Saturday, December 31, 2011

Top 5 Duds of 2011

And they are, in alphabetical order:
- 23:59
- Aku Tak Bodoh
- Beastly
- Legendary Amazons (楊門女將之軍令如山 / Yang Men Nu Jiang Zhi Jun Ling Ru Shan)
- The Ultimate Winner (赢家 / Ying Jia)

5 of the worst this year, that shameful waste of celluloid that had the audacity to be screened to paying audiences anywhere around the world, and to think that 3/5 belonged to our sunny little island. Are we facing a dearth of ideas, or are we reaching a saturation point where local films no longer are of respectable quality, and that anything goes so long as they can try to make a quick buck at the box office?

23:59 by Gilbert Chan was riddled with horror film cliches and complete disregard to army protocols despite it being touted as an army horror story, with weak scares generated and would have found a proper place should it be rebranded as an accidental comedy. How it made more than a million dollars is plain baffling. Lee Nanxing's The Ultimate Winner was so overtly preaching religion, with its television qualities just being overwhelming, that it became a turnoff even without its illogical plot making things worst. Pure laziness was seen in Aku Tak Bodoh which adapted lock, stock and barrel from Jack Neo's I Not Stupid Too, down to the dated jokes. Neo's protege Boris Boo could have worked harder on this, but is developing a knack for making cinematic flops. Whether he completes a hat-trick with another bottom 10 entry in 2012 remains to be seen, but my money's on it.

Big names do not guarantee success as well. Legendary Amazons that had the likes of veterans Cheng Pei Pei, Kathy Chow and heralded the return of Cecelia Cheung was funny, then you realize it was supposed to be all serious, and with Jackie Chan's producing cred, you'd half expect him to come up with some money to complete all the raw CG effects, and to have proper location shoots than to film fight scenes under multiple spotlights in a soundstage. Then there's Beastly being the ultimate stinker as it proudly tells the story of an arrogant prick in what would be a modern update to a fairy tale.

All these films should be avoided with a ten foot pole, but if you're up for some comedy and post-screening bitching session, then by all means pick up any of these films to do just that. If you'd like to see the expanded list of 10 Duds of 2011, then head on down to by clicking on the logo below.


Top 10 of 2011

The customary Top 10 list of my favourite films of the year, and it's no easy task to pluck the crème de la crème from a pool of 319 theatrical and festival releases watched this year. So here are 10% of the best, split between the honorary 10 where music and nostalgia seem to be the theme of 2011, and the meritorious 20 that had a crack at the top. In alphabetical order, the Top 10 are:

13 Assassins (十三人の刺客 / Juusan-nin No Shikaku)

Takeshi Miike has dabbled with a vast genre of films, some bordering on the weird, but his 13 Assassins is as accessible as can be, telling the story of 13 heroic samurai who have to band together with a common objective to rid an evil Samurai lord from his existence of Earth. And Miike pits you against that evilness itself through painting a picture of something so vile, you'll celebrate when the right heads roll. Carefully crafting the swordsmanship and the abilities of each of the Assassin, and designing to play out like a heist film, this is one film you'll not want to miss.


Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of the best actors of his generation, and Seth Rogen play best of pals who have to cope with the possibility of death through cancer, an invisible enemy who strikes fear, doom and gloom on those it inflicts. Balancing comedy with solid drama about life, death, love and friendship, it also stars Bryce Dallas Howard as such a bitch of a character (and in another turn as the scheming villainess in The Help) that it reminds you of those who will withdraw when one runs into difficulties. Very true to life indeed, as friends will reveal themselves to be those who deserve to be called that, or otherwise. The eclectic soundtrack also helped.

The Artist

Silence is golden, and The Artist is primed for awards season with that trip down memory lane. Michel Hazanavicius makes an ode to silent cinema, and to do that isn't an easy feat requiring the delicate skills not to alienate modern audiences weaned on sound and colour. The film singlehandedly tells us what makes films great, and how fame is as fleeting as can be, while painting a pseudo-historical look at the development of the film industry during the time centered around the Great Depression.


Evolution! followed by mean guitar riffs, banging of the drums and powerful bass. It didn't hurt when Yukihiko Tsutsumi had to rely on a gimmick to creatively overcome the primary lead's lack of English proficiency, since it was something that worked wonderfully. No music no life, and Beck tells the story of a rock band wannabe that's to do battle with engineered pop, you know, those that rely on mass choreography, pretty faces, and voices that require digitized tweaking. It's the quintessential zero to hero story done right, one that I'm almost always a sucker for.


I haven't thought much of Ryan Gosling's performance until two films, released almost back to back here, shook me and demanded my attention. I have to admit now that besides Gordon-Levitt, Ryan Gosling is one of the stars to watch, as he conquers with his brooding race car driver character here forced into doing a lot of nasties to protect the ones he loves. Ultra cool with that uber Euro-chic feel, Nicolas Winding Refn's film begins so deliciously quiet, before building itself with a romantic core with Carey Mulligan as a love interest, then finally exploding into life. Crime does not pay, but when you mess with the wrong guy, don't be surprised when he comes to collect his share of dividends with interest.

The Ides of March

And Ryan Gosling compensates his lack of talk in Drive with The Ides of March, as he plays a relatively green political campaigner up against the seasoned likes of his mentor and adversaries. Surrounded by a brilliant cast of Paul Giamatti, Philip Seymour Hoffman, George Clooney, Jeffrey Wright, Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood, Gosling shows that he's a one man tour de force in this political thriller where the stakes are high in a fight for political survival, with trips, crosses and double crosses part of the arsenal required, including a scheming mind where information is currency and knowledge is power.

Ignore All Detour Signs

Of all the local films released this year, it is this documentary about the band I Am David Sparkle, that had the most heart and sincerity in story telling, with the filmmakers getting under the skin of the band in their quest to make their invitation to SXSW become a reality. Many obstacles get in their way from logistics to legislation even, but its title serves a reminder to everyone of us of the need of perseverance when it comes to fulfilling one's dreams. And this is how they did it, despite stacked odds sometimes beyond their control. And the music, is pure nectar to the ears.

