Saturday, October 30, 2010

Haunted Changi - The Enhanced Digital Version + Cast and Crew Q&A

Come Back For More!

As part of its Halloween celebrations, Sinema Old School had brought Haunted Changi back for a one-off screening using its enhanced digital version and session moderator Sueanne Teo of Sinema Old School assembled the principal cast and crew of filmmaker Tony Kern, and actors Audi Khalid (as Audi Khalis the cameraman), Andrew Lua (as Andrew Lau the director/editor), Sheena Chan (as Sheena Chung the producer) and Farid Assalam (as Farid Azlam the soundman) to be on hand for a 60 minute up close and personal interaction with members of the audience and gamely participated in the film's exposé to reveal what was real, what was not, and what really freaked them out.

Needless to say the discussions were all in spoiler territory so watch the entire proceedings only if you have watched the film, which is coming soon to screens in Malaysia and Brunei in November, and Indonesia in December. For those in Singapore, Sinema Old School will also be screening the film in November, so check its online ticketing page for more details of dates and times.

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Related Links
Production Blog -
Official Film Website -
Facebook Page -
My discovery of the film -
My Review of the film here
Production Talk @ SINdie -

I Give My First Love To You (Boku No Hatsukoi Wo Kimi Ni Sasagu / 僕の初恋をキミに捧ぐ)

Counting Down

Again this film marks one of the many I've missed from last year's Tokyo International Film Festival, so I'm pretty glad it finally made its way to our shores. The premise is a sure giveaway of the plot, but anyone wishing to watch a Japanese romantic weepy will know what you're in for from the start. I Give My First Love To You doesn't deviate from the formula, but like others that came before it and for others in the same genre to come, what fans almost always do is to hold onto whatever sliver of hope there is for the couple in question to be together forever in a happily ever after, against the odds of what medical condition one or both of them suffer from.

Here the lovebirds are portrayed by Masaki Okada as Takuma Kakunouchi, the boy who suffers from a weak heart condition and is given a death sentence that he will not cross 20 years of age, and Mao Inoue as Mayu Taneda, the daughter of his doctor (Toru Nakamura) with whom he falls in love with during his frequent trips to the hospital when young. Needless to say they grow up together, and in one of their childish games, he promises that he will survive and marry her, wished upon a four leafed clover she finds in the field. They grow up as a couple and have each other for support in school, but as Takuma is aware, his days are numbered and are looming over the horizon, and so is contemplating giving her up so that hopefully she can find someone else to grow older with.

Much of the scenes that require you to pull out your tissue packs involve how clingy Mayu can be in not relenting in her feelings and her resolve that one day Takuma may just pull through his condition, or that the proper heart donor may just come along, which the narrative of course will introduce, but not without putting the characters through some morality checks, and in so take the opportunity to explore why the necessity to keep some red tape onto these medical administration and the technicalities and rationale behind such confidentiality clauses, otherwise, well, you can see how family members can be put in a spot, be it the donor's or the recipient's. There's a key scene that makes one think how what can be perceived as selfishness, is nothing more than again that bit of hope every family member and loved one hold on to.

The narrative doesn't promise much about how Takuma tries to scout for an appropriate chap for his girlfriend to fall in love with, since Yoshihiko Hosoda's Takashi was a little too pushy and in fact, irritating to begin with, nor does it have a lot of screen time to dwell on the potential distraction Takuma faces with another fellow female patient Ryoko (Yoko Moriguchi), but whatever it managed to cover in between the primary couple's life touches on the necessity for them to spend almost every waking moment with their significant other and to make such moments count, which Mayu knows and Takuma finally learns to appreciate a lot more. The latter half of the film then switches tact to demonstrate the extent how a loved one will likely go through in their grief and hanging onto whatever little hope a situation may bring, and that extends to family members as well, not such the romantic other half. After all, any death or potential death affects a larger community.

I will not deny this makes a perfect date movie, since the message here is quite clear on the appreciation of someone else no matter how quirky they can be, and never to doubt anyone's commitment. Between the two leads whose performances were key in fleshing out the intricate characters and making them believable and engaging, Mao Inoue shines as that cheerful ray of sunshine in Takuma's life, and her antics are what brings about the light hearted moments in the film. It's melodramatic territory sometimes, but your typical Japanese romantic movie that will tug at your heartstrings this will be. Be prepared and pack those tissues. Recommended.

The Last Exorcism

Praise Him

A word of caution if you're expecting The Last Exorcism, as the name implies, to be anything remotely close to horror classics such as The Exorcist, or even The Exorcism of Emily Rose. While the title may compel you to believe it's a horror film that deals with duels between a servant of God and miscellaneous demons sent from the nether realm, this is instead a film that touches on the evils of man, where we tell lies and engage in deceit for material gain, holding control over fellow man with smoke and mirrors, and aiming its narrative squarely at that of false prophets, explicitly and without mincing its words.

The Last Exorcism follows the recent fixation of having horror flicks made in the first person horror-cam which had discovered its place in the found footage mockumentary sub genre (the latest being Paranormal Activity 2). We follow a documentary crew of Iris Reisen (Iris Bahr) and her cameraman who are working on one of the subjects, Reverend Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), a charismatic priest who is anything but the real deal, as his expose in the first half of the film tells. He deliberately exposes the hoax that he is, simply because he's tired of having to lie and deceive members of his congregation who are all too eager to blindly follow in whatever crap he has to say. The first half of the film dwells extensively on a wink-wink showcase on how gullible people are in making themselves the subject of slick scam artists, and Cotton also shows the tricks of the trade used in so-called “exorcisms”.

While you may take all these with truckloads of salt, one thing cannot be denied, and that's how susceptible recent society has become in turning toward religion for answers about the unknown. Just like how good cannot exist without evil or how heroes cannot be made without villains, Cotton made a poignant remark about how people just have to believe in demons, because without which there will be no God since the very existence of a Satan comes hand in hand with that. For the small townsfolk in New Orleans, with its mix of voodoo and hoodoo and whathaveyous, the now very skeptical and disillusioned Cotton decides to demonstrate an example of how demons don't really exist, and all the tales of spiritual exorcisms are nothing but elaborate hoaxes cooked up to reinforce the notion of God. His new calling in life, as he worked with the documentary crew, was to expose the truth behind exorcisms which have so far become deadly in execution, and if he could go out there to prevent an accidental or innocent death, he would have fulfilled his mission.

So his sights are set on that of the Sweetzer farming family, where widower Louis (Louis Herthum) had written a letter to Cotton pleading for help to rid his daughter Nell (Ashley Bell) of her possession. I won't spoil any surprise, but suffice to say things don't go always as planned, with questions constantly raised about whether the Reverend had bitten off more than he could chew with some inexplicable moments that build on the previous in a thrilling crescendo of twists and turns, to its intense finale. Bear in mind though, that I'm not talking anything about crab walking, violent levitations or spewing of goo from the mouth, but playing out more like a whodunnit mystery.

Daniel Stamm's film plays on your constant questioning whether the Reverend, who is obviously without the full knowledge of his faith, nor even bearing the faith himself, can be equipped to do what he's thought to be doing, hence the dilemma when things go from bad to worse. Showmanship can only bring you so far, while I was reminisced of a moment in the 80s film Fright Night where one has got to have faith for a simple thing like a crucifix to work. However this film also serves as a story about one priest's redemption and his human decency to do what's right, versus having to wash away all responsibility since he's already paid, and have and was given multiple opportunities to walk away into the sunset.

Patrick Fabian does his role as Reverend Cotton really well, portraying him as the slick, suave and confident schmuck who while does the unscrupulous in the hoodwinking of those seeking his spiritual guidance and help, does realize that he actually wields some influence in making others become better people through the simple effecting of his charisma and position as a Reverend. Ashley Bell as the designated scream queen also performed admirably when she has to vividly portray someone who has a demon in her with her contortionist ability coming in handy, and balances that with the usual innocence that such demons crave to possess bodily. Much can't be said about the other two main leads as they stay behind the camera for the most times, or other supporting characters as they don't get much screen time, but as far as the found footage style goes, The Last Exorcism gets better marks for not unnecessarily inducing dizzying scenes for you to feel nauseous.

