaib's initial failure bring about, and that uncontrollable dogged temper that sees him never wanting to get stuck back in the rut again.

So we have a clear distinction before and after the interval, beginning with the measured setting of the pace for the introduction of all the key characters and their respective rise to power, and after that the beginnings of true rivalry formed. Ajay Devgan comes hot off the successful Raajneeti, and his growing screen charisma is never beyond doubt as he chews up each scene he's in. He brings a non-threatening Sultan when he's with the poor masses, and switches to bad-ass routine with ease when he finds himself crossed and betrayed. Emraan Hashmi too holds his own against the heavyweight actor, and his emulation in wanting to be Sultan goes well thanks in part to the costume designers, who work wonders in decking all of them in retro garb, and credit too to making Kangana Ranaut quite the clotheshorse here, whose character unfortunately got forgotten midway.

Randeep Hooda perhaps got the role that elicit the most laughter, because his ACP Agnel has a penchant of speaking through idioms, which of course in a way exaggerates speech. Being a non-Hindi speaker, I'm definite some meanings got lost in translation, but I got the idea since the filmmakers tried their best to bring this sense of stiff, unbelievable dialogue through to the subtitles. In some ways, the look and feel of the film was hyper-realistic, alluding to how certain elements got deliberately fictionalized beyond reality through stylized sequences. The main electric guitar riffs for the theme will also become that ear worm long after the film ends, and got used to perfect glee when it comes on to accompany a swagger or two.

Beginning in the 90s and having the story told in flashback by ASP Agnel, unfortunately audiences will find being left high and dry when the story ends, with plenty of narrative room for another film that will bring us full circle to how it all started. A lot of questions still remain given the events in the last 5 minutes of the film, and this will only, and possibly be addressed should a follow up be made. Otherwise we'll left with quite the cliffhanger, though this isn't reason enough why you should stay away from it. An arresting storyline with a competent cast delivering their roles with aplomb still makes this quite the blast from the past trip worthwhile, with Ajay Devgan continuing to show he can hold down that leading man status.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Aftershock (Tang Shan Da Di Zhen / 唐山大地震)


In some ways, Aftershocks as a big budgeted epic sort of plays out like Feng Xiaogang's Assembly, with the money shots concentrated in the first few minutes, followed by a masterful treatment of human drama against an historical backdrop of events in China. As a fan of Feng's films thus far, he continues to show that he's equally adept in handling commercial, studio tentpole films like this one, and smaller, more intimate films like If You Are The One, dealing with equal ability a cast of plenty, or just a handful.

Aftershocks cuts to the chase and puts the audience smack into 1976 Tangshan, China, just about when the big quake struck. We're introduced to a family of four, where soon enough Mother Nature's unforeseen wrath swallows up the entire city, and shattering countless of lives and families in the process. What follows will set the stage for the entire two more hours to come, where Yuan Ni (Xu Fan) has to make that Sophie's Choice of which twin for the rescuers to save - son Da Feng, or daughter Fang Deng - since a beam separates the two. Tradition, culture and custom will unfortunately make this a no-brainer when push comes to shove, coupled with the fact that the death of her husband in rescuing her, and her role as the dutiful wife to ensure the preservation of the family line, but worst, this decision is made within earshot of Fang Deng who's fighting for her life in the rubble.

Heaven's compassion means Fang Deng survives the ordeal nonetheless, but gets picked up by a PLA soldier and sent to a survivor's camp, where she gets adopted into a foster family (Chen Jin and Chen Daoming in excellent form here as foster mom and dad respectively). The narrative then tangents into two halves, one following the grown up Da Feng (Li Chen), and the other Fang Deng (Zhang Jingchu), in their trials and tribulations of growing up in China in the last 30 years, interspersed with shots of a growingly vibrant Tangshan (and other cities of China) where we see the economic development of the country. However, Nature still is that unfortunate leveller, and for all the technological advancement, human emotions and a mother's love still continue to form the basis of a heartwrench when dealt with an unfair card in life.

Based upon a novel, What works here are the many small subplots that get introduced, such as teenage romance, filial piety, and essentially the all important theme of family, that merges well with the inclusion of landmark events such as Chairman Mao's death, and another more recent quake that brings characters together. What more, all the cast members gave stellar performances (Save for the token Caucasian) that will tug at your heartstrings, and enable the melodramatic, emotional finale to be all the more powerful as we come to learn how bitterness and hatred accumulated over the years, can dissipate with the passage of time, and the opportunity presented to seek forgiveness.

Which somehow the editing seemed to give way under the weight of emotions, and introduced some abrupt cuts away from scenes you'd think will linger for a more emotional closure. However, art direction from costuming to sets here are superb in capturing the look and feel depicting the different eras from the 70s to the 90s, and brought to mind other similarly crafted dramas like Heaven Eternal, Earth Everlasting and Electric Shadows, both films that you should give a watch as well should you dig powerful dramas like Aftershocks.

I can't attest to how great this film would have been on a larger than life IMAX screen simply because Singapore, for all our record movie attendance, we still find it not viable to have one (we had one before), but one thing's for sure, the special effects employed here is on par with what Hollywood can dish out. While Hollywood can serve exaggeration for that wow factor (think 2012 where everything falls apart), Feng employs digital effects prudently to ensure that the emotional aspect doesn't get neglected. For all the individuals affected by the Big Quake, one will actually feel for them when they get pulverized, and it's hard not to be saddened when you realize it's actually all very futile when the ground beneath you starts swallowing everything. As one character said in the film, there's no worry if it's a small quake, and if it's a big one there'll be no escape anyway. It's this exasperation and resignation from a survivor that succinctly explains not only the physical scars, but the emotional ones as well that lingers far longer with the survivors, coming close to becoming pangs of guilt.

So don't go in expecting a special effects extravaganza like what Hollywood will do. An earthquake doesn't last for that long, but the emotional journey of family members set apart by a catastrophic event goes on for much longer. Aftershocks is that film set on the right path in choosing to focus on this aspect, and delivered a film rich in the human emotions of pain, distress and suffering. Highly recommended, and a natural inclusion to the shortlist of this year's best.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010



Some of the best horror flicks and thrillers out there don't necessarily have to rely on the supernatural to scare an audience. Rather it is the what-if moments that can be drawn out from real life that makes it all the more frightening, since there's always the nagging thought of the same happening to oneself, that makes the mind whip up its intense imagination into overdrive. There have been the Open Water/Adrift type of films made for today, and Frozen joins this list of contemporary shockers meant for the modern audience.

In Frozen, it's a combination of being stuck out in the cold, freezing snowy climate and elevated at a height in the middle of nowhere, with no one the wiser of your presence. Escape possibilities get systematically closed off one by one, with what seemed to be logical slowly giving way when they're shown to be impossible. For instance, jumping down from a ski-lift from that height is close to suicidal, and wanting to slide along the steel cable means coming close to the severing of fingers. In other words, take your pick on the pain you can tolerate en route to freedom, ala the Jigsaw puzzles in the Saw films, and really, most times this will lead to a stay-put decision until the knowing torture of oneself outweighs the benefits of doing nothing.

Upping the ante means the introduction of fierce creatures to add complexity to any successful escape, and the battle against Nature as she decides to pee hard in the snow, as well as to inflict burns from low temperatures. Writer-director Adam Green crafted a psychologically terrifying story based on primal fear, especially with the way he presented the dilemma, the options, and then focusing on the decisions to be made when options get tested out. It has room for plenty of gore, but mostly plays on your personal imagination since most of the gory scenes happen off screen for you to imagine the worst.

But it's not always 90 minutes worth of desperation, since Green paced the film with enough pauses for the characters to talk during their logical breaks, either to accentuate their fear and problems verbally, or dwell in a little bit of character backstory for that added narrative variety and for us to try and identify with all three of Parker (Emma Bell), Joe (Shawn Ashmore) and Dan (Kevin Zegers) a little bit more. We'd be more than likely to gloat over their predicament since it's something that they got themselves into by way of karma, but as expected when we learn more of them, they cease to become strangers whom we can choose not to care for, and inevitably be someone we actually give two hoots about, despite their stupidity for the things that they did, even when trying to save themselves.

So what's the best way to get out of a situation like this? I'll leave it to you to find out from the movie, but as a friend shared a clip from Mythbusters, this is a tactic that is certainly something that you can try to avoid.