Margin Call

If you ever wanted to be a fly on the wall of one of the biggest financial institutions at the cusp of the collapse of the financial industry in recent years, then Margin Call, the brilliant debut feature film of J.C. Chandor, will be your ticket to do just that. The powerful cast alone with the likes of Jeremy Irons, Kevin Spacey, Stanley Tucci, Paul Bettany and Zachary Quinto with his unmistakable thick eyebrows, is worth the price of an admission ticket, as you'll be kept riveted over events that will unravel in less than 24 hours, where the new financial mantra of "Be First, Be Smarter, or Cheat" sounds so much sexier and doable, than just "Greed is Good". We now have a new defining film taking over Wall Street as the movie about Wall Street., and Margin Call is it. No real heroes or villains here, only capitalists out to ensure the safety of their rump.

SuckSeed: Huay Khan Thep (SuckSeed ห่วยขั้นเทพ)

You'll see a number of films above that has music play a big part in them, but what about a band that doesn't have what it takes to be a band? Why that's not stopping this bunch of rag tag students from forming their own in what I deem as Thai production house GTH's movie of the year. New director Chayanop Boonprakob paints a wacky quirky picture that features Thai bands, themes of friendship and romance, and piled up loads of comedy, that it's difficult not to enjoy a story about a band that sucks. And watch out for actor Pachara Chirathivat who is poised to become a major movie star, showing off his perfect comedic timing here that makes his character so silly in self-belief, it's actually endearing.

You are the Apple of My Eye (那些年,我们一起追的女孩 / Na Xie Nian, Wo Men Yi Qi Zhui De Nu Hai)

Novelist Giddens Ko made a film that resonates so much, I am tongue-tied when asked to provide superlatives for it. It touches a raw nerve with just about every male population in Chinese speaking Asian territories, that it made all of us brethren in a certain way when reminiscing the good old days in school spent with our respective cliques, with romantic interludes more unsuccessful than otherwise, when it comes to chasing the skirt of the most popular girl in class/school. It has its share of sappy romantic moments and its laugh out loud comedic scenes that bordered on the bawdy that teenage males with raging hormones do not know what else to do with, and is that story that comes straight from the heart, encapsulating everything that is that walk down memory lane back to the good old school days. Utterly unforgettable.

and the Meritorious 20 that came so close:

Attack The Block
Delhi Belly
The Dirty Picture (द डर्टी पिक्चर)
The Help
I Saw The Devil (악마를 보았다 / Akmareul Boattda)
Let The Bullets Fly (让子弹飞 / Rang Zi Dan Fei)
Life Without Principle (奪命金 / Dyut Meng Gam)
My Week with Marilyn
Never Let Me Go
Red Dog
Source Code
Super 8
White Vengeance (鸿门宴传奇‏ / Hong Men Yan Chuan Qi)
Win Win
Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Help Me

There are remakes, and then some. Hollywood has been raiding cinema from around the world for creative inspiration. When all else fails, buy the rights and remake the movies for the US market, where chances are its mass audiences haven't chanced upon the originals since we all understand how popular the reading of subtitles is. not. Some remakes offer something a lot more than the original when set in the US context, such as Martin Scorsese's The Departed (adapting from Hong Kong's Infernal Affairs), or horror films with almost shot for shot remade with Matt Reeves' Let Me In (from Sweden's Let The Right One In), and now the psychological thriller The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo directed by Niels Arden Oplev being remade by David Fincher.

I am a fan of David Fincher's works, but alas I can't say with the same level of enthusiasm that his remake of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo deserved any acknowledgement that it's much better than the original. Far from it, that's just hyperbole. Oplev's film had all the right elements that made it a great edge-of-your-seat ride, with Noomi Rapace bursting onto the scene owning the role of the social misfit Lisbeth Salander, with a sprawling narrative kept tight with interesting twists to the entire plot. Some remakes manage to turn what's great into something better, or at least met the benchmark set by the original, but David Fincher's derivative remake only managed to barely do so.

To those who have said that it's great, I think they do have to recognize the contribution that the late novelist Stieg Larsson had in coming up with his Millennium trilogy of novels and creating the characters of Mikael Blomkvist (now played by Daniel Craig) and Lisbeth Salander (in a role taken over by Rooney Mara), crime-busting partners who spend the first third of the story in separate arcs to establish them, before coming together as crime busting duos, with a predominant female being both the brains - photographic memory, great computer hacking skills - and the brawn between them. The romance is perfunctory to satisfy primal needs, although Fincher's version did try to provide a level of emotional attachment especially with the final scene.

Apart from the Bond-ish looking opening credits set against the music by Led Zeppelin's Immigrant Song, and Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross' score being one of the limited highlights of the film, this remake will bore the wits out of those who have seen the original. In other words, skip it and you won't be missing anything. I've watched my fair share of original movies and their remakes by Hollywood, but this remake somehow had its soul sucked out from it, resulting in a lifeless entity going from scene to scene that one will already know of, in how the story would develop, and what red herrings get strewn around. Minor tweaks got made but they're really no big deal, and the Nordic-accented English adopted by the characters will irritate as it tries so really hard to be authentic since the setting in Sweden didn't change to some US locale.

But to those who have not seen Oplev's film, then David Fincher's version will set to wow. You will marvel at Rooney Mara's rendition of Lisbeth who is very much unlike any heroine seen before on the big screen, but not to take away her efforts put into her role, should you compare her take and that of Rapace's, you will see that the former is just trying too hard, unlike Rapace's who came off with a natural spunk. Even Daniel Craig looked the meeker version of Michael Nyqvist's take as Mikael, with the updated Hollywood version looking like a very clean and polished product as compared to the grittier version of the original.

I sure would be interested to know how David Fincher's first cut of the film, reported to be three hours and seven minutes long, would have changed the mood and feel. Those scenes could have been the saving grace in making it distinctly different from the original, and value adding in terms of characters and plot. If the final scene here proved to be the bulk in spirit of the extra scenes shot, then it would be worth a watch. Otherwise if given the option to watch The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo for the first time, then stick to the Swedish original since the remake can't really beat the real thing.