The ending may pose a few questions that allows for open ended discussions, but as per the narrative development in the film, there were already subtle little clues dropped, especially in passing remarks that were casually floating around, if an audience were to pay attention to them rather than to close the mind off since the film did not exactly pay off what one would have expected it to. Perhaps this is exactly that which the film is trying to address, to open one's eyes and ears and be acceptable to things out of expectations and the norm, rather than to blindly and faithfully accept hook line and sinker and what others dish out to you.

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole

Birds of the Same 3D Feather

While I had made it a point not to watch any more life action films that feature talking animals, Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole doesn't really count though its superb animation and attention to detail make the owls here look vividly alive and like the real thing. Directed by Zack Snyder and based upon the book series Guardians of Ga'Hoole by Kathryn Lasky, it's no wonder why the film's pacing seemed to roll along at breakneck speed because it condensed a total of the first three volumes into the film narrative.

In some ways the story may seem to draw some parallels with Star Wars Episode 4: A New Hope. We follow a young owl Soren (voiced by Jim Sturgess) who develops his inner potential which is The Force equivalent that he taps upon when in flight, although he's still raw with that ability until he got trained by an old battle-weary and scarred owl Ezylryb (Geoffrey Rush) who turns out to be the legendary Lyze of Kiel. But before that he and Gylfie (Emily Barclay) have to escape from the clutches of the evil "Pure Ones" who are hell bent on conquering the world with some Death Star like contraption, and in the process have to abandon Soren's envious brother Kuldd (Ryan Kwanten) who got seduced by the dark side and decided to throw in his lot with the enemy, forcing a Cain and Abel situation naturally.

Yes this is very much Bird Star Wars in a clear and classic tale of good versus evil, with the adventures of Soren and Gylfie in their quest to find the urban legend of the Guardians (read: Rebel Alliance) and joined by a rag tag of owls (and a snake) who bring different skill sets to the team, including their bickering. A pity though that most of the supporting characters good and bad get relegated to caricatures, failing to exploit the ensemble voice cast assembled such as Hugo Weaving, Helen Mirren, David Wenham, Anthony LaPaglia and Sam Neill.

While the storyline is simple to follow for kids, and for the adults there are enough references here to damaging class and caste systems where owls are segregated into their species by the evil Metalbeak (Joel Edgerton) and his minions where less superior owl stock get to become slaves for slave work, where on the side of the Guardians it's a meritocracy set up where owls get to learn basic but broad based skill sets before they choose what they are strong in for focus in that profession, things like navigation and armoury. The plot in the extremely rushed second half deals with the setup for a big fight which was prophesied and time wasn't wasted in the determination to go into war. After all, sometimes we have to go to war to keep the peace, no?

Zack Snyder has a penchant to design fight sequences in stylized slow motion, from 300 to Watchmen, and now this, although I thought it was quite justified because otherwise we'll see nothing much other than a glorified chicken fight with two fowls clashing head on, using weapons fixed to their thin legs to inflict damage to fellow opponents. That said the attention to detail is tremendous, and being caught in slow motion allows you to take it all in visually since the birds got digitally animated, and shoddy work will definitely show especially in feather and wing designs up close. The 3D flight sequences will also set to wow, and you'll often find yourself ducking when an entire flock come toward the screen in high velocity, or swoop down from behind

I was expecting much less, but got pleasantly surprised by the quality of animation. Being able to draw some parallels with a much known sci-fi film also helped to balance that rushed narrative void of much character development, and if there's a sequel planned, I'll be quite game to continue with the mythos. Oh, and make it for the screening early, especially if you're watching the 3D version, because a Warner Bros Animation looney toons short precedes the feature film, with a typical Road Runner vs Wild E Coyote challenge in 3D glory that fans of Road Runner, like myself, will be celebrating watching our speedster pop out of the screen. Beep beep!

Friday, October 29, 2010

It's a Wonderful Afterlife

It's Not Me

While I understand the Indian masala films usually involve having everything including the kitchen sink thrown into the plot, which will have enough room for the story to combine romance, mystery, drama, comedy, song and dance all together for possibly something for everyone to enjoy, It's a Wonderful Afterlife somehow had all these ingredients coming together, but felt a little too contrived at mixing everything up and gelling them all nicely, especially since it had a trailer that's not quite accurate, and it seemed more like a typical 3 hour film rather than its 100 minute duration.

Gurinder Chadha's more famous for her directorial breakthrough Bend It Like Beckham, which arguably introduced Kieira Knightley to the world, and here she combines an ensemble with the likes of Jimi Mistry, Sally Hawkins and the Indian actors Sanjeev Bhaskar, Shaheen Khan, Adlyn Ross and Ash Varrez in a film that started like an investigative drama with a potential serial killer on the loose in the Southall district of London, the policeman D S Murthy (Sendhil Ramamurthy) who had been transferred in for investigative work in his own community to sniff out details of the suspects, Roopi (Goldy Notay) and her mother Mrs Sethi (Shabana Azmi) who is desperate for the former to get married with much of her rejection based on her plumpish looks, Roopi's best friend Linda (Hawkins) who finds her inner Indian self and is somewhat of a self-taught spiritual guru, and the list goes on.

At best, the plot and its subplots were extremely scattered, and somehow it seemed that Chadha didn't manage to find common ground for all of them to coexist, with each plotline threatening to upstage and distract one from others. Prime to everything hinged on Mrs Sethi's rather protective quest to look for a potential husband for her daughter Roopi, and how the former's dealing with rejection led to an eventual five spirits tagging along with her, who through her guilty conscious is the only one able to see them all. The cat is let out of the bag early, and it's somehow not so much of a mystery other than a zany comedy to have these friendly ghouls make jokes at every opportunity.

The romantic leads of Sendhil Ramamurthy and Goldy Notay also lacked believable chemistry though the rushed romance didn't help their cause since the detective also had to juggle an ulterior motive, while that between Jimy Mistry and Sally Hawkins went down the road to explore how some people groove to the beat of other cultures since they're not at home with their own. Sally Hawkins though had a single major scene which mimicked a horror film where a woman scorned unleashes hell on earth during her own party, probably a comedic highlight of the film that defied all logic and pushed the film toward absurdity.

I had enjoyed Gurinder Chadha's works such as Bride and Prejudice, and Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, but somehow this entry into her filmography seemed like a step back. Let's how she finds her groove back pretty soon with a stronger and more coherent story rather than leaving things scattered around.

Jackass 3D

The Gang's All Here

Who would have thought that Jackass 3D made a lot of money in its opening weekend in the USA, could it be because we like to laugh at, with and along with Johnny Knoxville and his team of stunt folks in their absolutely insane pranks, or maybe the real world is full of assholes with their minds stuck in a condescending rut, that we need a much deserved break from these pricks and escape to a comedy to chill out? While the 3D gimmick could have artificially inflated ticket sales revenue, I for one have gladly forked out cash and plunged into a show that celebrates idiocy, because it's not worth sweating over the small stuff since the real world bummers aren't worth it.

Designed specifically with 3D in mind, this installment of Jackass contains the usual nonsensical pranks that the team pull off on one another, which turn out better than the other skits involving the punk'd-ing of an unsuspecting stranger ala Candid Camera. I had enjoyed Jackass 2 enough, and fans will know what they're in for - skits ranging from a single, short act that could be just a slow-motion punching in the kisser, or elaborate ones that get repeated against other members of the troupe, such as the portaloos installed with exploding blue paint, or something elaborate involving plenty of tazers and cattle prods (!).

Introduced by Beavis and Butthead since MTV has a role to play here, I'm not sure why some have derided the 3D effects, though admittedly some segments don't really get to exploit the technology to the fullest, but when everything gels together, it's like poetry in motion, especially the opening credits which provided a flavour of what's to come in this big screen outing, and the closing segment that involved a lot of big bangs, slowed down so that you feel every single exploding moment and flying debris headed your way toward the screen.

Jokes involving body parts aren't too far off as well, and you have the entire repertoire of urine (complete with a camera placed at the cock perspective), a guy who can fart at will who demonstrates his keen ability in powering up musical blow instruments and a blowpipe, plenty of faeces pranks where one even involves reverse bungee jumping, and the drinking of a fat man's accumulated sweat from his torso, and soaked underwear. Yes, I was that close to come to puking in the cinema, as you witness the cast and crew themselves vomiting copiously at having see (and I can imagine the smell) it all up close.