Monday, July 26, 2010

Old Cow Vs Tender Grass (老牛与嫩草)

Let's Make Films The Jack Neo Way

The local mainstream movie offering has so far largely experienced the onslaught of Chinese productions, and quite frankly, been nothing but a lacklustre affair. We all know how the Jack Neo scandal took whatever shine's left off his Being Human, and I suppose that didn't deter a key sponsor of the film to try and hedge their bets with another local production, which coincidentally is also a comedy, and starring one of the J-Team regulars, Henry Thia. While the storyline is clearly nothing to do with the sponsor's core competency that got worked into the tale, generous doses of product placement come courtesy of well placed ads, that it's hard to miss.

Interesting to note, there's a growing number of Malaysian co-productions since local filmmakers are after a growing market, and with that level of cooperation comes the introduction of Jack Lim, who's becoming quite the familiar face in Singapore movies, having been involved in, including this one, 4 such productions, 2 of which are Jack Neo in paving the way for such collaborations with films such as Ah Long Pte Ltd and Love Matters, followed by Kelvin Tong's Kidnapper earlier this year. And this level of co-productions continue with PCK the Movie's release next month, and I am not holding my breath to see what else comes next.

Old Cow Vs Tender Grass seems to want to talk about the issue of how older men go after younger ladies, with the prospect whole myriad of reasons tossed up for discussion narratively, and for laughter since this is a comedy after all. However, the actual film is anything but that, using that premise as a hook while the line and sinker delivers something totally different. There's no story, or at least a weak semblance of one created through the piecing of various comedic skits together, some which work, while the majority did not. I felt that with Jack Neo bowing temporary out of the limelight, one will come to expect filmmakers to want to fill those shoes left behind. After all, a "Jack Neo" formula may seem to be the proven platform for box office success, at least in Singapore's context.

But the slapping together of scenes set within a coffeeshop, having working class buddies gather together to bitch about everything from the authorities to whatever's topical, and the sprinkling of Hokkien doesn't a "Jack Neo" type of film make. Here's where you'd probably need to give credit to the guy for being able to craft moralistic (ahem, the irony) stories from what's current, and turn it into mass entertainment. Sure there are topical issues here, such as that of filial piety, foreigners being more hard driven than the locals in holding down two jobs and working long hours, the commercialization and perils of matchmaking and the stigma attached to it, but there's no social commentary, just a rambling of issues done coffeeshop-talk style.

With the Producer Lim Teck and Director Fok Chi Kai combining efforts to work on the story, you'd come to expect more than just disparate scenes put together just so that certain issues can be brought up for the sake of. Some don't even make much sense - such as the one involving what's being lifted from Stomp but inexplicably set in the middle of nowhere Lim Chu Kang - while others seem to pay homage to real life incidents, such as that of a real life cab driver starring GV head honcho David Glass as the article inspired Caucasian, taking opportunity for a support cast of unknowns to tell the whole world of Singapore cabbie surcharge woes.

The comedy here is too localized for this to gain much traction outside our shores, and worse, the film is full of characters who do not engage at any level. Henry Thia's cab driver Moo is pushing 50 and still looking for love, possessing that heart of gold and that unmistakable flair for physical comedy. Taiwanese teenage songbird Crystal Lin plays Moon, a spoilt brat plagued with guilt from a past relationship, who strikes up a friendship with Moo that set tongues wagging as everyone else thinks they're a romantic item. Jack Lim takes on the role of Prince, another cab driver who tackles other taxi-related issues such as the scourge of Traffic Policemen (personified by Ix Shen) and summons, linked romantically to Siau Jiahui's beer-maid from China who's more than meets the eye, but one beer-maid too many as they become that ubiquitous supporting character who all seem to operate on a higher ground than the locals, in having lessons to impart one way or another.

Ah Niu lends a cameo as a priest (Clover Films did release his debut feature film here), and Nat Ho also pops up as a dreamy lover with minimal dialogue. And I pity the dog Bubbles the Siberian Husky, having to tolerate the local heat and humidity and through the high temperatures mistakes Henry Thia for a human popsicle in what would possibly be the funniest scene in the film. In fact, Bubbles trounces many of the cast here in terms of acting ability, screen presence and charisma, which are sorely lacking in its human counterparts, some performances being cringeworthy enough to sour fresh milk.

Opening with a great set of animated credits which was reminiscent of comedy greats in blast from the past fashion, if only there was a stronger story involved here, and a conscious departure made by the filmmakers of not wanting to emulate a "Jack Neo" film, with in-your-face product placements, comedic skits, characters going into discussion mode on topical issues, and Hokkien. Surely our audience deserve much more from films that managed to raise a production budget.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

The Crazies

Show Yourself!

What can director Breck Eisner bring to the table in his remake of horror-meister George A. Romero's film The Crazies? As Hollywood's keenly running out of ideas, the plundering of comic book characters and updating movies from the past continue to drive up that sense of desperation, and Eisner doesn't contribute much other than to cosmetically update this for the modern times, the original done more than 30 years ago when he's still a toddler.

The person who edited the trailer though, had done a great marketing job in setting expectations that this is something of a huge action fest with the promise of jump-scenes designed to scare, and the marketing folks who came up with the tagline "Fear Thy Neighbor" could be watching a different film altogether. Instead, and thankfully, The Crazies 2010 is more of a brooding piece that relies a lot on a measured pace to create a sense of creepiness, rather than to seek an all out scare reliant on a cliched bag of tricks. Sadly though for the neighbour bit, we don't get much of a body count or have that literally translated, since it's more of a tale of survival instincts amongst a group desperately trying to make sense of the situation, and get themselves out of it in one piece.

We don't get to see or attach ourselves to more than a handful of folks, since the small town of inhabitants, supposedly close knit, stay far apart from one another except when they go downtown. Like almost all contemporary zombie films, the root cause is due to man's folly and carelessness, dabbling in unethical medical and laboratory tests designed to play around with Mother Nature, until an accidental strikes. Here, it's the unfortunate biological/chemical agent outbreak that causes a change in human behaviour, with the military swiftly called in to contain the situation with a town wide quarantine and the permission to use all means necessary to do so.

Which translates to indiscriminate killing, and questioning of ethics especially when methods cut too close to genocide. It gives that stark commentary on how those in power tend to carpet sweep all their mistakes because they can, and will not rule out the use of violence to exterminate any opposition and threat that will expose them. It reminds us of the jitters of man when we come face to face with uncertainty and fear, done especially well when the story starts to focus on the survival bits between town sheriff David (Timothy Olyphant), his doctor wife Judy (Radha Mitchell) and their respective deputies in Russell (Joe Anderson, in a superb support role like his character) and Becca (Danielle Panabaker) respectively.

Don't go in thinking that the Crazies here are superfast like zombies and go running around with great speed. The threat of the Crazies is their unpredictable, violent behaviour without reason, surprisingly still possessing that bit of intellect and mental ability, blessed with tremendous strength though still susceptible to normal weaponry, which makes them easier to dispatch. Kill scenes aren't designed deliberately to be gory, though the one at the morgue and in David's house still have it in them to be nail biting, with scenes like that in the car wash being at the cheesier end of things.

Eisner opted for being more peekaboo here than to drench the screen with all out gore. Like films of old this one takes its time to allow the dust to settle for the audience to ponder, but alas despite its very showy special effects laden finale, it's actually nothing more than a competent cosmetic remake, where the real horror is actually the death of original ideas.

Taipei Exchanges (第36個故事)

Stories From Around The World

If your idea of a Taiwanese film veers toward that of art house fare, then think again. Of the two Taiwanese movies which are released here in close succession, one next week with Au Revoir Taipei, and this one which is executive produced by Hou Hsiao-hsien and already screening, both showing plenty of promise in mixing mainstream sentimentalism with art house production values. Both films are helmed by first time feature filmmakers (edit: well, Hsiao Ya-chuan already has one more credit to his name, according to IMDb), and you can safely say that things are indeed looking exciting with their youthful exuberance, being breezy in treatment, and whimsically beautiful in their simplicity.