What Are You Doing New Year's Eve?

As performed by two of my favourite actors Zooey Deschanel and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, who was paired together in what was my favourite film of 2009.

Enjoy! And Happy New Year!

Friday, December 30, 2011

Turning Point 2 (Laughing Gor之潜罪犯 / Laughing Gor Zi Cim Zeoi Faan)

Who's Laughing Now?

You can't put a good man down, and with the popularity of Michael Tse's Laughing Gor undercover cop character in the TVB television series EU, it spun off its own movie with Turning Point, which gave a lot more background to Laughing, to the point of even veering off its established canon. Then came another television serial Lives of Omission since audiences can't get enough of him, and its ending was unpopular enough with audiences that it now led to Turning Point 2 being made, which answers the question whether Laughing is indeed a cold blooded killer, or not.

And what better way than to answer that question and weave in a complex story in which utilitizes Laughing's strengths as an undercover yet again, now tasked to discover the truth behind fellow inmate and corrupt cop Tai Chit (Chapman To), who had given himself up for money laundering crimes. At the Office of the Undersecretary of Security, Carmen (Janice Man) discovers some discrepancies in Tai Chit's actions, and is made handler for Laughing, feeding and becoming the conduit for information going in and coming out from his investigations. But a professor, Fok Tin Yam (Francis Ng in a separate role from Turning Point) gets incarcerated into the same prison and is seemingly interested in Tai Chit as well, setting the stage for some very curious cat and mouse game that deals with anarchy in society, quite a broad, sprawling topic you would deem coming out from what is essentially television material.

Directed by Herman Yau (who also did the first Turning Point), the key purpose of Turning Point 2 is to reverse what was a cold blooded, uncharacteristic move committed by Laughing at the end of the series resulting in his life imprisonment, so kudos to the screenwriters in adding a lot of meat to a very skeletal ending, padding it up for a feature film that in all honestly, worked for the most parts. It brings back in a crown pleasing move the heroism of the character of Laughing, pitting his skills against Francis Ng's very suave and persuasive phychology professor who has developed very sexy ideas about crime and punishment, and is out to establish a posse of loyal followers in which to establish a new world order of sorts through revolution, a sexy keyword given the many films made to commemorate China's Year 1911.

Boasting the return of characters from the television series like Laughing's rookie protege Lap Ching (MC Jin), Kate Tsui's Paris, Bosco Wong's triad leader Michael, and many more, some in blink-and-you-miss scenes, you don't really need too much of a background with Lives of Omission as you will be brought up to speed with its many flashbacks which is the de facto tool used by Herman Yau to refresh what was already known and unpopular with television audiences, and to provide an expanded take on the series of events with this film. I'm not sure if the ending will placate them since it ended in quite open terms, deliberately I would say to leave doors still open for another film or drama series, or to wrap it all up here.

Michael Tse's star has been shining bright thanks to his Laughing Gor role, but in this film version, Francis Ng, like many of films starring the actor, managed to steal the limelight in part in his second outing in the Turning Point series (though playing different characters) because his villain desires anarchy, but does so in a rather pleasant way that it's hard to say no to the man. The way the rivalry played out between the leads, you'd sort of feel a little unconvinced with Laughing's reaction, in part because of his proclamation that he doesn't understand Tin Yam's intent, with Tin Yam needing to spell it out for him, leading to a very verbal exchange in its climax. In fact, there's little action in this film, and had every tense situation left to its dialogue about value principles instead.

The supporting cast didn't have much to do except to play the caricatures they are, and Kate Tsui was inevitably wasted as the lovelorn Paris needing plenty of psychological help to get over the loss of Michael, to the point that she's there only as a plot device for the final act, which may be a little tad convenient in the allusion to poetic justice. A couple of loopholes present didn't have enough to tank the film, but in truth have both Michael Tse and Francis Ng to thank for keeping up the intensity of their character's cat and mouse game. Recommended especially for fans who have to put the memory of the finale of Lives of Omission to rest.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

My Week with Marilyn


Michelle Williams becomes what would be an enduring icon of the Hollywood sex bomb, but this biopic, based on the memoirs of Colin Clark (in this movie played by Eddie Redmayne) goes beyond the surface of Marilyn the icon, and examines closely Marilyn the person, with her dumb blonde persona hiding her insecurities and pressures faced when her techniques aren't so appreciated by fellow cast and crew. Williams dissolves and becomes Monroe and her performance alone is worth an admission ticket to see the actress she portrays come alive on the big screen once more, coached to perfection.

And for film buffs, you're probably in good company as the film has plenty of film luminaries portrayed on the big screen as well, since Clark's memoirs take place during the time when he was 3rd Assistant Director to the film The Prince and the Showgirl, directed and starring Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh), husband of Vivien Leigh (Julia Ormond), and co-starring the likes of Dame Sybil Thorndike (Judi Dench), all of whom gave wonderful performances that provided a sneak peek into the troubles behind the scenes and making of the film, which was anything but smooth.

But ultimately the film deals with Clark and his week long romantic dalliance with Monroe, and just how affected he was by the entire fleeting experience, especially since he's also going for a shot at a relationship with a wardrobe assistant (Emma Watson in one of her rare forays outside the Harry Potter series). The lush production values at recreating an era is excellent, as is Simon Curtis' direction in never lulling into the temptation to fall back on archive stock footage, and paints a sympathetic picture of someone who struggled for that separation between her private life and adoring public spotlight.

You can read my review of My Week with Marilyn at by clicking on the logo below.


Tuesday, December 27, 2011

2011 Singapore Movies Year in Review

The lineup of Singapore films for the year normally begins from the lucrative Lunar New Year period, which depending on the almanac can either be in late January or February. It's no different for 2011, except that it bucked the trend of having A Jack Neo Film featured by the first quarter of the year, being conspicuously missing after raking in rather good box office takings for consecutive years since 2005, no thanks to a scandal in the director's personal life. But that didn't stop J Team Productions' The Ghosts Must Be Crazy / 鬼也笑 which spilled over from the end of 2010, so for all intents and purposes I'll consider that a 2010 film since it made its debut the year before through a series of preview screenings.