Granted this is not everyone's cup of tea, since comedy is subjective and not everyone can laugh at everything that made the final cut. Some pranks naturally lacked bite and felt a little bit forced, but most of them hit the mark. Maybe I'm in the mood for the sadistic, but fans of Jackass should make a beeline to see what your favourite stunt team can pull off this time round, where some of the larger, more elaborate pranks involve going up against a jet engine, and wait till you get a load of the heli-cock-ter stunt LOL. Those who want more will have to wait until Christmas for the Jackass 3.5 DVD release.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

TRON Night

Adopting the strategy that 20th Century Fox did with the tooting of the horn for James Cameron's Avatar with a 15 minute preview in 3D, Walt Disney Studios released a 23 minute, 7 scene preview of the upcoming TRON: Legacy worldwide, and Singapore is lucky enough to be one of the cities to organize this preview for free (i.e. lucky patrons only), albeit not in the IMAX format since we're one of the cities left in the world not to boast an IMAX Screen, at least not until next year when Shaw Lido reopens.

Every week for the next 10 week countdown, keep an eye out for Walt Disney's rolling out of various film content, events, products and announcements in preparation for the worldwide film launch, which will premiere a day earlier in Singapore on 16 Dec 2010 barring any last minute schedule changes.

I have to admit though I was only a kid when I saw the original TRON movie, and wasn't too taken by it. Boasting some eye popping graphics for its time, the film garnered a cult following, and yes, it took that long to actually come up with a sequel, though it's quite apt since its presentation rides on a new wave of 3D films, and the narrative structure allows for this 3D presentation to be pushing the right boundaries. What's my opinion of the 3D visuals from the preview? Stunningly beautiful.

A total of 7 scenes were presented that last about 23 minutes in total, mostly centered around the first half of the film and in some ways tells of the basic premise and what to expect. Two scenes were in 2D though - those set in the "real world", although the entire film is designed for the audience to put on those glasses from the get go. In any case I'll launch into the specific scenes shown tonight, and for those who are spoiler tolerant, read on then:

- A conversation piece in the "real world" (2D presentation) between Sam Flynn (Garrett Hedlund) and Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) which touches upon the disappearance of Sam's dad Kevin (Jeff Bridges), ENCOM board's pleasure in knowing that Sam has no interest in taking over the running of the business, and the mysterious page Alan receives which was touched on in the theatrical trailer. It's also established from the start that Sam's quite competent in handling the Ducarti motorbike, which of course will serve him well later on...

- Still in the real world, where Sam heeds Alan's advice to check out his father's old Arcade, and we get a trip down 80s nostalgia with tunes such as Sweet Dreams by the Eurythmics, and the video game Tron, before Sam discovers his father's underground lab, and also as seen in the trailer, his meddling meant having to zap himself into the electronic world...

- Continuing still from some scenes from the trailer where Sam first lands into the Grid, and gets picked up and transported aerially, which provides for some vertigo inducing scenes, hundreds of feet up high in a transporter that tests the sound system of the cinema hall. Welcome to TRON City! And things aren't looking too well with Sam being selected for the Games...

- But being a program within the city means having to look the part. Sam's human world clothing get ripped apart and reconstructed by four pretty program chicks known as Sirens, all dressed in skin tight white and who operate the Grid Game armoury, equipping Sam with the iconic TRON costume and an Identity Disc that doubles as both a tagging, memory device, as well as a weapon. Here's where you hear Beau Garrett's Jem tell Sam that the objective is to "survive".

- Disc Wars! Sam takes on another program and we got to see the entire battle wholesale. Some clips from this battle were included in the theatrical trailer.

- The warrior Quorra (Olivia Wilde) rescues Sam from the Grid Games in a mean looking dragster buggy. An extended drive follows where they drive off the Grid and Quorra reveals herself to be of a female form, from the deep male voice hiding her feminine features behind a full-faced helmet. The sequence here is nothing more than perfunctory, and something I thought was vaguely similar to that of 1989's Batman where Batman rescues Vicki Vale and they go on this long drive in the Batmobile back to the Batcave...

- But the cave itself reveals to be the abode of Sam's father Kevin Flynn, where father and son awkwardly reunites, having not seen each other for more than 20 years.

Michael Sheen as Castor then comes on to wrap up the preview with a montage, which included glimpses of the TRON light cycle battles, as well as a sneak peek into the various vehicles utilized, including those involving flight as well, before the TRON: Legacy logo comes on with the premiere date and boasting the various formats this film will be screened in.

To be honest, Daft Punk's soundtrack was more of the appeal to me, although watching this preview had more or less convinced me that I'll be in for a good ride, especially in a 3D cinema hall with a proper sound system set up, where you can actually feel some sonic boom going around when it comes to the big action sequences. I'm ready to buckle down for the ride in December!

Can't Wait!

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

The Incite Mill - 7 Day Death Game (Inshite Miru: 7-kakan No Desu Gemu / インシテミル 7日間のデス・ゲーム)

Something Strange Around the Corner

Tatsuya Fujiwara must be on familiar grounds here, since The Incite Mill is an amalgamation of two of his popular films, his earlier Battle Royale and the recent Kaiji The Ultimate Gambler. Directed by Hideo Nakata, a name synonymous with the Japanese horror film Ringu, The Incite Mill follows the recent trend of game based stories where contestants and participants are put through trying situations, where the winner takes all and the losers, well, depending on the stakes at play, may end up losing their lives. A group of 10 participants who responded through ads citing high pay for temporary work, are put into a Big Brother styled environment where their task is to stay within the confines of the rules, but you'd know for sure that things will go awry, and every single rule of the game will be tested and broken.

While the premise is set for a gripping whodunnit and who-will-survive, The Incite Mill however failed to excite, as plots get developed as a matter of fact, offering very little surprises as if everything gets unfolded according to script. There's no mystery here that will engage you enough to keep you guessing, and events that unfold aren't in edge of your seat style. It runs like clockwork, and doesn't throw up anything new, especially when recent films such as Liar Game managed to keep a strong protagonist whom you know possesses all the skills to survive, yet having enough curve balls thrown in his way to try and trip things up. Nothing of that sort happens here, although there was a nicely choreographed fight scene toward the end to try and make up for it, too little too late.

You can read my review of The Incite Mill at by clicking on the logo below.


Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Son of Babylon

Desert Paradise

When we think of Iraq, we picture a war torn country which had seen the worst of a dictatorship under Saddam Hussein, where it spent many years in conflict with Iran, before the UN moved in during Desert Storm to liberate occupied Kuwait, followed by the US led invasion in Desert Storm II. Western media continue to pepper us with news that internal strife continues to this very day with news of suicide and miscellaneous bombings, and I'm sure we're more than curious to want to know about tales from within, rather than agencies from the outside that continue to paint it like a war zone. This is as close as you can go on a road trip from Northern Iraq to Baghdad, onward to Nasiriyah then Babylon.

Son of Babylon deals with the missing generation, and a mother/grandson's search for their son/father, who was taken by force years ago during the Gulf War, and hasn't been heard since. Set three weeks after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the film opens with the young boy Ahmed (brilliantly portrayed by a flute holding Yasser Taleeb) and his grandmother Um-Ibrahim (Shehzad Hussein) beginning their long quest for answers and closure, and it is through their eyes and witnessing their experiences, do we get a glimpse of just how emotionally daunting and physically challenging this quest is, amidst a stunning on location backdrop of an Iraq we never get to see, until now.

Written, directed and lensed by Mohamed Al-Daradji, his story touches on the experiences of three generations of Iraqis, as Ahmed and Um-Ibrahim come into contact with Musa (Bashir al-Majid), an ex-Republican Guard about the same age as what their son/father would be if found, and how his life got filled by the war time atrocities that he had to commit under orders. The narrative puts our trio on a never-ending search as they get bounced and referred to another city where other mass graves have been found, suggesting an inexplicable nationwide genocide that had taken place which accounted for the thousands of people who have disappeared.

The story will also open eyes to how diverse Iraq is, with language and cultural barriers from within the population as they struggle to communicate with one another (usually dismissed fairly quickly when one speaks a different language), only to share common ground in their history of grief brought about through the ravages of war. It's not all doom and gloom all the time as the film does contain some light hearted moments courtesy of Ahmed, and his significance cannot be ignored in a film that closes with a bittersweet end to suffering, and the hope placed on today's youth who have to forge their own way ahead on a long, dusty road of uncertainty. Ahmed demonstrates his street-smartness, haggling abilities and knowledge of his rights, that I think he epitomizes the spirit of the new generation who are competent in holding their own ground.