Writer-director Hsiao Ya-chuan has an eye for style and technique here, putting together various ways to mix the genres of comedy, romance and even a pseudo-documentary all rolled into Taipei Exchanges. It's multi-layered, which makes it have something for everyone, underneath the topmost veneer story of two sisters having to set up a cafe as part of pursuing their dreams, or serve as a conduit to their desires. Doris's Cafe, opened by Doris (Guai Lun-mei) as a means of getting out of the paper chase and gaining independence, sees her teaming up with her sister Josie (Lin Zai-zai, who looks Like Lun-mei o make it even more convincing) who starts a scheme to drive up traffic for a newly opened store.

Which is as the title states, a barter trade system of goods or even services exchange, where almost everything in the shop is open to trade. It's quite a neat strategy giving their cafe a unique value proposition from the countless of cafes out there, in order to drive eyeballs, visits, and of course, sales when the would be customers come in and start to order something. As an unintentional seed which came as a problem to be solved, no thanks to friends who donate unwanted knick-knacks, this forms the crux upon which subplots got weaved into the narrative, from small supporting characters coming and going, and where other stories got told to form what the Mandarin title promises, no less than 36 stories.

I simply love the beginning of the movie, which took its time to demonstrate real life woes faced by any typical entrepreneur, following Doris' setting up of her one year old shop, with the baseline issues of menu design, furniture selection, and the constant worry of finances when customers don't show up, with overheads already sunk, and operating expense bleeding the business everyday. One clearly cannot rely on friends alone to drive traffic, nor make recommendations to visit the shop (I think some friends who have set up a business in similar fashion can attest to this), since they are at liberty to pay lip service, and don't actually turn up.

Then come the many unique stories, some fantastical, others folk legends, which are provided an additional dimension through the drawings that were designed to go along with them, coming from bars of soap associated with cities around the world. Hsiao Ya-chuan also adds in that dash of realism with those documentary styled moments where people on the streets were asked the same hypothetical questions posed to characters in the film, and while some answers do seem rehearsed and canned, there were others which I felt were brutally honest and sincere. And as if not enough, Hsiao also keeps a running joke ongoing in the film with the sister's mother constantly questioning her daughters intents and objectives in life, which inevitably get answered by others, providing separate insights.

With life imitating art in having the real life shop location now operating and becoming a tourist magnet, just like what's in the film, Taipei Exchanges entertains, yet makes you think about how each of us potentially have many stories to tell based on life's experiences, and this will only increase through what's essentially the passage of life. With an excellent soundtrack and a deceptively simple narrative hidden under bubble gum pop, I'll file this under my highly recommended list as a contender for one of the best this year!

Friday, July 23, 2010

StreetDance 3D

Bullet Time Dance

For a minute this looks like another American film that just can't wait to jump onto the 3D bandwagon, and taking along the teenage dance film fan demographic with them. But surprise, it's a British film, and the Brits can street dance just as well, going heads up with yet another upcoming American dance film continuing the Step Up franchise, also presented in 3D.

So is this new three dimensional format any good for this genre? There are a few moments and scenes here specifically crafted with 3D in mind, such as the tossing of items toward the screen, from hats to a busy food fight in a school canteen. There's also some jarringly added bullet-time choreography during one of the street dance battles in a club, but the real treat here is for that depth of field when we sit around and admire the precision-timed and energetic dance choreography from procedural balletic moves to raw, improvisational street dancing.

But this film does go the distance to explain and show the basics 101 of street dance, since it has characters from different camps put together to try and influence one another, and from their initial adversity come craft something unique from its diversity. All these thanks to Charlotte Rampling's Helena, a ballet teacher looking to infuse some spunk, energy and drive into her lethargic ballet students who are looking to impress some judges for entry into the prestigious Royal Academy of Dance.

At the opposite corner, we have a crew looking forward to their participation in the UL Street Dance Competition finals, only for their leader Jay (Ukwell Roach) handover the reins to his girlfriend Carly (Nichola Burley) who has to step up to the plate and assert her own leadership style in the crew's final lap to glory. To make matters worse, she has a lack of EQ with her teammates save for a few core supporters, and has to gather logistics from scratch, hence a marriage of strange bedfellows when she takes up Helena's offer.

Simply put, the story's very typical of dance films, with the usual themes of clashing of cultures, and to learn from each other's differences. Much like a Zero to Hero story with the usual cliche trappings involving romance, betrayal and friendship, with that dash of comedy, eye candy cast and of course, authentic street dancing moves unseen (at least to me) put on the big screen, made to come alive through 3D technology properly done. You'll come to expect that usual big bang finale where the fruits of the characters labour become the money making showpiece that the teenage crowd will line up for, and probably emulate, and it's not hard to see how this cannot go down that path of glory.

It's something that street dance enthusiasts, and they're growing by the numbers everyday, will embrace and flock to the cinemas for, and hey, the fusion of ballet and street dancing elements does pose an intriguing proposition. But after all, it's not about the techniques and styles used, but that of the human spirit of expression and perseverance, practice and camaraderie that ultimately soars above all. Recommended!

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Ong Bak 3


So I was a little bit undecided about Ong Bak 2, and reserved judgement until this installment came out since both films make up one story, leading up to the first Ong Bak film quite loosely - we see how the Ong Bak Buddha statue got created here, the same one whose head was lost in the first film. With this film put together, you can tell Tony Jaa had quite an idea of a premise for these prequels, but I suppose his inexperience as a filmmaker behind the camera have led to the inexplicable break down during production, and probably after this film which dealt with karma, positive vibes and all, may have put him on the path to monkhood.

Picking up directly where we last left off in that cliffhanger ending in Part 2 after an opening credits montage to quickly jog our memory, we see how Tien gets systematically broken down by the many minions of his nemesis Lord Rajasena (Sarunyoo Wongkrachang). Here's where I think the Thai audience have the last laugh with their recent censor ratings. Ong Bak 3 is rating an 18+ there, and over here, we got by with an NC16. Not so bad I thought to myself, until the first 5 minutes saw a number of badly executed butchering of the film, that I balked. We should have gone M18 to be in line, and perhaps those torture scenes would have survived the censors scissors. But no thanks to the distributors who decided to try and make this film appeal to a larger Jaa audience. Surprisingly though the more violent moments later on in the film were left untouched, scenes that I felt were violent enough with the likes of a decapitation, and face/head stomp to warrant an axe under the NC16 rating. But I'm not a censor, so I can't guess what's going on behind the scenes.

Anyway, action fans may feel a little bit disappointed with this installment which ran just over 90 minutes. For the first hour we only have limited battle sequences involving our hero, so savour whatever you can in his fight for survival against hordes of weapon wielding enemies who have the unfair advantage of strength in numbers against a badly beaten (just came off those numerous fights from Ong Bak 2) Tien. Totally broken and just as he's about to be executed, Tien gets saved by the bell and brought back to the village of Kana Khone, where another fight ensues involving his new rescuers against Rajasena's assassins.

Then it's a good plod onto the hour mark, where Tien goes through a reincarnation of sorts, involving body wraps, mystical chants, Master Bua (Nirut Sirichanya) turning to monkhood and imparting pearls of wisdom, the rehabilitation of body, mind and soul, time for romance with Pim (Primorata Dejudom) his pillar of strength, discussions of karmic philosophy and the circle of life. Tien has to unlearn what he has learnt, and basically has to snap all the bones of his body back in place before he can practice martial arts again, which brings us a bearded Jaa and a training montage in a tree, under water, showing off a lean though scarred body, and is that a little paunch I see as well?

So while Tien takes a breather of sorts for his transformation, the duty of keeping the action junkies entertained fell on Dan Chupong's shoulders, as his very short supporting role as the Crow Ghost got expanded here, with his motivation fully revealed. His character soars to evil heights here, taking over the mantle as chief villain, and allowing Chupong to reintroduce himself as an action star to be reckoned with in his own right. Those who have seen Born to Fight and Dynamite Warrior will know what he is capable of, and I really salute him for daring to take on a negative role just to spar with Jaa onscreen.

But what a letdown when they finally get together to do battle. Overall I found their sparring quite weak compared to what had been done earlier in the film involving other exponents, and the finishing blow was quite a letdown. Already the number of fights and spars here were limited to begin with, one even involving the architecture of the mind (sorry, Inception still fresh), and this one just didn't pack enough oomph. It's built up to be something like Tien being a Moses to lead his people, captive by the Crow to be slaves getting constantly whipped, back to their promised land, and hey, he even comes with a staff that got dropped off after a magical moment got executed, in time for fisticuffs.