Moving in to fill the void are two made-for-the-Lunar-New-Year-season films in big studio offerings such as It's A Great Great World / 大世界 by Kelvin Tong featuring a stable of Mediacorp stars, and Homecoming / 笑着回家 spearheaded by Homerun Asia. Both feature vignettes of short stories and multiple narrative strands to ensure that broad based appeal for the masses, the former telling the story of a bygone era of an iconic theme park in Singapore, while the other went across the Causeway to team up comedic talents from both countries, highlighting the rather close cultural and familial ties between the people, and also the ever increasing numbers in film co-productions where a release (here at least) has that built-in chance for access to an expanded overseas market.

Han Yew Kwang's Perfect Rivals / 美好冤家 was also shot in Malaysia, and so was Boris Boo's Aku Tak Bodoh, a remake (so soon?) of Jack Neo's I Not Stupid Too, but neither managed a crack at the box office. Yew Kwang was peculiarly very uncharacteristic with his first studio film outing when one is to compare his independent efforts under his own 18g banner, and not forgetting that Perfect Rivals had blinked first in the Lunar New Year lineup, opting to postpone itself to a less crowded date where local audiences may not be all that forgiving. Aku Tak Bodoh tried to tap onto the Malay audience market here through some shrewd marketing calling itself a local Malay film, but the hard truths are that it is hardly so (filmmaking talent predominantly from Malaysia), and that segmenting the market in this fashion may not necessarily spell gold, especially when the film effort is a woeful one, enough to get into my Top 10 Duds of 2011. That's two consecutive strikes for Boris with the Top Dud of 2010 being PCK The Movie.

Some of us can't seem to shake the notion that local films have to travel overseas for accolades before coming back home for the local premiere, but I suppose the irrelevance of this toward the box office may force some to rethink their strategy. Tatsumi, Eric Khoo's gorgeous first animated feature effort have lined itself up in Cannes' Un Certain Regard and garnered an award at Sitges, but reception locally had proven to be relatively lukewarm at the box office, though to no surprise toward an Eric Khoo film, which is a pity. Wee Li Lin's second feature film Forever / 我愛你愛你愛你 had the distinct honour of being the first local film to world premiere at two festivals concurrently (Jakarta and Cairo International in December 2010), making its way back to Singapore in March, with lead actress Joanna Dong being the revelation of the movie playing an woman obsessed with love to the point of psychosis, a role she got recognized for from Shanghai, opposite Taiwanese actor Mo Tzu-Yi.

And Taiwan seems to be the country of choice for regional star presence to bolster local films these days. Besides Forever, Chai Yee Wei's sophomore horror-comedy feature Twisted / 撞鬼 has Linda Liao in a starring role in one of three shorts, but alas its rather choppy narrative pace didn't do it any favours. Twisted also reportedly earned an unceremonious ban in Malaysia although an appeal is underway to resubmit a re-edited version of the film.

Then there's Michelle Chong's first feature film Already Famous / 一泡而红 that features Taiwanese Alien Huang as the male lead opposite Chong's Malaysian character Kar Kiao, a comedic film that has gained traction and broken the proverbial S$1M revenue marker at the box office and is still counting, a feat only accomplished by a few local directors to date. I'm always adamant that having television presence and familiarity with household audience will put a local filmmaker in good stead, although it's not always the case if the story rings hollow and does not come from the heart. As clunky as the narrative goes, Already Famous dips into Chong's experience in the industry, while another actor turned director Li Nanxing wrote, directed and starred in The Ultimate Winner / 赢家, banking on his star power from television, boasting a plot and a similar character of a gambler that made him a household name, if only the film didn't sound too much like a church sermon with a juvenile, laughable and broadly nonsensical narrative, that it too ended up as one of the Top Duds of the year.

But the taste of local audiences toward the horror genre cannot be underestimated, even if the story doesn't make much sense with loopholes abound. So long as there are cheap scares provided, all will be forgiven. Just ask Gilbert Chan as he wrote and directed his solo feature film 23:59, an army horror story that didn't feature disciplined soldiers. Released under Eric Khoo's Gorylah Pictures banner, 23:59 laughed its way to the bank with almost US$1.2M at the box office and has recently premiered in Malaysia as well, having shot the film there in one of the Malaysian National Service camps. It had potential to be a classic given the many stories to adapt from, and a sizable ready market with the National Servicemen who will troop down to the cinemas as they had, but the result ended up as yet another entry as a Top Dud of the year. But hey, the box office response couldn't be wrong, and what do I know?

The Singapore International Film Festival Singapore Panorama sidebar continues to serve up local independent films despite its postponement to September and being plagued with a series of hiccups from botched projections to cancelled screenings without prior warnings, but luckily the sidebar emerged relatively unscathed. Ignore All Detour Signs by first time feature filmmakers Helmi Ali and Razin Ramzi making it to my Top 10 of 2011 list, and the only local film to be there. A documentary featuring the local band I Am David Sparkle and their struggles to make it to SXSW, this is one film that deserves to be seen by a wider audience, so do keep your eyes peeled for it should there be any encore screenings.

And SIFF this time round had more than its fair share of first time feature filmmakers venturing abroad for their maiden effort, with Kenny Ong's Sing the Blues shot in Japan, and Elizabeth Wijaya & Lai Weijie's I Have Loved gorgeously capturing Siem Reap in Cambodia and starring renowned local director Glen Goei. 13 Little Pictures made 2 world premieres with the latter film, as well as Daniel Hui's Eclipses, continuing with their brand of unconventional, arthouse fare to challenge the theatrical mainstream offerings that seem to predominantly centre around the genres of comedy and horror. Based here in Singapore, Madhav Mathur made his second feature film titled The Outsiders, which explores our rather cosmopolitan society through the eyes and perspectives of a foreigner, based upon some real life encounters as well. Kelvin Sng released a medium length film titled Fairytales / 童话 that served as a cautionary tale for and inspired by the wayward youths of today, while actor Edmund Chen became project director for Echoing Love, selecting 6 of the best short films from his Mission Easy initiative that had given opportunities to budding talent wishing to make inroads in the local film community.