Travelling the world's various festivals, picking up a multitude of awards and being Iraq's official entry to the Academy Awards next year, this is not an easy film to sit through as it does get a little bit exasperating with the outward show of gloom that will sap your emotional energies, but to the patient viewer it rewards with its beautiful sweeping visuals of a land that most have not had a chance to see, and a poignant story on forgiveness, reconciliation and internal healing that must begin for a nation emerging from its ruins. Recommended!

Son of Babylon opens exclusively at the Picturehouse on 4 Nov 2010.

Monday, October 25, 2010

71: Into the Fire (Pohwa Sokeuro / 포화속으로)

Korean Band of Brothers

War film action junkies sit up and take note, as 71: Into the Fire should be written into your books as a must watch if you haven't already made plans to do so. Steven Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan may have set the bar and raised expectations many years ago with regards to the use of strained colours and realistic war violence being portrayed on screen, and in recent years even China too got into the act through Feng Xiaogang's Assembly. While tales of heroism during WWII have been aplenty done by filmmakers from the West, I can only think of a handful done in the East to meet that kind of scale. This is one of them.

Directed by John H. Lee, the basis of the film reported came from a letter from one of the 71 deceased South Korean student soldiers, which chronicled their Alamo experience and moment as the few who had to stand up to the invading North Korean masses in very David and Goliath measures. Tasked with the strategically important defense of Pohang while the rest of what's left of the South Korean army and UN coalition defended the Nakdong River area, this is not 300 where a group of battle hardened soldiers led by King Leonidis tragically fended off the huge Persian army, but a group of rag tag students with little military experience being told to hold their ground for 2 hours against a fanatical, professional army before reinforcements arrive.

You can feel the sense of urgency and desperation throughout the film, as Lee doesn't forget to remind you how dire the situation was, with the tremendous loss of territory over a period of four months to the North Korean forces sledgehammering its way down south, and the reliance of students to take up arms in what could have been a tactical lesser of two evils. The UN Coalition is stretched thin, and the makeshift Captain of the ragtag student group, soft spoken Oh Jung-Bum (T.O.P), has some serious growing up to do if he is to lead the students, being one of three who have had some combat experience. Making things difficult is the inclusion of criminals like Kap-Jo (Kwon Sang Woo) who's just happy to be out of prison to lend his weight to the fight, but as with any army that requires discipline, here is one man and his two lieutenants who prefer the contrary.

From the get go you'll get thrown thick into the action with loud gunfire and pretty much everything exploding on screen from artillery and other big guns fire, as Jung-Bum wanders around his battalion doing errands like topping up and delivery of magazines and rounds to soldiers, only to find his side of the forces constantly retreating, and being caught up in a life and death situation. Clearly not the hero he thinks he could be, he soon gets sent packing into a truck and again the North, under the leadership of Commander Park Mu-Rang (Cha Seung-Won), is triumphant and merciless in their taking of additional territory.

More set action sequences are to follow, and each are carefully crafted to reap maximum effect for the filmgoer as we root for the student soldiers as they stand their ground, and rely on their street smarts to come up with some form of defense system to protect their minuscule turf. While luck has them chancing upon caches of abandoned weapons, improvisation meant the welcoming of Molotov cocktails (still a weapon of choice for guerrilla styled riots), and various forms of gas/fuel+fire combination. Not being military strategists, the students are susceptible to the oldest trick in the book like ambushes, and each challenge they come up toward meant a reduction in their already pathetic numbers.

Perhaps it is their making of such naive mistakes that draw in on the harshness of war, where director Lee doesn't spare us much of the gory details from bursting wounds and machine gun fire from up close ripping up bodies. As the adage goes, don't die for your country but make the other bastard die for his. However this film depicts Koreans killing Koreans, so therein lies an opportunity to address some of this insanity why people ought to be killing their own comrades and countrymen, even having the North Korean commander at times exhibiting being a maverick willing to go against battle orders, albeit to satisfy his bruised ego that had been wounded by a bunch of students against his own troops.

There's no lack of drama and tension as well, brought on when Jung-Bum and Kap-Jo have to go head to head in order to earn each other's mutual respect, but before that the gangsters' shenanigans prove to be running against the grain of the student soldier's mission. For Jung-Bum, we witness how he matures from boy to man, while Kap-Jo learns about responsibility and what it means to be counted upon, in contrast to his selfish ways since the enemy is now real and right at their doorstep. Unfortunately while this film has 71 student soldiers split into two platoons, realistically you're not going to have to get to know all of them, so only these two fly the character development flag for the rest.

Well made with excellent production values and sets depicting the state of war affairs during the Korean War, 71: Into the Fire will go into my books as one of the best this year in its genre. Highly recommended, especially when viewed on the big screen!

Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Town

Ideas for the Next Hit?

The question on everyone's mind is whether Ben Affleck makes a better actor or a director? The Town is his second directorial effort after his excellent Gone Baby Gone, and in this one he also puts himself in front of the camera leading an ensemble cast which includes the likes of Rebecca Hall, Jon Hamm, The Hurt Locker's Jeremy Renner, Blake Lively, Chris Cooper and Pete Postlethwaite. Quite the power-packed cast in a riveting drama about a gang of robbers with three superbly shot action sequences that are as violent as they are vividly real.

I'm tied with this one, because Ben Affleck shows he's just as good as he is behind the camera as he is in front, delivery what I felt was one of his best performances undoubtedly lifted by playing off the wealth of talent at his disposal, that he had to up his game, and came through rather successfully. There's only a handful of contemporary films about bank robbers that stick and become memorable, in my books being Katherine Bigelow's Point Break and Michael Mann's Heat, and joining that small list will be The Town, with its high drama and high octane action sequences, both aspects not overshadowing each other, but complementing the entire narrative experience.

The titular town referred to is Charlestown, Boston, reputed to be armed robbery capital of the world, where this tale zooms in on the quartet of robbers James Coughlin (Renner), Albert Magloan (Slaine) and Desmond Elden (Owen Burke), led by de-facto general Doug MacRay (Affleck) who take their orders, direction and opportunities from another local gangster Fergus Colm (Postlethwaite) who fronts his shady background with a legitimate florist business. The film opens with a daring bank robbery where the team take Claire (Hall) the assistant manager hostage, only for Doug to unexpectedly fall in love with her and vice versa in time to come with what would be a twisted variation of the Stockholm Syndrome.

Based upon the book Prince of Thieves by Chuck Hogan, The Town has plenty of rich subplots such as the unquestionable yet unspoken love between the MacRay father (Chris Cooper) and son and the mystery behind the disappearance of their wife/mother, the camaraderie, brotherhood and loyalty issues between the robbers especially that between James and Doug since the latter has relations with the former's sister (Blake Lively) who demonstrates the extent of a woman scorned, and the biggest story here will be the love story between Doug and Claire, which propels much of the narrative since it plants a thought with Doug to deem it time to quit a life of crime.

I suppose a budding love life that potentially promises a lot more hope than one Doug is currently in, will make him think twice if it's time to go back on the path of righteousness. But like all gangsters, going down that right path always prove to be difficult, as the beneficiaries of his and his gang's exploits will want anything but their cash cow to stop producing milk. Threats get set up and we're left riveted in witnessing just how the largest scale heist the team had ever executed get underway. It's one thing wanting out, but another in being sucked right back in because of circumstances.

While I couldn't care too much about the romance between Doug and Claire which is hinged on dishonesty and secrets, it is the action sequences that made this film stand out. Unlike Takers which had over the top action and an infighting central to its theme, The Town boasts more violently realistic battle sequences between cops and robbers, and although only a handful of them, each are just as memorable and builds up in tension and adrenaline from the last, each with a little bit of throwback to Heat because of its gunfights down busy streets where countless of rounds from automatic weapons get randomly sprayed around, with really ugly outcomes. It doesn't glamourize violence, but shows it as is.

And Jeremy Renner once again stands out in the film as the highly volatile gangster who dishes out punishment without remorse, and his performance here is excellent par none. Besides Affleck's competent direction in pulling this film off, Renner is the live wire here that sets the film ticking, and I will for one be keen to follow what he does as a follow up to this, as with what Ben Affleck will be directing next. One of the best crime thrillers seen this year, so do yourself a favour not to miss this in cinemas right now.

The Social Network

Wow You've Got 10000000 Friends!