The only positive coming out from this new Tien, is his new fighting ability. Tien is now more graceful, thanks to the fusion of dance to his moves, and the many moments when this parallel that dance brings to the table, got heavy emphasis, meshing what we usually think of as effeminate, to giving that suppleness to the more masculine moves involving elbows and knees to bone-crunching effect. This to-the-point moves were not forgotten of course, and come in the form of very economical, sometimes comical, but always simple, strikes involving forearms and a rigid body trained to be as hard as steel. I still miss those drunken fists moves from the earlier film, and the insanely choreographed finale battles then, which this one had tried to emulate, only to be a pale shadow of its former's glory and variety of techniques put up for show.

Comedian Petchtai Wongkamiao provided some comic relief in a film that took itself quite seriously, and I think in light of some of the themes that were handled in quite a verbose manner, this was much appreciated. Ong Bak 3 straddles martial arts and philosophy very openly and tried to strike a fair balance between the two, but alas it came off as quite a schizophrenic film very much like True Legend in spirit. I hope the Ong Bak 2 and 3 episodes (and what went on during the troubled production) don't tank Tony Jaa's career, because I'm sure he has enough in reserve to wow audiences once again, should the right story come along that pushes his physical boundaries.

Sunday, July 18, 2010

[DVD] Evangelion: 1.11 You Are (Not) Alone (ヱヴァンゲリヲン新劇場版:序) (2007)

One More Time

My journey through the Japanese anime Evangelion is limited to what I've seen in the cinemas, with two films on the rebuild already released, and now am hung high and dry while waiting for the last two installments to be completed. A friend has lent me his VCD series of the original Evangelion episodes, but for some inexplicable reason, I still enjoy the widescreen and surround sound presentation, which is why I decided to get the 1.11 and 2.22 versions to relive the cinematic experience all over again, despite knowing that the original episodes hold an ending of sorts if I were to plough ahead with it. The rebuild version though will head in a vastly different direction with the latter 2 films as compared to the original series, so what's canon once, can possibly be thrown out the window.

There are some 2 minutes of extra runtime in the 1.11 version compared to the 1.0 release in the theatres, but frankly I can't spot where these 2 minutes went, because they seem to be spread out as filler scenes rather than to add in a chunk wholesale that could have altered something to make you sit up and take notice. Having watched this in Japanese in the cinemas, I opted to go with the English dubbed version with the subtitles turned on, and I thought the dubbed version was competently done, with the voice actors really getting into character, rather than to just go through the motion and read the lines just for the sake of (like some local version of another Japanese movie).

You can read my review of Evangelion here since it's essentially the same story save for those 2 inconsequential minutes.

The Code 1 2-disc Special Edition by Funimation Entertainment has the main feature contained in the first disc, while the second contains all the extras. In Disc One (in Orange), it autoplays with the Trailer for Soul Eater Part 2, before presenting the film in a gorgeous anamorphic widescreen format taken from a digital source (rather than a transfer from film). Audio is available in 6.1 Dolby Digital Surround EX, with either the original Japanese track, or the dubbed English one. Scene selection is available over 33 chapters, and subtitles are available in English.

Disc Two (in Green) autoplays the Trailer for Gunslinger Girl before the main menu comes up. This is the Special Features disc, and contains details on the Rebuild of Evangelion 1.01 (yes, you read that right).
There are two versions here, each running 15:51 and presented in letterbox format, with the same content containing plenty of making-of equivalent type of clips showing the various stages of inspiration and rendering of scenes from the film. Think of it as a making-of documentary, without the verbal explanation. The different versions exist so that you can choose to watch this against the Shiro Sagisu Version soundtrack, or against the Joseph-Maurice Ravel Version with his classical Bolero. Take note though that the menu has them mixed up!!

Angel of Doom Promotional Music Video (2:20 in anamorphic widescreen) is self explanatory, with music and scenes lifted from the film, and News Flashes (0:55) contain 2 television spots equivalent to promote the film, using nothing but white on black text, There are no less than 7 Movie Previews meant as trailers for the film, some utilizing scenes not constraint to just the first movie. Presented in anamorphic widescreen format with songs from the original series, they are Preview 1 Color-Corrected Version (1:36), Fly Me To The Moon Version 1 (1:41), Fly Me To The Moon Version 1A (1:41), Fly Me To The Moon Version 1B (1:41), Beautiful World Version 2 (1:36), Beautiful World Version 2A (1:36), Beautiful World Version 2B (1:36).

Rounding up the extras is the Trailers section for the following titles - D.Gray-Man (0:31), Nabari No Ou (1:00), Kenichi (1:30), Dragon Ball Z Kai (0:16), Darker Than Black (1:01), Tower of Druaga (1:01), and Aquarion (1:01).

A 20 page booklet is also included and this is a bonus for new fans especially with its character bios from pilots to supporting characters to the villainous angels, and includes a glossary of keywords, abbreviations and acronyms created and used in the series. For seasoned fans, it contains plenty of informative process to explain what was done on the technical aspects to bring this to the big screen, and the process to do just that.

[DVD] The Broken (2008)

Major Drool

Writer-director Sean Ellis got on my radar with his feature film Cashback, which I rated as the best of the 2007 films, and The Broken is the follow up feature he had done which is a complete opposite to his debut, one that is part of 8 feature films made for the After Dark Horrorfest series of films. Gone are the whimsical romantic moments that he had deftly crafted and in comes something more serious and high tensioned.

Lena Headey plays Gina McVey, a hospital radiologist who seems to be leading the good life, with a good job, caring boyfriend Stefan (Melvil Poupaud) and tight knit family relationship with brother Daniel (Asier Newman) and dad John (Richard Jenkins). However, she encounters an inexplicable moment when she chances upon someone who looks like her, only to get involved in a car accident, and everything else from that point on goes awry. It'll be easy to put it down to post-trauma by the various medical and counselling experts she consults, but things start to go really out of whack especially with a series of broken mirrors she encounters, threatening both her life, and those of her loved ones.

For those of us familiar with the doppelganger, then this film will likely not come as a surprise as it follows quite closely with stories like Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and various other spin offs and peers. What made this work is Ellis' direction which keeps the story tight, and creates a totally creepy environment devoid of cheap shots of sudden loud noises, door slams, and movement. Instead, it follows much like Asian horror in the building of atmosphere, although there are moments when it went a little overboard and didn't know when to disengage.

London is seen even more grey and bleak here through assured cinematography, and the highlight of this film will have to be the car accident, where it plays out something like a crash test dummy sequence, that you're left to wonder how this was filmed with its different angles each played at different points in the story, as if holding something key to unlocking the mystery of the story. The other key sequence here involves that rare blood and gore that pays homage to Alfred Hitchcock's famed shower scene in Psycho, with a sicker treatment executed for the modern, jaded audience.

Lena Headey does a commendable job to hold our attention for all those 80 over minutes as she becomes the film's scream queen (without the scream) as she tries to uncover just what exactly happened during the crucial minutes before that iconic accident scene, which we have a glimpse of before the fade to black. Fans of horror and sci-fi films will likely to have guessed accurately the big reveal of the story, but even then, The Broken is still stylishly delivered, though a little less than satisfactory to the promise that Sean Ellis holds from Cashback.

The Code 1 DVD by Sony Pictures Home Entertainment is presented in an anamorphic widescreen format, though curiously the aspect ratio shifts after the end of the opening credits. Audio is presented in the English language with either 5.1 Dolby Digital or 2.0 Dolby Stereo, while the French language is presented only in the 2.0 Dolby Stereo format. Unfortunately there are no subtitles nor close-captioning, and scene selection is broken into 16 chapters. No other extras are available in this bare-boned edition.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Hot Tub Time Machine

You Think It's Safe?

To enjoy a time travel movie, you gotta put aside the inevitable probe on how the time travel paradox will come to jinx your enjoyment. One of my favourite time travel movies have got to be Back to the Future, and hey, Crispin Glover is cast in this film as well, in what would possibly be the funniest character given the responsibility to carry on and sustain his own running gag through the narrative, which speaks wonders of the actor's impeccable comic timing.