On a larger, well funded and supported scale, ScreenSingapore burst onto the local film calendar with much fanfare, but what was glaringly absent was a true blue local film, with the event opting to choose two American indie projects with Where The Road Meets The Sun directed by Yong Mun Chee and Jesus Henry Christ produced by Sukee Chew having the honour of being featured under the Singapore Night highlight. Perhaps the next edition in 2012 may see a truly locally made entry to share the stage with other country-based theme nights. Rounding up the releases in 2011 are Liao Jiekai's Red Dragonflies that had gotten a local theatrical release at Filmgarde Bugis Illuma, and Tan Siok Siok's Twittamentary beta screening that happened at Objectifs.

So What's Just Over the Horizon in 2012?

There'll be A Jack Neo Film in January returning the director to his Lunar New Year tentpole strategy with We Not Naughty / 孩子不坏 which goes head to head with Mediacorp Raintree's Dance Dance Dragon, directed by first time feature filmmaker Kat Goh and the team from It's A Great Great World / 大世界. Cheng Ding An has just wrapped will be wrapping Ghost on Air / 靈聼 starring Dennis Chew who will also be seen in Dance Dance Dragon, and others include C.J. Harvaraj's The Magnum scheduled for April, and funnyman Jacen Tan releasing his first feature film called Zombiepura, where zombies invade our sunny little island. Should be fun, and something quirky to look forward to next year.

Local Films Box Office S$1M and Up (from Box Office Mojo)
- It's A Great Great World / 大世界: US$1.9M
- 23:59: US$1.2M
- Homecoming / 笑着回家: US$1.1M
- Already Famous / 一泡而红: US$0.9M and counting

Sunday, December 25, 2011

[DVD] The Dark Knight (2008)

There He Goes

With all the recent hype surrounding The Dark Knight Rises with the release of the prologue, a new trailer and countless of official photographs to augment the series of leaked videos and photos of filming on location, I thought it was probably apt to relive some of the adventures of The Dark Knight in rewatching what is arguably the best comic book hero adaptation at this point in time, and waiting with anticipation whether The Dark Knight Rises, Christopher Nolan's final Bat-film, can top this one.

And as with any film you revisit there are countless of things you'd notice for the first time, and in my case starting with how intricate The Joker's plot actually is, and provides for greater appreciation and how the entire film got plotted, serious in tone and relentless in its pacing, that one can only hope The Dark Knight Rises doesn't disappoint as it caps off what would be a trilogy that would be hard to beat.

You can read my review of The Dark Knight here.

The Region 1 DVD by Warner Bros Home Entertainment is presented in a Two-Disc format, with Disc One being the movie disc that autoplays with an anti-piracy message (1:00), a Blu Ray ad for Warner Bros films (1:09) and a Batman Begins Trailer (1:13)., followed by more trailers (3:44 in total) in letterbox format for the game Batman: Arkham Asylum, Watchmen and an anti-smoking campaign. The film is presented in a pristine anamorphic widescreen transfer with audio in English, French and Spanish language tracks in Dolby Surround 5.1, and subtitles in English (for the Hearing Impaired), French and Spanish. Scene selection is available over 39 Chapters.

Disc Two is the Special Features Disc, which is presented in English with subtitles in English and French. The disc autoplays with trailers for Batman: Gotham Knight (1:35) in the letterbox format, before presenting an ad in widescreen for The Dark Knight Motion Picture Soundtrack (0:32). The features here do not encompass a traditional Making Of documentary film, and neither is there a commentary track which I believe is something any fan would like to listen in for Christopher Nolan's thought process. Perhaps an anniversary release some time in future may have this feature included. Known for his economical shoots, there are no deleted scenes included unlike directors who shoot and decide to omit stuff later; Nolan knows exactly what he wants from the onset.

What we have instead is a section called Gotham Uncovered: Creation of a Scene that contains various voiceovers from the crew and creators of the film, professionals in their own right discussing and talking about their involvement, without any talking heads styled interviews to detract you from the stock of stills from the film, and other behind the scenes look which is limited. In The Sound of Anarchy (6:25) we see how Hans Zimmer decides on the sound of the Joker's theme tune, and have the pleasure of peering into Zimmer's studio and a look into the conception of the tune from the get go. With the longer The Evolution of the Knight (17:35) we get to delve into the technical aspects of the film, starting with the change in the suit's design (I realize now the Batman Begins suit is used in the beginning before it got changed to a more flexible design), the development of the Batpod and my new found respect for the vehicle's design and functionality, and about the much touted IMAX format and the inevitably larger expectations that brought about on all the crew departments from sound to set design to special effects to try and live up (successfully so I may add) to the large film format.

And thankfully the studio didn't pressure the filmmakers into adopting 3D technology, as I personally feel at this time IMAX is the format of choice for scale and spectacle. I'm curious though that there's a section in the special features for The Dark Knight IMAX Sequences because no home theatre can match up nor duplicate the technical aspects of viewing the following segments, but I thought it got included so that we know where the IMAX cameras were used to capture the action, beginning with The Prologue (6:23) with the mob bank robbery, Hong Kong (3:51) with the Batman extraditing Lau (Ng Chin Han), The Armored Car Chase (8:28) that introduces the Batpod, The Lamborghini Crash (7:56) culminating with the Joker demolishing an entire hospital, The Prewitt Building (7:22) with the Batman battling both the Joker's goons and Gordon's cops before meeting the Clown Prince of Crime himself, and the epilogue with The Dark Knight (2:42).