Who would have guessed that the next big thing that took the Internet, and the real world, by storm, would be the application that crafts our social network digitally for the online world to see. There's hardly a time I encounter anyone without a Facebook page, or are not actively updating it, unless of course you're stuck in a country that has barred access to it. It's a simple but brilliant idea translated which made the founders billions of dollars and propelling them into the elite club of the superrich, and David Fincher's The Social Network maps a dramatization of how the world's social network got created from the dorm rooms in Harvard University.

Based on the book by Ben Mezrich, Aaron Sorkin's screenplay doesn't bog us down with a mountain of details, choosing instead to focus on the sexier parts which kept the narrative moving at breakneck speed, beginning with the introduction of the socially inept Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) on a disastrous date – the irony of course that he'll be chief architect and co-founder of a social networking site – before heading back to his dorm room in a fit of anger and creating a site that melts the university's network while drunk, and gaining notoriety overnight. With the writing on the wall, Fincher paces this film with such velocity that you'll hardly ever realize that two hours had passed when we reach the obligatory closure titles that pepper a biography.

As with almost every biographical film it comes with a tinge of drama to spice things up, so it's obviously not wise to take this film like the bible word for word, but it does provide an excellent study into the nature of human friendships and business relationships, and how the two often come dangerously close to a collision that will make friends and/or partners fall out of favour with one another, especially since it is fairly easy to surmise that everyone has an opinion of how a company should be run in a post dot-com bubble burst – whether risks are to be taken in a giant leap of faith, or to go down the more traditional route of monetizing a site through ad revenue.

Fincher adopts a non-linear narrative for The Social Network, and you'll be forgiven if you find yourself a little bit disorientated in the beginning, since he throws you into the middle of not one but two lawsuits, one between Mark Zuckerberg and the Winklevoss brothers Cameron and Tyler (both played by Armie Hammer) who are adamant that the technology whizz had stolen their idea when they pitched it to him in the confines of their exclusive club, while the other is between once best friends and roommates Zuckerberg and Eduardo Saverin (Andrew Garfield, the new Peter Parker/Spiderman) in a relationship and friendship that had gone sour and communications between the two conducted with lawyers as intermediaries. But you'll find your balance soon enough as both narrative threads are equally compelling and engaging to sit through, and you'll begin to see the plenty of issues and challenges that always automatically come along when something or someone becomes successful, otherwise who would bother at all?

As if that is not engaging enough, the introduction of Napster founder Sean Parker (Justin Timberlake) spices things a lot more, as he seduces Mark easily since they talk on a technological level, leaving Eduardo a lot more cautious because of Sean's shady background with drugs and his womanizing ways. But of course if someone brings funding and expertise and know-how for having been there and done that, as well as experience in navigating the tough business waters, then perhaps Sean's deemed as the necessary evil to bring Facebook forward, having to contribute to workable, iconic ideas even, off the cuff.

While Jesse Eisenberg is spot on in his portrayal of a highly intelligent geek with a problematic EQ and as someone who doesn't mince his words, and Andrew Garfield being quite suave as the business economics undergraduate who cannot believe their collective success that skyrockets their popularity and a groupie following, it is Justin Timberlake (who would have thought) as the relatively sleazy Sean Parker who steals the show with his anecdotes, having some of the best lines in the show and being the quasi-villain that the story lacked in the driving of a wedge between two best friends in the dogged quest to have something to do with what he sees as potentially the next big thing in the world. As he will attest to, great ideas somehow have their connections stem back from the female of the species, and here there's no lack of that reference, and truly the film comes alive with the Mark-Eduardo-Sean axis of characters coming together that has trust issues, business and personal friendships all put on the line.

One thing about David Fincher's filmography thus far is his aptitude to tell stories that are dark in nature, epic and biographical. The Social Network has all these rolled into one, with a story about one of the world's most popular website, and the ugliness of how a business relationship can sour genuine friendship into nothing more than a bitter aftertaste. It doesn't pass judgement on its characters, but allows you to form your own conclusions. Definitely one of the best and engaging films of the year, perhaps also because it's something easy to identify with, and based upon a pop cultural tool that's still, I believe, yet to achieve its peak. A must watch!

You Again

Keen Competition

Imagine your worst enemy who had tormented you for at least four years, on the verge of becoming an in-law family member through a marriage. You Again is a comedy that explores just that, where Kristin Bell's Marni, who had spent her entire high school life under the bullying radar of Joanna (Odette Yustman, last seen here in films like The Unborn and Cloverfield), realizes her one time nemesis is poised to become her sister-in-law. So the question now is, do you intervene at this juncture to throw the wedding off by telling everyone what a mean person she is, or do you adopt the forgive and forget approach?

As humans, the latter is always a challenge, and the former opportunity just too great to pass up, now being in the position to memorably derail someone else's marriage plans, even if it means having to unintentionally hurt one's family member (Marni's brother Will, played by James Wolk) as a collateral. It's revenge of the nerd, bitchy cat-fight style, made worse when one doesn't acknowledge the past in the hopes of starting a relationship afresh, which is not what the other party would desire, setting up a series of sequences that are played out for laughs, even though they are as predictable as they come in making life miserable for others.

But it's the idea and the thought behind the film that seems a little bit more interesting, as it's really quite relatable since in life we do step on the toes of others, as do others on ours as well. It's what you do with being emotionally terrorized that matters, and the best effect is to turn that into positive energy to transform oneself for the better, rather than to keep on regretting and wanting to right the wrongs, but not sure how to go about doing so. The advice of course is to champion oneself to be better rather than to focus on destroying the other party and before you know it, you become what and who you despise.

The highlight of the show turned out to be the veterans who demonstrate that age is no factor when it comes to having fun. The likes of Betty White, Jamie Lee Curtis and Sigourney Weaver lend gravitas to the young adult leads of Bell and Yustman, and I wonder if the careers of the latter will be as promising to live up to that of the former few. Of note is the pairing and rivalry of Jamie Lee Curtis' Gail, Marni's mum, and Sigourney Weaver's Ramona, Joanna's aunt, that states the inter-family rivalry goes beyond one generation, and in true Romeo and Juliet fashion, the coming together of two families bring on some complications which provide an avenue for comedy as each pair want to go one up against the other.

Director Andy Fickman, who has helmed a series of family friendly films for Disney such as The Game Plan and Race to Witch Mountain, continues his services here for Disney and I suppose his being chummy with Dwayne The Rock Johnson meant the one time wrestler has got to appear somewhere in the film, even as a cameo, and cranks up a surprise appearance of a singing duo toward the end which by Hollywood standards is what's expected of a comedy.

The Child's Eye 3D (Tung Ngaan / 童眼)

We Can See Ghosts

The Pang Brothers Oxide and Danny have never shied away from the employment of technology for their films, and their works such as Recycle and The Storm Warriors are clear testament to that. With 3D technology making headway in cinemas and translating directly to higher box office grosses, it's without a doubt that the writing-directing duo's next film would be in 3D, employed in what I thought was a rather safe approach in applying it to their ongoing The Eye franchise which has probably built up a fan base.

With starlets such as Anjelica Lee, Kate Yeung, Isabella Leong and Shu Qi becoming the scream queens of the earlier installments, the Pang Brothers turn to current Taiwanese pop princess Rainie Yang to carry the film on her lithe shoulders, with the support of Hong Kong cast members such as Shawn Yue playing Lok the boyfriend of Rainie's character of the same name, Elanne Kwong who's dolled up pretty much like Rainie with her shoulder length hair playing Rainie's best pal Ling, Ciwi Lam as Ciwi (note the laziness here) the third female member of the group whom with their respective boyfriends Hei (Izz Xu) and Rex (Rex Ho), find themselves stuck in the middle of a Bangkok protest which had led to the closure of the airport. How's that for some art mimicking life, with the film shot in and post produced in some aspects by Thai folks, the country in which the Pang Brothers started out in with Bangkok Dangerous.

Stranded, a cab driver brings the three couples to a run down motel for accommodation while waiting for the demonstrations to come to an end, but the owner of the place (played by a scruffy looking Lam Kar Tung) harbours some deep dark secret which forms the basis of the spookfest, as well as owning a motel that is ripe for a scary, mazy exploration. Also, like Paranormal Activity 2, there are kids and animals (in this case also a dog which actually features quite prominently in the film as a ghost tracker) who many believe are more susceptible to actually experiencing and seeing ghouls and goblins, and hence the title which plays on this with a nicely designed “3D” words built into the Chinese character design.