As with Time Travel films, the premise can go two ways. The first involves the protagonists (or victims if you will) having to pursue just one sole objective, and that's to head home. Everything is done deliberately to avoid upsetting the space-time continuum. The other will involve a purposeful change so that the future can be swung in favour, though this comes with a degree of danger since the next jump back to the future may turn things into something not quite expected. Alternate realities come into play, and if one only has a single chance to make things right, then it's that tremendous leap of faith to be taken.

Which is what Hot Tub Time Machine is all about, with the titular machine being the means to journey back in time, given an opportunity for the characters to either act out their history faithfully to avoid any drastic change, which means to revisit some painful teenage issues all over again, or grasp that opportunity to make bold changes, since life has given them a second chance to try and make things right. This is the dilemma with which the characters grapple with, in between jokes coming out of their past lives being revealed to the audience to elicit laughter.

John Cusack heads the pack as Adam the unofficial ringleader of the group of unsuspecting travellers who head back to the 1980s by accident (or otherwise, since Chevy Chase's cameo has a hand in this as well). He's an insurance agent who's getting nowhere in life, and is reeling from a recent breakup. His nephew Jacob (Clark Duke) the nerd who lives Adam's basement addicted to Second Life, is the brains behind the quartet whose very existence is hanging in the balance because he's in a time where he's not born yet, so anything that doesn't go according to plan, may end up with him disappearing forever.

Then there's Nick Webber (Craig Robinson) the one time band member who had given up his dream for his wife, only to find himself being one hen-pecked kind of guy, and with any group, there's the obligatory crude loudmouth, with Rob Corddry playing Lou as the representative, and resident horny, alcoholic bastard whose idea of a good time is a threesome, gambling, and just about every vice you can think of. Needless to say, this explosive time-bomb of a character is probably the one who will get you to laugh at, and laugh along with his antics. That, and together with what director Steve Pink found it hard not to do each time the characters pass by a mirror - to show their CG-ed youthful selves to great hilarity.

The usual themes about the value of friendship and selfishness within the group members get explored, especially since they each have their own agenda and mission to complete, and find themselves being at conflict with their personal demons. For those who grew up in the 80s, this film will give you that extra bang for the buck since the soundtrack is full of 80s music, and the visuals here will immediately transport you back to that era, with just about every production set screaming at you for attention as nostalgia starts to kick in. References come fast and furious as well, so you're likely to have a field day to catch them all.

Hot Tub Time Machine doesn't go for the cerebral, instead it kept things simple, and made them fun. There's no big plot twist and no big revelation, offering an easy form of escapism and to allow you to wonder just what you would want to change, or not, should you suddenly find yourself transported back when you're having that bath. With friends. Pissed drunk.

The Fantastic Water Babes (Chut Sui Fu Yung / 出水芙蓉)

Not So Fantastic After All

Despite its title, there's rarely a fantastic moment in the film, the swimming pool featured only in a small handful of scenes including one really out of this world computer generated effects extravaganza that was really out of place, and in reality having not too many babes in the film. So I guess that's three strikes against what it's trying to sell, and it just goes to show that writer-director Jeff Lau does blow hot and cold, especially the latter for this film when it had to sit in limbo for two years while waiting for main lead Gillian Chung's scandal to blow over.

But I suppose it didn't matter. While Hong Kong comedies can afford to have no coherent narrative and can sprawl all over the place, I think Jeff Lau's effort here really takes the cake and can probably be archived to film schools as how one should never make a film. Putting together an eye candy cast does not make a hit, especially when there's hardly a semblance of a story. As a comedy the jokes mostly fell flat, as a romance the leads share little chemistry, and one can only wonder what the director had wanted to achieve out of this, other than pay homage to Cheung Chau, one of Hong Kong's outlying islands.

Simply put, it tells the story of Gillian (Chung), a native of Cheung Chau, who believes that she has had an encounter with a deity, and is granted supernatural powers. The first few minutes of the film tries to establish this fact in a really unfunny sequence, after she gets into trouble with a rival who had sown the seed of jealousy, and as revenge, she wants to go one up against her in a hastily organized 4 x 100m swimming relay. Embroiled into the mix is the swim king of Asia, Chi (Alex Fong), who gets kidnapped by Gillian and her gang so as to learn some swimming techniques from him, to his reluctance of course, since he's a captive against his will.

Don't expect a female Waterboys equivalent, or a typical Japanese zero to hero story, because this film is just not that. There's little focus on the swimming aspects, so any thoughts of a training montage gets thrown out of the window after an obligatory one. Instead, Jeff Lau tries to explore the various characters and their motivations, from the romantic to the ethical, drawing broad strokes in insinuating that city dwellers are always scheming to make money, and have absolutely zero morals in that singular pursuit, while the village people are sincere, honest and trustworthy. Between the two lead characters in Gillian and Chi, the theme of hypocritical behaviour get broached, but only barely, while leaving the rest of the characters in support mode, without clear direction other than to be fodder for anything the writer/director so decides.

Comedy-wise, this is probably one of Jeff Lau's weakest offering, since the jokes are nary funny, and relied on gimmicky aspects already exploited to death in the hey days of Hong Kong comedy cinema. Don't expect any laugh-a-minute, and worse, some of these perceived comical aspects just made the storyline even more incoherent with fantastical elements thrown in that more often than not, backfire. Perhaps the only saving grace is Stephen Fung's character, whose sole appearance alone in drag will elicit much needed laughter, because his limited cameo in earlier scenes were just plain scenery, or an improvised Mahjong scene that I thought would have been better had the language of the film shown here be in its original Cantonese track.

Like Sniper, this is one film that's a blast from the past that had to await until audience sentiments of the scandal blows over, before making a cinema debut. After all, some costs recouped is better than none at all, so don't go to this expecting to see something rip-roaring funny.

Nodame Cantabile: The Final Score - Part II (のだめカンタービレ 最終楽章 後編)

When Can We Play Together?

Continuing directly from where we last left off, I was expecting just as much fun I had from the first film in the second one, since it's only half the movie to be completed now, but unfortunately I was left none too impressed. While the earlier film had demonstrated it's more than possible to have a feature film showcasing classical music, thanks to its zany characters, insights for newbies like myself into the meaning and stories behind the many iconic classical pieces, and the charismatic duo of Juri Ueno and Hiroshi Tamaki as the lovers Nodame and Chiaki respectively, the finale chapter ultimately reminded me of another Hollywood franchise in the way things go for the two leads.

Twilight. Yes, and I mean it in a negative way. The end of the first film had left us with the hope that the supporting characters get to be more involved this time around, but sadly, after the first half hour, they get shelved aside as their story arcs get wrapped up, and the characters got the closure they are seeking. And everything that happened in the first film with Chiaki up against the challenge of trying to make a team out of his orchestra, gets totally put aside, not that it is in need of another mending, but all the characters back then, only warranted a cameo appearance in a throwaway scene toward the end.

So with all the distractions out of the way, Chiaki can focus on helping Nodame with her music, even though they have to live apart, with mutual agreement and consent. But this absence doesn't only make the heart grow fonder, but also put into the heart some doubts as to whether one is holding the other back by just being there and probably demanding attention and time. Nodame goes through this entire emo episode in self doubt with the realization that her fantasy of being a top notch classical pianist, may just be that fantasy unfulfilled, and wonder what was actually wrong with life as she knew as a pre-school teacher.

In a parallel to the Twilight movies, so begins that indecisiveness that crept into the film and set on it like the plague. Both Chiaki and Nodame cannot help to declare their affection openly and their emotions properly, and cannot decide if they're better off together, or alone. Worse, Nodame's career seems to suddenly take off when she's at her most vulnerable, and Chiaki being perturbed not to be at the centre of it all, as he was always. It's one thing being put on a pedestal by someone, then completely forgotten and you start wondering why you've been taking things for granted.

Under such circumstances and scenes, it eventually plodded its way to the finale complete with a much expected reconciliation, and somehow it hinted at not being a definitive end, since I believe another volume of the graphic novel is already out. I suppose it's always the smart thing to do to leave things open for the prospect of more, but seriously, the show should start to move on from concentrating on this dilemma of indecision.

But I still enjoyed what I had enjoyed from the previous film, with this one also showcasing a number, though less now, of classical musical pieces coming complete with explanations of the stories and theories behind the composers and the works themselves, which serves to be educational. I start to realize as well that the choice of the music pieces were deliberately considered to evoke and reflect the mood of the respective characters at the time of their playing, so how's that for that perfect drawing of parallels?