A series of faux pas Gotham City News clips got made as part of the wider marketing efforts for the film got included in the Gotham Tonight section, that includes a Play All option for all the six clips included. You can see that Nolan pulled out all the stops in preparing an audience for the film, with these clippings serving as the bridge between events in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight, especially with the news ticker at the bottom of the screen, and its invited guests for its interviews and talk shows. GCN will play a larger role in the film proper when the Joker sends in his video threats.

Episode 1: Election Night (7:58) centers around Harvey Dent's winning of the District Attorney election.
Episode 2: Billionaire Without a Cause (9:41) profiles Bruce Wayne, his family and impact of Wayne Enterprises on Gotham City.
Episode 3: Escalation (7:52) deals with the crime of late in the city 6 months into the appearance of the Batman, examines the cause and effect to the vigilante's appearance, the sightings of Scarecrow and events in Batman Begins.
Episode 4: Top Cop (6:14) profiles Jim Gordon and his appointment to head Gotham City Police's Major Crimes Unit.
Episode 5: Cops and Monsters (7:06) features the televised debate between Police Commissioner Loeb (Colin McFarlane) and mobster Sal Maroni (Eric Roberts) of the Falcone Crime Family.
Episode 6: Gotham's White Knight (7:40) interviews Harvey Dent as a studio guest and got interrupted by breaking news of the prologue's bank robbery.

The Galleries consists of the Poster Art of 12 posters designed for the film's release, as well as a total of 88 Production Stills as photographed by Stephen Vaughn, and comes with a Play All option. Rounding up the special features are the set of 3 Trailers that present the teaser (0:56) and two theatrical ones (2:07 and 2:30).

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Don 2

So What Shall It Be?

I haven't watched Don 1 yet, which was a remake by Farhan Akhtar back in 2006 based on one of the classic Amitabh Bachchan films, and all I know about that movie, besides starring Shah Rukh Khan in a negative, villainous role, was that it was mostly shot in Malaysia. It took quite a while to finally have this sequel completed, but it was worth the wait for that level of production values yet to be seen in a Bollywood action film, which has so far been somewhat derivative. And this progress bodes well for the Hindi mainstream film industry coming out and standing on its own uniqueness, from Delhi Belly to Dhobi Ghat, and now Don 2.

One doesn't need prior knowledge from Part 1 because key moments will have its necessary but brief flashbacks, so you can go ahead and make plans to watch this without any need of background knowledge. Suffice to only know that Shah Rukh Khan continues in the role as Don the drug lord of Asia, who because of his ambition to take over Europe's cartels as well, has irked the Europeans to put money on his head. This makes Don think twice about wanting to continue being in this dangerous trade, and is willing to give up all his contacts to the Interpol police, represented by Om Puri and Priyanka Chopra as Detective Malik and Roma respectively, for immunity from incarceration and the hangman's noose.

But this is Don, so what's on the surface is purely and literally superficial, as his plans have parts two and three, meaning to get rid of those enemies who had done their pre-emptive strike from Europe, as well as to exit the drug trade and go into something more lucrative, say a bank heist to get the printing plates of the Eurodollar currency. And to do all this in one setting - what's life without its challenges, eh? This means to blackmail people at the right places such as Diwan (Aly Khan) the VP of the bank, to make friends out of enemies like Vardhaan (Boman Irani) from the past in the original film, and those hired recently to bump him off such as Jabbar (Nawwab Shah) and his goons, counter-offering such mercenaries three times as much so as to gather enough resources for the audacious plan he has concocted that sprawls throughout the film, wondering if he has plot convenience on his side to pull everything off in one night. Rounding up his troopers are tech geek (for any heist film) in Sameer (Kunal Kapoor), and femme fatale Ayesha (Lara Dutta) in a small role.

The multi-talented Farhan Akhtar had pulled out all the stops here in making an action crime caper worthy of standing out there in the international film circuit, boasting all the necessary ingredients that made Don 2 an exhilarating ride from start to end, whether be it fight sequences involving guns, knives, fists or makeshift weapons, or complex designed stunts from multi-levelled car chases to having SRK leap off a rooftop from 300ft. Working with some of the best in the business of stunt choreography had given this film a distinct slickness in every stunt execution, and one of the best sequences involved the extended infiltration of a building by Don, Roma and a team of German Spezialeinsatzkommandos (SEK, the equivalent of the American SWAT) and the gun/fist fights. Goodbye gross exaggeration, hello smooth execution.

This is probably the first time I've seen SRK play a negative role on the big screen, and he does his Bad Shah persona with aplomb, balancing that sneaky schemer in his Don character with the necessary physique for the role, putting us all to shame since he's pushing 50 years of age and still looking good for the part of the action super-star. Priyanka Chopra also proved that she's no flower vase in this film, with enough stunts here to put her in almost the same league as what Scarlett Johansson had done with her Black Widow role, showing off her toned frame and one tough cookie persona in having to perform her own fight routines, which was a good break from her extended involvement here that has Interpol always on the back pedal, addressing villains with their hands tied.

Opportunities to add some pizzazz such as bond-ish song and dance routines especially that featured in its closing credits seemed to hard to pass up, but these routines were thankfully kept to a bare minimum and usually out of the main narrative, which was a thankful deliberate decision so as not to detract from the relative seriousness of the narrative. Its crux is primarily a heist movie that involves the planning and scheming to have things fall in place for a plan to be carried out, but since there's little honour amongst thieves, it provided for a larger margin of error, and entertainment for the audience when loyalties get tested and double crossing becomes just part of the entire game of unexpected twists and turns. There were some obvious plot loopholes, but with the punchy narrative, you're hardly going to realize them until the end credits roll, especially to those that had a high level of convenience weaved into them.

Shah Rukh Khan has 2 films that came out in 2011 with his Ra.One being the more talked about and hyped film, but comparing Don 2 with that earlier release, I felt this one had made more of an impact in terms of story and level of sophistication, even if Ra.One was touted as the most expensive Hindi or Indian film to date, which had to bring its story down to the lowest common denominator for everyone in the family to enjoy. Look out too for Hrithik Roshan's special appearance that reunites him with Priyanka Chopra briefly (ready for Agneepath and Krrish 2?), as I guess Farhan Akhtar may have talked to his co-star in Zindagi Na Milegi Dobara to help out in this one!