Thankfully the 3D effects go beyond just the subtitles, and is more than worthy of its 3D tag since it has some incredible 3D design and sequences crafted in mind to maximize and exploit the technology, aside from an extremely rich depth of field in almost every frame. Sure there are some tools of the scary trade that have been one of the most overused props such as the moving chair (PA2, Haunted Changi and now this), and the sudden flights and movements that fly right into your face, although with 3D, the latter gets to ramp up its scare factor by many notches up. Trust me it's hard not to flinch a little and I tip my hats to a job well done, besides successfully combining CG to bring about at least 2 notable scenes boasting a scary, creepy atmosphere.

Rainie Yang doesn't fare too bad as the resident scream queen in this film, although her character isn't one who will sit back and relax, or turn out to be the damsel in distress exercising her vocal chords. Her character is quite the tough cookie in wanting to get down to the bottom of the mystery, and quite the determined friend to want to rescue her buddies as compared to the other girlie girls, except that her sweetie pie image sometimes get in the way to provide that tinge of disbelief that someone like her will actually dig down and get her hands dirty.

It's a simple story built upon one of the Asian urban legends about how pregnant women should watch for their behaviour, and should they exhibit an unkind intent some karmic retribution will be at play and the outcome passed on to their unborn child. Here it takes it quite literally when cooking up the basis of which the ghouls existed, although from a more personal heresy this does hold some water, and that's essentially what creeps me out more than what the film had put out.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Paranormal Activity 2

Who's There?

One profitable turn deserves another. I believe almost everyone will have balked at the return of investment for the first Paranormal Activity (PA) film, which continues to build upon the recent trend of films seen from the first person perspective by way of a video camera. So confident about the prospects of this film being able to spawn an ongoing franchise (hey, Saw managed 7) that Paranormal Activity 2 was announced shortly after the first film was released into cinemas.

So let's cut to the chase and get to the point - is this film any good? I continue to state that films like this one are an acquired taste. If you do not appreciate films from the first perspective, or are constantly annoyed at plot loopholes that stem from the use of a camera, then this film is not for you, as with any other film of any genre employing the same storytelling technique. Otherwise this is a film that requires you to have watched the first in order to maximize your enjoyment because it makes references to, and ties in intricately with the first, without which you'll be questioning who's who, and the significance of things that can be innocuous if seen by itself.

Writer-director Oren Peli who created the original film takes a backseat here as producer, handing over the directing reins to Tod Williams and writing responsibility to Michael R. Perry. While the first film focused on only one camera with most things happening when the audience is fixated as bedroom voyeurs, here we have more cameras thanks to the introduction of a baby and a series of house break-ins, which give reason for more vantage points to be set up by way of strategically located CCTV and nanny cams, and thus a larger stage set up with various situations to spook, but not quite. Filmmakers can attest to difficulties when it comes to handling either animals or children in films, but Williams prove that both can share the same frame together, and I suspect a lot must have gone into coaxing what the end result was, perhaps with a little help from the CG department.

Michael R. Perry's story though sums up this prequel-sequel (sprequel?) nicely, building upon and expanding the world of PA. The first film posed a number of questions, some of which get addressed here, but in turn builds upon what's known thus far to create more unknowns through the narrative, which is more "talky" since there are a handful of scenes involving a HD camera bought by the family to document baby Hunter's growth, now used to document the strange apparitions that happen more frequently as the story wore on. Some scenes involve switching the camera on during a conversation (yeah, perhaps the social-media aware teenager of today will require everything to be made available and put online), and the constant refusal of the father figure to look at evidence will stretch believability just a tad bit

The spook factor gets considerably dumbed down from the first outing, though making the same impact as the filmmakers went all out to shock you out of complacency as you think by darting your eyes around the screen trying to pick up clues or signs would mean you can keep a step ahead. Some tactics like the moving door get repeated, but only so because as I mentioned, there's an intricate link between the two films. Here we follow the Dey family of four - Dad Daniel, Mum Kristi who is the sister of the first film's Katie, and kids Ali the teenager and Hunter the toddler, where Perry's story provides the backstory, some opening doors for another prequel, while providing closure from PA.

Will there be another Paranormal Activity film? I don't see why not, since the seeds already got sown with more fruits to be harvested by future filmmakers who may want to come on board and stem their mark in providing a fresh perspective to the now mature storytelling technique. If the basis of the film continues to be that of putting oneself into the shoes of an investigator (as how I will approach this) sieving through tons of archived material just to piece together and reverse engineer the source of all that have happened, PA will grow its own fanbase (if not already) and probably develop into a franchise to be reckoned with.

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest (Luftslottet Som Sprängdes)

Say Your Prayers

Noomi Rapace has The Millennium Trilogy by the late Stieg Larsson to thank for in propelling her to stardom the world around, where she's synonymous with her character Lisbeth Salander, the eccentric female hacker who sports a large mean looking dragon tattoo on her back. The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest completes the film trilogy, and is the concluding episode from what had started out in the second installment The Girl Who Played with Fire. For those who have not watched the middle film, my advice is to do so before you embark on this because it leads directly from the cliffhanger ending, with characters and plot situations that are intricately linked.

Being the final film, it is a fitting wrap to what was started, although it didn't go out with a big bang, but a slight whimper to a character whom we associate with strength and sheer determination. There's a three act structure to the finale, where the first focuses on Lisbeth's rehabilitation from her injuries sustained in the previous film, then shifting to the preparation of an impending court case where her freedom is put on the line given the forces that be who are adamant in keeping her in an institution, followed by the court hearing itself. Yes you read that right, except that the proceedings in court doesn't throw up any surprises, not discuss something that the audience don't already know.

Which is what resulted in the finale being a little bit flat. One normally associates courtroom dramas with lawyer treachery and trickery, and the whole "Object/Sustain!" repertoire that makes for an engaging verbal tussle where truth gets buried under the fabrication of lies, and you'd wait for that one moment of brilliance where tables get turned. While there's this precise turning point in the film, perhaps it's because as an audience we're already aware of the truth and what's already hidden up the characters' sleeves that took away some of the shine from the "surprise" unbeknownst to the opposition, that it became more of an exercise in necessity just waiting to happen.

The other half of the dynamic duo Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist) also didn't have much to do other than to work on his new Millennium issue dedicated to tell the truth about Lisbeth, in hope that it will bring a positive outcome at the end of it all. While largely absent in the second film, the third continues this absence in part due to the focus shifting to the entire support group assisting Lisbeth from behind the scenes, which in some ways demonstrates that she's not quite alone in this world as she would like to think she is. From Annika (Annika Hallin) her defense lawyer to Plague (Tomas Kohler) her hacker friend, everyone gets significant screen time to beef up their characters.

What made The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo extremely compelling is the coming together of two skilled opposites to solve a long time mystery, while getting themselves embroiled against some really sick enemies. Here the opponents are more cerebral and aged, save for one hulking blondie from the middle film who does not feel pain and shares a link with Lisbeth, who but spends most of his time in the shadows and good for a handful of scenes just to up the action quotient. Again both leading characters spend too much time apart, and their chemistry from working together, the highlight of the first film, still continues to be sorely missed.

It's the much anticipated finality being achieved in wrapping up this franchise, that all's that's left is to wait for David Fincher's version to see how it compares to the first film. There's nothing much left to be revealed in the final installment other than to define Lisbeth Salander's background a little bit more and to explain why she's so hunted by her enemies, If anything, the cast continues their top notch fleshing out of Stieg Larsson's characters, with Noomi Rapace leading the pack in the promise of her potential outside of this franchise.

The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet's Nest opens in cinemas this Thursday!

Monday, October 18, 2010

Piranha 3D


Alexandre Aja is fast becoming the director to go to should anyone in Hollywood decide to remake a horror film from the past. He's done The Hills Have Eyes, followed by Mirrors, and then now bringing to fruition a Piranha film in 3D no less, since the only unique selling point possible in having this, or projects of such nature green lit, is if the studios buy in to the 3D hype.

You know the drill, where a solid story actually takes a backseat just so that enough gets created to bring on the killer fishes in B-movie fashion, where violence and gore are of the order, and gratuitous amounts of tits and asses (how else can you explain the wet T-shirt contest with a playful Eli Roth, or an underwater naked lesbian ballet?) are staple at every opportunity, what with a Wild Wild Girls video production cast and crew written into the story. The excuse given here in the small lakeside town of Lake Victoria is a seismic incident that causes a rift to be opened up, and who knows that buried beneath a cavern for some 2000 years lie some thousands of pre-historic piranhas which have grown meaner through cannibalism.