Like the earlier film there were moments of kitsch especially with Juri Ueno hamming it up as her sensitive, fun loving Nodame, but when drowned in plenty of emotional moments, she loses that much of charm. Still, fans of the predecessor or those who have watched that already shouldn't go without watching the second since it completes the adventures of The Final Score based primarily in Paris, but as an outsider to the well loved series, I'm still of the opinion that the first part is way more superior than the second.

Thursday, July 15, 2010


Are You Ready To Begin?

Just so you know from which angle I'm coming from, I have enjoyed every single Christopher Nolan feature film from his debut Following to his interpretation of one of pop culture's most enduring comic book heroes Batman. At ease with telling smaller stories on modest budgets to delivering the big budgeted summer blockbusters, in my opinion he ranks way up there as a truly genius storyteller who's able to forge that connection with an audience, eliciting patience as he conjures up a spectacle that leaves you breathless. And bless him too for not buckling to pressure to hope on the unnecessary 3D wagon, believing instead that the key to success lies in crafting a solid story.

If you're of the opinion that this summer's blockbuster slate is somewhat lacklustre, then Inception will likely change your mind. It contains every ingredient necessary to thrill and deliver that cinematic experience and spectacle that cinema was meant for, with an amazingly stellar cast that Nolan draws out fine performances from, coupled with visuals that titillate the mind. The teaser trailer had let on a little on that topsy-turvy tumbling corridor fight scene, but watching that episode in its entirety with fluidity in motion, will cement this film's iconic status just as how Bullet Time did the same for the Wachowski Brothers' The Matrix.

Action aside, there will be some who will liken this to the Matrix, given its similarities in combining science fiction with philosophical existentialism issues, with cutting-edge action seemingly beyond its time. Nolan goes one up however, with this attempt as he, like Neo, goes beyong the computerized world of the Matrix, where it's still a construct led by binary ones and zeroes, good and evil battling it out under black and white rules. Rules that one cannot escape from since they are what binds our universe together. Here Nolan goes into that untapped power of the mind, the dream worlds that we create in our subconscious, where the dreamer has everything in his subtle control, where anything goes as far as the imagination dare venture beyond physical limitations and rules.

This allowed for such a film to be created from a simple idea with a bank heist premise having its skill-based assembled team break into unsuspecting victims to steal ideas locked away in the mind. Nolan loves to tease and test the audience, not lulling us into complacency, with Inception beginning in the thick of the action with tremendous questions being asked as we try and digest the multitude of information thrown at us, with the whys and the what ifs answered in due course, needing to pay attention to subtle details, ideas and concepts to make the film work.

We follow Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his lieutenant Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) as information hackers and social engineers of the new age, offering their services as the black and white ops type either to teach corporate honchos how to defend against like-minded and skilled peers, or to be engaged by these same industrialists to steal information from the competition. With the promise of being able to return to the USA without being arrested at immigration, Cobb accepts the challenge posed by the Japanese Saito (Ken Watanabe), to assemble an A-Team to plant a seed of thought and an idea, known as an inception, into his business enemy Robert Fischer Jr (Cillian Murphy). It's an almost impossible task, but the promise to see his kids again makes Cobb recruit the likes of Ariadne the architect (Ellen Page), Yusuf the chemist (Dileep Rao), and Eames (Tom Hardy) the expert identity thief.

Like the layers that the characters navigate through, the film is equally layered with engaging subplots that expand the depth and breadth of the characters involved, the largest one involving the mystery behind the disappearance of Cobb's wife Mal (Marion Cotillard) who now lives only in Cobb's subconscious, and always find a way to thwart his grand plans, making Cobb more of a liability with this unspoken handicap that gets worse as the challenges facing the team grows. The story unfolds like a planning of that perennial big bank heist job, with conflicts between members, the building of skills and the meticulous planning all coming together with so many external variables, that seeks to test the skills of every member to the extreme. And that's what makes the film so brilliantly engaging, while dealing with emotions and romance, obssession and selfishness, which if I may jest, seem to reflect a side of modern day relationships where sometimes one can get tired and need to seek an exit from constantly being with someone else, 24 hours a day, with nobody around.

DiCaprio with his name sprawled over the poster above the other cast, delivers that pitch perfect flawed lead character that Nolan has a knack to create, and brought to life by DiCaprio's performance, having the actor showcase a wide range of emotions as a man desperate to hold onto what he deems dear, with hidden secrets so jealously guarded, living and repeating his pain through the constant re-visits to his memory, breaking all rules of the game as told to his protege Ariadne. Ellen Page holds her own against the seasoned thespian in two scenes which is bound to generate some gasps for the special effects generated as she picks up the necessary skills for the job, in what would be a Neo-like discovery of how seductive a limitless world could be.

I can't rave enough of how Nolan got to elicit wonderful performances from his cast of stars, where little nuances can mean so much, without even saying a word. A flick of the eyebrow, a glance at someone, paint that picture to tell a thousand words. Better yet, Nolan's own ability to hold your attention with his storytelling ability and delivering no less than four stunningly created realms all happening simultaneously, each with another as a constraint or a condition to kickstart a chain of events. You're always left guessing whether the team can accomplish their mission, and there's always that constant threat of danger that seeks to derail everything they thought of in their combined state of comatose, What George Lucas does with those simultaneous theatres of war in the finale of each of his Star Wars films, Nolan does it better with just this one, as he puts that grip around you as we flit from one stage to another. There's absolutely nothing quite like the experience of having seen something great, and want to savour it all over again soon.

Inception is best experienced on the big screen, and Christopher Nolan has done the ultimate in performing just what the characters of Inception had set out to do, sowing the seed of a premise and concept that holds so much promise, then delivering that promise with aplomb, so much so that you'll want to continue living in that world created by the cognitive senses interpreting what's on screen, then fantasizing on it a lot more with the subconscious. Inception is definitely one of the best this year, if not THE best film of 2010 thus far. Don't miss this film!

Get Outta My Dream!

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

The Sorcerer's Apprentice

One Day You Will Be Merlin

It's one cool trailer, but the end result is anything but, given a glut of movies this year dealing with chosen ones, sons of gods, outcasts made good, and the likes. In looking for the next big franchise to rake in some decent box office receipts, the Bruckheimer-Turteltaub duo responsible for the National Treasure films, have transplanted leading man Nicolas Cage from treasure hunter to Merlin's disciple Balthazar, out to look for The Prime Merlinean, which translates to NYU physics genius Dave, played by Jay Baruchel, famously known for providing the voice to Hiccup in How To Train Your Dragon.

Expect the usual good versus evil storyline with the master-apprentice sorcerer up against mortal enemy Horvath (Alfred Molina) and his own dark apprentice Drake Stone (Toby Kebbell) as they do battle hurling energy beams at one another, preventing the evil magicians from resurrecting their mistress of darkness and Merlin's enemy Morgana (Alice Krige), who is trapped in a Russian Doll container with Balthazar's own lady love, Veronica (Monica Bellucci). In some ways the story loses focus and becomes that sappy romantic love story as Dave, with his new found powers, slowly comes out of his shell to woo longtime sweetheart Becky (Teresa Palmer). But as always he's got to put this romance on hold as he waxes on and off to train and fulfill his prophesied destiny of stopping Morgana's plan of ruling and ruining the world.

Inspired by the scene in Fantasia where Mickey Mouse conjures up some housekeeping magic, the same scene got paid homage to over here, with another easter egg firmly planted at the end of the credits roll. The Sorcerer's Apprentice offers nothing new from the usual loud summer blockbuster offering with explosions, corny one-liners, sidekick characters to crack jokes, and a wasted A-list cast. While Nicholas Cage underwent a couple of short facial and physical transformation in a montage sequence, Jay Baruchel continues being typecast in nerdy roles who just whine too much and throughout the film.

You can read my review of The Sorcerer's Apprentice at by clicking on the logo below.


Monday, July 12, 2010


The Big One

Making its world premiere at last year's Tokyo International Film Festival, Oceans is the latest enviro-documentary to hit the big screens, highlighting that while outer space is touted as the final frontier to be conquered by man, the waters around our land mass hold just as much fascination with the countless of species available in the depths of the ocean. Oceans, by directors Jacques Perrin and Jacques Cluzaud, provide us that glimpse 20,000 leagues under the sea.