The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (龙门飞甲 / Long Men Fei Jia)

Force of Nature

I suppose it's a case of never say never. Despite a rather public fall out from the Once Upon a Time in China series, where Tsui Hark had to replace Jet Li in the title role, one wondered if the two will ever collaborate in a film again, and with the renewed interest in martial arts genre, and the obvious big time opportunity to fuse 3D into it, proved irresistible for the two of them to come together once more in a remake/reimagining of a swordfighting epic that started off with King Hu's Dragon Gate Inn back in 1967, and Tsui Hark's own version with New Dragon Gate Inn in 1992.

The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate expands upon the mythos created in the earlier two films, and throws in a lot more formidable characters as well as their respective selfish objectives and missions, starting with the lead character of Zhou Huai'an (Jet Li), a vigilante in the Ming Dynasty responsible for a spate of killings of corrupt court officials. With the King forming the East and West Bureaus in the same fashion as the FBI and CIA respectively, an incredible set action piece that serves as a prologue has Zhou dispatching the head of the East Bureau in a special appearance by the legendary Gordon Liu, to make the case of how powerful Zhou is with his lightning quick reflexes and special moves that we don't see much of, and gets that special effects boost as well.

You see, Zhou disappears for about more than half the movie, which is a pity since Jet Li's star billing is used everywhere. Like a wandering swordsman who pops up every now and then to help the poor and the weak, the damsel in distress here is a palace handmaiden (Mavis Fan) who is on the run for carrying what would be the Dragon baby, impregnated by a naturally lecherous Emperor whose concubine sets the entire plot in motion for wanting any female with the possibility of producing a bloodline to the throne terminated. With Yu Hua Tian (Chen Kun), the head of the West Bureau her pillow partner, the game is afoot when the handmaiden gets rescued by Ling Lanqiu (Zhou Xun), the female equivalent of Zhou Huai'an whose brooding demeanour hints at a past romantic liaison with Zhou, and who harbours some secrets of the infamous Dragon Inn which is now populated by rag tag characters,

There are subplots galore in the film, whose screenplay is also written by Tsui Hark, that will call for your utmost attention in order to keep pace and make sense of it all, some properly developed while others relying on your past knowledge of the Dragon Inn mythos as foundation in which this retelling is based on, allowing you to connect the dots why certain events are done the way they are now. For instance, in Hu's original film, there are bloodlines on the run which get congregated at Dragon Inn, and this one loosely follows that rationale. And for once, we know why various groups descend upon this inn in the middle of nowhere, if not for the very ordinary reason of having treasure buried somewhere in the midst of the vast wasteland, and to hunt for it meant to exploit the tunnels beneath the inn, make sense of some inscribed couplets, and depending on 1 in 60 years (not 1 in 50 years ponding in Singapore mind you) geographic events to allow all the cards to fall into place.

But like the characters, all these take time to do so, and in the meantime we're kept occupied by the intricate plotting from both sides, starting with the brigand of hastily formed allies such as Kwai Lun-Mei's Tartan princess, the scholarly brains behind the operation White Blade who happens to be Yu Hua Tian's doppelganger (and hence Chen Kun with dual role responsibilities) that provides for that touch of comedy and complication for the villains, and White Blade's once romantic partner Gu Shaotang (Li Yuchun), together with the posse of Tartan warriors, and Dragon Inn staffers.

Romance features heavily in the subplots, and Tsui has to accede that while this provides another layer to the characters in not allowing them to slip into being loveless, soulless characters, they do detract from the plot and slow it down, mostly being that of unrequited love between Ling and Zhou - one suspects an attempt at matching up to the romance featured in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon here - and the pragmatic relationship formed between Gu and White Blade who decide to focus on a business partnership than a romantic one. While Zhou Xun may look very much like the infatuated willing to sacrifice all for love, you do know that Jet Li has problems with this filmic emotion from his filmography, and continues to do so up until today, something that 3D and special effects cannot help to enhance.

However, like all great martial arts epic, the fun always lies with the villains, and Flying Swords boasts a memorable number of them. Chen Kun's Yu Hua Tian has in possession the title Flying Swords that brings back the hey days where gimmicky weapons are the order of the day in swordfighting films, and is himself an adversary who knows no mercy. His double role here makes this almost like a Chen Kun starrer, and a well deserved one for the performance put in as characters on either side of the fence. His cronies too are as bad as bad can be, and are exponents in their own right, with Fan Siu Wong as the masked Ma Jing Liang, and the Western Bureau second in command Tan Lu Zi (Sheng Jian) who unfortunately gets outfoxed most of the time.

As a martial arts film, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate has enough variance in its fighting stances and styles, and to exploit 3D, naturally has stocked up on its flying dagger numbers to provide for those throw-toward-the-screen moments. It's quite hit and miss here, as some effects were wondrously too rich and too artificial that takes you out of the movie and may look more in place in a science fiction film instead, while others are done just right to blend in with the period surroundings. With a number of Chinese films these days just slapping on special effects like it was butter on bread (Culprits being films like Legendary Amazons, The Sorcerer and White Snake which also starred Jet Li, and just about every period flick coming out in the last year or two), this one may have to convince those who are turned off by the earlier shoddy productions.

One of the highlights here belong to the use of weaponized threads which brought back some memories of the Tsui Hark produced Swordsman II film involving the Invincible Dawn character, but one suspects in order to include this in the film, an inexplicable character double-cross had to occur, and this is perhaps the largest, negative mark that Flying Swords had to endure that cheated its own plotting, and at the expense of logic. One can only hope there's an expanded version of the film that explains this character's motivation, because if there's any if at all, it remains the weakest and illogical at best with this version of the film. You can take it at face value, otherwise this will be one of the proverbial niggling splinter in the paw of a lion.