Slap together an ensemble of caricatures, plus hundreds of partying, beach bumming, summer holidaying teenagers and you have a movie in the spirit of Snakes on a Plane as they get decimated by piranhas one and a time until the entire floodgates in the last act. Aja learns from how Jaws, and other sea-faring monster films build up suspense with plenty of moving legs underwater and the first-fish perspective, enhanced by CG which for the most parts have the piranhas look convincing as mean beasts you wouldn't want to touch with a ten foot pole - they're really ugly critters that you'd just want them destroyed even if it meant upsetting the eco-system. Hunting in packs also upped the danger quotient, as they're small, fast and extremely agile to be taken out by precision weapons.

3D effect wise, there were enough opportunities designed to exploit the 3D effect presentation, and this may make for a nauseating outing given the attention to detail when the filmmakers have to creatively come out with hundreds of death-by-piranha scenes, where body parts get nibbled at and chewed off, or through the soaking in blood stained waters meant they peel off. Fans of gore will have a field day in this as I can't recall any other mainstream film that featured a variety of limb designed, fully or half eaten, ever assembled for the screen, and death through some of the cruelest of methods as well, one which stood out to highlight the selfishness stemming from the instinct to survive.

Part of the fun the ensemble veteran cast assembled for the film, such as Richard Dreyfuss to bring forth the very first action scene involving a whirlpool, Elizabeth Shue starring as the town's Sheriff, Ving Rhames as her trusty, beefy deputy, Christopher Llyod as what else, an eccentric scientist, Dina Meyer and even director Eli Roth lending a cameo here. But don't expect anything cerebral to be coming out of this. It's a wickedly fun romp that loads up on the gore factor if anything, and largely forgettable once you laugh at how certain scenes were incredibly far-fetched.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

[DVD] 3 Idiots (2009)

The largest Indian blockbuster from last year and of all time until Salman Khan's Dabangg came along, 3 Idiots the DVD edition was a long wait of almost 9 months, but it was well worth the wait as it came features-packed in collectible box containing bonus materials such as a sticker book containing writeups from Producer Vidhu Vinod Chopra, Director Rajkumar Hirani and lead Actor Aamir Khan, and a thick Idioticomic which is actually a photo book consisting of stills from the film which make up the story from start to end.

You can read my review of 3 Idiots here.

The Region Free Special Premium Pack from Reliance Big Home Video consists of 2 DVDs in addition to the booklets mentioned, where the first disc is the movie proper, and the second containing the Making of the Film.

Disc One is presents the film in a gorgeous anamorphic widescreen transfer and audio is available in either Hindi 5.1 Dolby Digital, or 2.0 Stereo. Subtitle is in English only, and scene selection splits this close to 3 hour film into 26 chapters. As is staple in all Hindi DVD releases, there is a Songs Section that allows you to replay (with a play all function) all your favourite musical hits from the film. Here you can choose from Benti Nawa Sa Tha Woh (2:24), Give Me Some Sunshine (1:07), my personal favourite Aal Izz Well (3:53) which ends morbidly, the fun number Zoobi Doobi (4:05) and Jaane Nani Denge (5:47).

The only other extra in Disc One is the Director's Commentary which is predominantly in English, where Rajkumar Hirani confesses to this being his first ever DVD commentary, but does an excellent job in talking almost continuously for the duration of the film to share technical know how (good for budding filmmakers out there), inside stories, production secrets, memories and personal anecdotes and the philosophy behind 3 Idiots. It's packed with so much information that it makes it worthwhile just sitting through listening to him, and he does have a surprise revelation for actor Omi Vaidya at the end.

Disc 2 contains the Making of the Film which is presented in letterbox format with no subtitles, but thankfully most of the audio here is in English. It's a standard making of feature with cast and crew interviews and behind the scenes look that is split into 15 sections that you can choose individually, or select the play all function.

1. Idiots in Ladakh (9:48)
While we have our breaths taken away by the picture postcard perfect landscape, it was quite the pain to be shooting some 15100 ft up high in the mountainous regions battling the lack of oxygen and bad weather. This clip recounts the difficulties and challenges faced by cast and crew under freezing conditions. Who says filmmaking is easy?

2. Ghajini Se Idiot Tak (5:07)
Ghajini was Aamir Khan's hit film the previous year, and this chronicles how Aamir had to do away with his buffed physique to take on the role as an idiotic student with bright ideas. You can watch the effort required to become the Hulk from the Ghajini DVD special features, and here it talks about the approach to make Aamir look convincing as a man 20 years younger.

3. Making of Miss Idiot (3:04)
See how Kareena transforms from glamour puss to a plain Jane role, with plenty of costuming and designing of her physical make up, with plenty of experimentation that went on to get the perfect look.

4. Khaduus Idiot (3:42)
And now it is actor Boman Irani's turn in the character design of his Viru Sahastrabudhhe the director of ICE, from the design of the physical look of the character, to the perfecting of the character's lisping. I must admit the makeup here really makes Boman quite unrecognizable when in character.

5. Finding Chatur (3:37)
The auditioning clips of a myriad of actors all trying out for the role of Chatur the Silencer, which eventually when to Omi Vaidya, who does such a great job as the comical, kiasu student that everyone loves to hate. See Omi Vaidya's audition tape, which makes him an accidental comic, with a role that's eventually written for him. The rest, as they say, is history!

6. Pants Down (2:40)
The making of the ragging scene which was actually set in an actual Girls Hostel!! Who would have thought the real ragging actually is backstage with the costumers handing out really ridiculous underwear to the cast members.

7. Aal Izz Well (2:53)
One of two music videos that got their making-of documented in this DVD. The filmmakers found a school teacher to choreograph this fun piece, instead of opting for the usual dance choreographer to come up with a polished, filmic dance number. Aal Izz Well indeed!

8. 100% Idiots (4:19)
For a scene that involves their characters getting drunk, actors Aamir Khan, Madhavan and Sharman Joshi actually did what their characters did, just to really get themselves into the mood for the scene, and the difficulties that came because the performances became more ad-libbed. The crew realized they were running short of film stock given their repeated takes, and an incredible SOS that took place so as not to lose the moment created.

9. Innovative Idiots (2:34)
The many inventions seen in the film gets a showcase of its own here, such as the quadrotor helicopter, the scooter mill, and the sheep shearer.

10. Zoobi Doobi (2:41)
The other music video that has its making of documented on this DVD, where director Rajkumar Hirani explains what he's trying to achieve here, which you would have learnt that this was shelved until the end because he had little clue on how to film it. One can consider the pressure because this music video marks the very first ever romantic song that brings together two of Indian cinema's biggest stars in Aamir Khan and Kareena Kapoor.

11. Aamir - "The Pucca Idiot" (7:14)
Who would have thought a cricket match on campus could have been organized between the various production crew teams? You can count of Aamir as the ring leader and organizer of this tournament, and this section serves as a videolog of this group activity in between production schedules.

12. "Bike" (1:31)
Kareena can't ride a scooter and has an inane fear of it! 'Nuff said!

13. "Idiots on Campus" (5:03)
A suitable looking college has to be chosen, and the decision was made to use the India Institute of Management Bangalore, and this serves as a video presentation of the interior, about the stay and life on campus, and how it was living there during production.

14. Bloopers (3:26)
This section is extremely hilarious with the plenty of on set planls, especially when you get to see the equivalent of a human hamster! You got to see it to believe!

15. Photo Album (14:10)
This is actually a slideshow presentation, with polaroid snapshot descriptions and plenty of behind the scenes, character look creations, and a look at the plenty of public lecture classes set against music from the film.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

The American


Fans of George Clooney will probably rejoice here, because the film is essentially a one man show with plenty of closeups of their idol, with bonuses as he trades his shirt for tacky looking tattoos and a relatively muscular and toned upper body physique. He may have gotten on in years, but I must admit with some embarrassment his standard push ups make me look bad.