For those, like me, who are absolutely clueless about the sea creatures other than what can be put on the dining table, you'll be left quite flabbergasted as you observe the various species being featured on screen, without any prompt or subtitle to label just exactly what creature they are. Of course for those who are schooled by Finding Nemo, you're likely to be able to name some of what's featured, just as the noisy young boy sitting beside me was able to, being somewhat of a help.

Aside from the usual gorgeous cinematography featuring schools of dolphins in motion, and plenty of synchronized swimming, with creatures big and small ranging from the giant whales to the newly hatched turtles struggling to make it to the waters before being picked up mercilessly by their predators, this is one documentary that allows you to go up close to these creatures since cameras were planted into the depths of all the oceans of the world.

It doesn't come across as preachy, because it doesn't wear its ecological badge in such an obvious manner at all in its sparse narrative. Instead, it does so very subtly, reminding us that there are others with whom we share this Earth with, and if we continue to plunder and pollute the land and treat the sea as sewage (so is that gaping hole capped by BP already?), then these are the creatures that we will lose in the near future, causing a major upset in the balance of Nature, and who can predict how Nature's wrath will be incurred back on us.

Nature documentaries are no longer made for the small screen, but have some mighty budget to be able to bring quality to the making of such films, serving to entertain and to capture beauty so rarely seen.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Repo Men

You're Repossessed!

It's not always that we get a film that's smart and works on multiple levels, but Repo Men to my surprise, is one such film despite being billed as a science fiction action thriller, with the promise of plenty of explosion and gory surgical scenes about a group of hired men going out there to reclaim synthetic body parts from those who have fallen short on their installments. The premise has so much running in parallel to the real world financial plight of worthless bonds and the trappings exploiting the greed and desperation of men, that it just lifts the film beyond its basic premise and sets you thinking.

Corporations and banks exist to make a profit, and that is its basis of their existence. To have somebody pay you in full means an opportunity to make more money gone from the loss of interest that can potentially be earned, so installments are the way to go. Being no saints, more money will start to come in should there be a default in the repayment scheme, and in the best case scenario they get to seize whatever is yet to be paid in full, and liquidate it. Not a bad way to make money actually, provided nobody thinks about the social consequences, adopting a job is a job attitude, with zero personal attachments.

But of course before hitting dire straits, you'll be convinced that you're given the best possible help to finance the loans and installment repayment through well meaning assistance rendered to help craft a reasonable, sustainable repayment plan, but this is just the hook, line and sinker for the unsuspecting victim to swallow. Hiding away the consequences in minute details never to be discussed also helps to make the case. In the film, the company known as The Union is in the healthcare industry, having to perfect the mass production of synthetic body parts for just about every part of your body. A failing organ is no longer route one to death, and through slick sales talk and snazzy corporate image, those desperate to extend their lives become easily convinced that the exorbitant price for a replacement part is the way to go.

The fine print though reads that a default in payment beyond 90 days means The Union (the shady corporation in question here) will send their reposession team after you to reclaim the part. And yes, if it's something crucial for survival, that's just tough luck because like banks, they don't really care if they have to throw you out on the streets. It's purely business and nothing personal, though in this case it involves life and death.

Jude Law plays Remy, one of the best of the best in the business as an employee of The Union in its Repo department, perfecting his skills of breaking and entering, fights, and generally overpowering and immobilizing his victim long enough for him to exercise his surgical skills. He has no remorse to do what he's doing as a career, although his long and irregular hours is taking a toil on his family life, with wife Carol (Carice van Houten from Valkyrie and Black Book) giving him that ultimatum to do a sales job, just like what his boss Frank (Liev Schreiber) has made it his calling to convince those who are sick to sign on with the company's scheme to provide medical and financial assistance.

Law has now starred in two of what I personally deem as some of the best science fiction stories Hollywood has done, this and Gattaca which coincidentally also deals with genetics and such. His turn in Steven Spielberg's Artifical Intelligence is something forgettable, and amongst the three I prefer his role here best, since it offers him a wide range of emotions to showcase, plus to balance that off with some hard hitting action, which was missed in Gattaca since his character in that film was wheelchair bound, though no lacking in emotional intensity.

Repo Men primarily follows Remy's story arc, where we see a transformation in a man in his attitude and conscience once he's made to belong to the other side, not by choice. After all, why bat for a losing team? An accident during work meant that The Union feels obliged to save one of their own, after all he's the best, though with no worker benefits, meaning that Remy too is subjected to the same terms and conditions as those whom he hunts down. It's a tale of losing a physical heart to gain a compassionate one, and he soon finds himself dangerously close to not bringing home the bacon because of his natural affiliation, that his defaulting of payments meant his best friend and buddy in the business, Jake (played by Forest Whitaker) has to systematically hunt him down.

Filled with plenty of violence without remorse, gore, and what I thought was gore-porn with that state of sensualness and extreme pain experienced by both Remy and his new squeeze Beth (Alice Braga) in a scene that will really raise some eyebrows as they go to the extreme in wanting their freedom back, there are plenty of action sequences here that will thrill that action fanboy in you. And if you think V for Vendetta's fight scene at the end with V utilizing his knife to dispatch opponents was one of a kind, well, you ain't see nothing yet with a similar sequence here executed by Remy, which I think is the best amongst all the other fights crafted for the movie, hands down, made all the more sweet when set against UNKLE's Burn My Shadow song. This scene alone will make you sit up and take notice that Jude Law can be that drama king turned action hero too.

And let's not forget the other supporting cast that equally boosted the film through their fine delivery. Forest Whitaker shedded a lot of weight for his role here to act as that counter-balance to Jude Law, and carries the film with his witty one liners (that seemed to be ad-libbed) and comical demeanour, though he's no pushover when it comes to the crunch. Alice Braga continues to be a comfortable casting choice in action films (just as she was in the recent Predators) and her romantic subplot with Remy grows to culminate in that unbelievable scene I mentioned before. I think we got to keep our eyes peeled if filmmakers see her as the new Linda Hamilton able to take on more masculine roles in future, because I think she has what it takes to deliver such tough-as-nails roles quite effortlessly.

Unlike the schmuck in the show who will pitch that you owe it your family, I'd just say you owe it to yourself to catch this science-fiction action thriller for adults with a great story backed by unflinching, violent action, with enough twists and turns to surprise you. With certainty Repo Men enters my shortlist as one of the best the genre has to offer, and is this year's equivalent of Children of Men! Highly recommended!

You Owe It To Yourself, Really

Saturday, July 10, 2010

The Blood Pledge / Whispering Corridors 5: A Blood Pledge (Yeogo goedam 5: Dongban Jasal / 여고괴담5-동반자살)

She Bit Me!

The Blood Pledge is the fifth film of the South Korean horror series Whispering Corridors, where the only thing in common threading through all the films, are its predominantly female cast, its setting in an all girls high school, the dabbling with ghouls and spirits, and the context of urban myths and legends being spread through the gossip sessions along the corridors of schools, from which the anthology got its title from. All stories so far are different, and so are the characters, so in truth, you can watch this as a standalone film.

But it's not so much of a horror film, than a study into the psyche of the female of the species. Can I understand it? Certainly, as far as identifying common and distinctive behavioral patterns go. I would call this film, and probably the series, a girly-girl's film, not because of its cast, but rather having plenty of girly moments that before you label me sexist, think about it - girls will probably understand just what this is all about from its premise to the character motivations, while the guys, I suppose we're probably happy with the eye candy on display, rather than to sweat about the stuff that we don't understand because we're wired differently.

Take for instance, we don't fathom why the girls behave the way they do, with friendship treated so frivolously, in one moment you can befriend someone, and because of cliques and the want to belong to another group, you've got to burn bridges with others just so as to demonstrate group loyalty. Then there's the usual petty fights and arguments about grades, the stealing of boyfriends, gee wheez! the whole nine yards of schoolyard problems, magnified because you've got arguing school girls trying to assert their influence on one another. Here, there are 5 of them making up the core group, and a lot more from the outside playing supporting characters, which in turn makes it a pretty noisy, active school with the students doing everything but study.