Clooney's Jack/Edward is a professional hitman, and the film opens with him hiding in Sweden apparently leading a new life of peace, until one day his enemies come hunting him down, and he realizes he's no longer safe. Escaping to Italy and getting in touch with his handler (Johan Leysen), he made the decision to stay in a small town, and with plenty of time to burn, contracts a job in manufacturing a sub machine gun capacity into a rifle capability, and the start of a relationship with a prostitute Clara (Violante Placido) and a friendship with a priest Father Benedetto (Paolo Bonacelli).

But life for Jack/Edward is a living hell on earth. You can imagine the occupational hazards creeping up in real life for a hitman, with the tremendous mistrust of everyone around you, constantly looking over your shoulder, jumping at shadows and the slightest of sounds in the dark, and always packing a weapon nearby just in case. The search of peace becomes paramount especially when you want out, and this is something of a prized commodity.

Be warned, this is as close to an arthouse action film as can be, especially if you cannot stand quiet moments when nothing happens, with scenes that seem to be cyclic in nature involving phone booths, construction of a rifle, and sex. And this cyclic sequence works to a certain degree because an unassuming life, the peace and quiet, and the need to be alone and at ease is something Jack/Edward craves, and which director Anton Corbijn translates effectively to the screen. Based on a novel by Martin Booth, Corbijn paints a picturesque possibility of hope for Jack/Edward which Italy undoubtedly provides through the misc-en-scene, but as with all hitmen, this is nothing but a futile dream that is hardly attainable.

Don't expect plenty of action in The American, which is what everyone in town calls Jack/Edward because he's sticking out like a sore thumb in a small community, but Corbijn makes up for the limited action through the crafting of incredibly tense, edge of your seat moments which accentuates the air of fear constantly surrounding Clooney's character. And Clooney is definitely in top form in the portrayal of this role, that he single handedly makes the film an engaging one to sit through as we become eager to witness his pursuit of something difficult to attain, which will require him to drop everything when biding time contemplating retirement.

The American reminds me of the French comedy Hallelujah!, but minus any comedic moments. Measured in pace, peppered by beautiful shots and landscapes and with an American star in a muted lead role, this definitely is an acquired taste that goes against the grain of any typical hitman film.



Takers is a heist film that's pretty much the same as other heist films, where there's plenty of room for loud action, camaraderie, the elaborate planning stage, and how Murphy's Law enters to screw everything up. This film has it all which makes it pretty average. but there were moments which stood out and made it noteworthy, and hey, an ensemble cast (even if for a few scenes only) with the likes of Paul Walker, Hayden Christensen, Matt Dillon, Jay Hernandez, Idirs Elba, Zoe Saldana and the notorious Chris Brown doesn't hurt either.

The thieving bunch here comprises of a close knit group of brothers real and sworn who take a year to plan their large heists, in part to have some time off to allow for their latest escapade to cool off and fade off from the police's radar, to spend their ill gotten dough and of course, to allow for the meticulous planning of their next hit. They follow a strict regime of communication and the reliance of unique skills they bring to the table, and we see how that all come together in concert with their money making objectives. They don't kill unless necessary, and they don't see themselves as desperate robbers. They're above that - they take.

Director John Luessenhop slaps together scenes that tried to go beyond just a simple heist film, and dwells at length to the background of these characters, where we have one who's about to get married, and another grappling with his sister's drug rehabilitation. Even the token cops in the film doesn't get spared, with the story squeezing some time out to showcase how dogged Matt Dillon's Jack Welles is to his job at the expense of previous quality time with his daughter. In fact I don't see how the cops' stories are that compelling to be included in Takers other than to highlight that the world isn't made out to be black and white, but always with that constant opportunity for grey. Given the way the cops' story and subplot got resolved, it could have been totally eliminated and yet there'll still be plenty left in the tank for the film to entertain, since they don't add much to the plot.

The film really picked up past the halfway mark where their new heist proper gets put into action, courtesy of a plan from one of the team's past buddies Ghost (T.I.) whose multi-million dollar proposition involving an armoured truck and pulling off the equivalent of The Italian Job in the tunnels of Los Angeles is too much to handle, that the team chucks their one year per job mantra out the window for that once in a lifetime opportunity. Which spells trouble of course, beginning with a nail-biting build up right down to the ending. Despite being riddled with cliches and plot conveniences at times, or even gaping loopholes that stick out like a sore thumb, such as creating such a prolonged ruckus in a hotel room/floor that the police couldn't arrive on time until the action was over.

Don't get me wrong, the extended shootout was one of my favourite scenes in the film given director Luessenhop's flair in crafting it out and injecting something fresh in the presentation. For the most parts the story (with a total of 4 writers involved) made it out for the team to seem to be on the losing end, and having to execute their exit plans fast, only for some other incident to drop in unexpectedly and derail those plans, testing their resolve and their honour amongst thieves. There's the classic Mexican stand-off moment too ala John Woo and Johnnie To involving both sides of the fence that got resolved pretty quickly, unfortunately, devoid of meaningful suspense.

Still, Takers still had its essential ingredient that fuels average B-grade Hollywood action films, so if you're ready for a compromise of a plot that will stretch what's believable and that of the actors constantly swaggering around, this is for that action junkie in you.

Kamui (カムイ 外伝 / Kamui Gaiden)

Raging Swordsman

A tight schedule meant missing out on this at TIFFCOM last year, but I suppose the strength of popular Japanese actor Ken'ichi Matsuyama's name alone meant that it had a good chance of making it back to Singapore, and the full house this afternoon is just testament of that. Being the chameleon, Matsuyama makes quite an impression as the titular Fugitive Ninja who yearns for the freedom of his dream, but gets continuous hunted down by enemies who want a piece of him. So goes the martial arts world, where the only rule is to kill or be killed.

I haven't read the manga by Sampei Shirato on which Kamui is based on, but that shouldn't deter anyone game for a ninja flick. However, this is not like any conventional ninja film that I've grown accustomed to, and one of the prime reasons is that the exponents skilled in the art of ninjitsu don't wear black (just like how cliche it is when gangsters have to be decked out in black tie), but are decked in a variety of fancy garb that is functional to hide a multitude of weapons. For the uninitiated like me, you'll get the lowdown on our hero's origins through a series of battles which also serve to showcase his signature skills like Mist Kill, so that will bring you up to speed on things, and whet your appetite for more conflicts to come so that Kamui gets a reason to unsheathe his sword.

The story however turns out to be quite episodic in nature, since Kamui has the legs for an extended franchise of films, and this one being but a snapshot of his life on the run. It's extremely miserable because there is nobody Kamui can trust, and whenever he gets comfortable with someone, they fall to their demise, like a curse that he and his loved one cannot escape from. Such is the nature of this story, making him quite the cynic with a profound taste of mistrust toward anyone, being on the run in both literal and figurative terms. But an encounter with a fisherman Hanbei (Kaoru Kobayashi) who had just chopped off the leg of a horse belonging to a nobleman (see if you can spot Anna Tsuchiya from Sakuran in a role without dialogue!) brings Kamui to Henta's fishermen village, and here he meets an enemy from the past (played by Koyuki of The Last Samurai fame, and last seen in Blood the Last Vampire) and a potential to change his life for the better through a loved one in Sayaka (Suzuka Ohgo), Henta's daughter.

With a runtime of two hours, the story admittedly does get a little bloated as we explore the themes of family and that sense of belonging, before it picks up through the introduction of a group of pirates led by Fudo (Hideaki Ito). For some reason there's this very violent attitude and nature toward animals in the film, and although everything is vividly CG-ed with incredible detail, shark lovers may be up in arms over how they get violently depicted (think Jaws with more murderous intent), and then callously dispatched through dismemberment and bludgeoning to the skull. That aside, humans too get killed in quite graphic methods since everyone kills without remorse as a means to survive.

Thankfully the fight action choreography is top notch. For those tired of quick cuts and edits, or angles that get just too close for comfort and clarity, the techniques here, although spruced up with some wirework and CG, satisfies in abundance. Sensible angles and camerawork allow you to witness battles as if you get ring side seats, and the action gets progressively better, culminating in the final showdown between Kamui and his chief enemy here (no, I won't reveal who), which is a delight to watch, and frankly, I'd watch this show again just to partake in another round of the beautifully designed final fight.

Ekin Cheng has a bit role here, although I'm not quite sure what value he adds to the story since he didn't actually get to see much action, other than to assure audiences that he'll probably get more screen time should a follow up film be made. A passable story that I think its manga followers will get a kick out of, with outstanding CG work to bring to life a period world with fantastic pugilists.
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