The tale begins with 4 students - Soy (Son Eun-seo), Eon-ju (Jang Kyeong-ah), Eugene (Oh Yeon-seo, don't ask why the masculine character name) and Eun-yeong (Song Min-jeong) making a pact to commit suicides together. Well, if there's the existence of suicide clubs, then this idea and premise isn't all that far fetched, though their motivations to do so are kept under wraps for the time being. Meeting at a chapel and making the titular blood pledge where they are to die together, things get messy when only Eon-ju ended up killing herself, which leads to the rest being spooked because they fail to keep their end of the bargain. Witnessed by Eon-Ju's youngest sister Jeong-eon (Yu Shin-ae), she begins to bug the rest into providing answers, which of course isn't forthcoming, in order to provide narrative legs for the film.

Now just how one can form such a pact is beyond me, and so are things like running to your BFF (best friend forever) and telling her everything, and I mean everything, about the problems one is facing. Perhaps it's a guy thing to put up a strong front and not break down uncontrollably while figuring out solutions to problems, but in this case it is this confiding that perhaps laid the foundation for being continuously spooked. That said, this is not a horror film per se, as the ghoul hear appears in the day and at night, being much more like a guardian angel to keep her BFF away from trouble, and to inflict pain upon those that have ill intention toward a BFF. I suppose such a friend is for keeps, since he/she ensures some level of protection even when belonging to another realm altogether.

Writer-director Lee Jong-yong follows the tried and tested formula in Asian horror narrative, always giving out a little clue at a time as the story progresses, while dealing with the background of each of the characters, whether or not they contribute to the story directly. The scares here are pretty expected, with heavy reliance on sudden movements, in-your-face appearances, and dastardly makeup in other to elicit the fear factor, but seasoned genre audiences won't find your hair standing at all, being rather intrigued by the female talent on display here. After all, this franchise is famed for having some of its alumni progress into blockbusters and award winning films, with the likes of Song Ji-hyo from Wishing Stairs making that starring role as the Queen in A Frozen Flower, and more recently, Kim Ok-bin from Voice making her big art-house break as the bullied wife turned vampire in Thirst. It's anyone's guess now who amongst the ensemble here will progress much faster than the rest.

A Blood Pledge sneaks now in cinemas, and will make its local premiere on 15 July 2010.

Friday, July 09, 2010

FPS Productions Double Bill: Dilated | Steadfast

Who Am I?

The gamer in me thought the FPS in FPS Productions could have stood for First Person Shooter, given that the majority of films that the production house churns out are of the action genre. The Film & Photographic Society (ahh, now we know) is a collection of filmmaking enthusiasts who are spread over the Americas, Australia and Singapore, with the Singapore outfit producing Steadfast, which had its gala premiere two days ago at The Grand Cathay, while the Los Angeles team was responsible for Dilated. Sinema Old School has packaged two films together, so you can watch both at one sitting.

Directed by Brian L. Tan, Dilated at first seemed to be The Transporter meets Crank, with a bald Jasyn Jefferies (taking a cue from Jason Statham who was the protagonist in both of the films mentioned) playing DIC, a creature of a man supposedly dead from an infliction of a strange disease. We come to understand that a certain Dr Meridian (Lydia Mullaney) tried to revive him after what she thought was an unsuccessful attempt at curing him, only for DIC to break out of a military lab facility, and making his escape in an armoured Audi (or at least it deemed that way) in hot pursuit by the military in two Hummers.

Billed as a satirical action comedy, much of the laughs, intended or otherwise, came from the usual cliches of the pursuers possessing such lousy aim that they'd never be able to hit a moving target even if it was to be the size of a huge truck, and given weapons firing at a million rounds per minute. Then there's the heavy guns being brought out, but it takes forever to give the Audi a scratch. Bullets never run out, and the hero well, gets blessed with the perfect aim to take out his enemies even when greatly outgunned, with time for a cigarette smoke or two.

Presented in a non-linear narrative with flashbacks to give a little bit more character background and development, Dilated suffers from its kinetic editing and shaky cam technique, the latter which I feel is quite overrated as a means of presentation, and almost always used in place to cover up shortfalls, which in this case a steady number of continuity errors that arose from the chronology of damage inflicted, where broken items appear to be intact before being broken again, which in this case, a car's windows and windscreen being tell tale signs.

But granted for any action junkie, it has enough weaponry on display here for the enthusiast to point out, and ends with a bang somewhat with its surprise shift in genre which worked well, and let you wonder how different a film it would have been should this be a feature length film instead, and whether it had enough of a unique selling point to differentiate itself from the tirade of modern day monster movies out there.

Go Go Go!

In the case of Steadfast, well a film like this is quite the rare gem to come about. There will be those who lament and wonder if Singapore can ever produce an action genre film without making things look cheesy and cheap. We've only but a handful of films that dare venture into this genre of high expectations, with Leonard Lai's The High Cost of Living being the rare feature film in recent years to be an action based one, with others such as Blood Ties featuring a scene or two involving shootouts.

Perhaps it's difficult to do so, since action based films usually involve blowing things up for that feeling of shock and awe, or to have blazing guns and stunt crew ever ready to perform deft-defying feats to thrill audiences. Given the kind of endless budget these days in Hollywood productions, this genre is having its bar raised ever so often with a new action flick coming along, that it takes something quire unique in order to wow an audience, especially jaded ones.

Compounding the issue of quality, you can imagine the kind of logistical nightmare to be shooting action in Singapore, especially one involving weapons where we have strict gun laws against. The challenge here is to produce something that is of good quality without looking silly or unintentionally comical, with as much authenticity as possible without coming across as amateurish. Backed by the Singapore Film Commission, writer-directors David Liu and Linus Chen managed to accomplish this through their latest short film production Steadfast, which was one year in the making.

The gist of the story involves a corporate type executive (Amit Nagpal) being the target of an assassin (Lau Yu-Don), only because he decided to squeal and own up to his corporation's wrongdoings, and sacrificing to become the fall guy through a public whistle-blowing. Even with the employment of armed bodyguards, a sole justice department agent (Marcus Lee) tracking the assassin's year long trail of victims finds himself caught up in the middle of the crossfire between opposite sides.

I suppose for an action film, the plot is but a means to hold a series of action sequences strung together, and both Liu and Chen didn't stinge in packing this 36 minute film with sequences such as an extended office shootout cum fisticuffs (which I was begging for focus rather than to intersperse it with scenes from another narrative thread, and the fisticuffs came with an over-enthusiastic sound effects that Kollywood loves), a simple carpark hit job, a street ambush spilling into the inside and the rooftop of a factory, and a bungalow defense. You have authentic looking weapons (again, for enthusiasts to ID) and countless of shots fired enhanced with post production muzzle flashes and loud enough surround sound effects to allow you that feeling of being caught up in the thick of the action.

As a proof of concept, there's no doubt Steadfast offered what the filmmakers could do with a shoestring budget as far as action film budgets go. They had a multi-national cast to play with, decently filmed action with costumes inspired from the Counterstrike game (some decked in Counter-Terrorists garb, and others with balaclava headgear). If there's any area that needed sprucing up, it'll be the creation of heightened tension as there wasn't much sense of danger during massive blow ups, or to take the necessary measured pause with just the right time allowance to accentuate enmity during stand-offs, which preferred to veer into talky territory for a tad too long.

Still, Steadfast managed to offer a glimpse that an all out Singapore action film is not something far-fetched, or something that cannot be done decently. With all the right ingredients falling into place like a charismatic cast, a good story to tell, and as important, filmmakers like Liu and Chen with a passion for the genre and who believe such films are a possibility here, I'd say it'll probably not be long before we see something that'll make us sit up, take notice and be proud of!

Those interested to catch these 2 films in one double bill feature, then take note of the following at Sinema Old School:

Screening Dates & Times:
09.07.10 Friday – 7.00pm & 8.30pm
10.07.10 Saturday – 3.00pm *
16.07.10 Friday – 7.00pm & 8.30pm

* Steadfast Directors David & Linus will be present at a special screening of the films on the 10th of July, 3pm, to conducting a Q&A session after.

Related Links
- FPS Productions Singapore Website, with the filmography available for viewing
- Dilated Official Movie Website
- Steadfast Official Movie Website
- Steadfast FaceBook page
- Schedule and Ticketing Details at Sinema Old School
- Production Talk at SINdie
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