Tsui Hark continues to reinvent himself with each technological leap, with his Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountain (1983, not the 2001 monstrosity), the Once Upon a Time in China series, and now with Detective Dee leading the charge and sealing the deal for his comeback, Flying Swords may just be that magic ticket Tsui Hark needs to re-establish himself as one of the greats in Asian cinema after a woeful past decade. It may not be an instant classic, but Flying Swords does have the necessary ingredients to make it amongst the game changing tent-poles of the genre.

The Artist


Who would have thought that the trio of writer-director Michel Hazanavicius, his wife actress Berenice Bejo and actor Jean Dujardin, all probably better known for their comical spoof of the spy genre with the OSS 117 movies, could have pull out all the stops and made such an affecting romantic film that epitomizes all things great about an era of cinema long gone, providing that pitch perfect nostalgic feel and homage to the black and white greats of the old days where films meant dressing up, the acting almost always exaggerated, the reading of inter-titles, with a live orchestra at the front of the hall playing the soundtrack and providing the emotional cues of the film. The Artist has been picking up accolades and gaining traction in the cinemas toward the various award seasons, and it certainly deserves all the hype and kudos that are coming its way.

Hazanavicius' story deals with the classic tale of rags to riches, and riches to rags, set against the backdrop of the old Hollywood and star system, where recognized stars can command just about the world's attention, and a junior artists can aspire to be at the top of the fame game one day if opportunities, chance and fate all smile their way. It's two stories joint at the hip, one focused on the story of famous mega film star George Valentin (Dujardin), ubiquitous hero of the silent film era, now faced with the possibility of extinction given his studio's growing interest toward the talkies, and his adamant belief that talking pictures is nothing but a passing fad, snug at his position at the top of his career. But this pride and arrogance bear no prisoners when audience attitude and technology change, and George soon fades into oblivion more quickly than his rise and stay to fleeting fame.

The other, parallel story of course deals with actress Peppy Miller (Bejo), who literally bumps into Valentin during the premiere of his latest movie, and progressed from obscurity to a big break given by Valentin himself, who had also offered her a beauty tip that changed her career fortunes for the better, or rather assisted in her stratospheric boost in film fortune. She moves from cameos to support roles and finally marquee large productions, with a flamboyant personality to boot that helped her heaps, becoming the darling of Tinseltown and enjoying an equivalent status and perks associated that George himself had once enjoyed.

Not everyone survived the transition from silent films to talkies, and The Artist doesn't sugar coat it all. With the transition, new stars get born while older ones faded away, especially when their real voices failed to match up to what audiences had imagined during their heydays, and rejection at the big screen was easy given a new lineup of stars all primed to take advantage of the new medium. While watching The Artist it brought back to mind some memories of the good old days where I took on a course module just so to watch Pulp Fiction, but got enthralled by the fascinating silent, black and white classic films such as King Vidor's The Crowd, and The Son of the Sheik starring Rudolph Valentino, amongst other greats.

Technically Hazanavicius' film can't get any better than this, and his meticulous research during pre-production shows in the delicate touches put in the film, from costumes and dressing, to set and art direction, right down to the technical details of framing, camera, and transitional scene techniques used to tell the silent film story right. His story here is one that is filled with strong irony throughout, crafting an incredibly moving and humbling tale of being grateful to those responsible in any way for one's success in any form. For a modern filmmaker, Hazanavicius did everything right in recreating the spirit of silent films, complete with powerful, all-encompassing music by Ludovic Bource to set the tone, emotions and mood right from beginning until the final scene.

Even the acting by the leads were all spot on for the era, who gotten it all right in both their larger gestures and subtleties. Jean Dujardin made his George Valentin believable as the famous movie star, and will have you feel for his character as he bet big on his own abilities and lost to the winds of change, and had to endure further whammies to his life in the form of the Great Depression. He possesses that flair and airs of the star from yesteryear, and is an absolute delight to watch on screen, more than justifying his Cannes Film Festival award for Best Actor. Berenice Bejo too owned her role, sharing fantastic chemistry opposite Dujardin as the woman is forever indebted to her idol for everything good coming her way, and is trying her earnest best to reciprocate as best as she can during times of dire straits. The support cast of James Cromwell, John Goodman and Penelope Ann Miller were great, but none stood out other than Uggie the Jack Russell Terrier who single handedly stole the limelight each time it's on screen!

Ask anyone these days to watch a black and white, silent film and you'll probably be scoffed at, but to anyone who has not watched The Artist, it is truly their loss. I only hope that this will spur many of us who have been bedazzled by large scale special effects in almost every modern film, to take a look back into the rich and early days of film to identify the few gems yet to be experienced, and take that bold step to appreciate them once more. The ending couldn't be more perfect as it heralded yet another era of films, that hammers it all home again that The Artist had hit all its intended marks set forth, especially putting that belief in cinema back again. Highly recommended and a definite entry into any year end lists this year. Do NOT miss this masterpiece!

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Inbetweeners Movie

Hello, Ladies!

A successful sitcom series in the UK, The Inbetweeners movie is like the final hurrah for its television episodes, which follows the growing pains, life and times of a group of four secondary school friends and their families, with American Pie styled sexual shenanigans and Brit humour. Even if you may not be familiar with the source material, the movie version is quite stand alone, taking place just after their graduation, and like all graduations, it's not complete without that holiday trip with your pals, and in this case, a vacation filled with booze and sex and doing just about anything that nobody will say no to.

So say hello to the "Pussay Patrol" in Will McKenzie (Simon Bird), the main narrator of the film whose nerdy looks betray that one heck of a witty brain filled with wisecracks for any situation, Simon Cooper (Joe Thomas) who is enduring the recent breakup with girlfriend Carli (Emily Head), the "stiffler" equivalent though geekier version in Jay Cartwright (James Buckley) whose the chronic masturbator and crudest member of the lot, often bragging about his various sexual prowess to the rest (every group will not be complete without a braggart), and Neil Sutherland (Blake Harrison), a slow, loyal follower whose dad is often jibed by others for being gay.

The film, directed by Ben Palmer, doesn't take too long nor too deliberate in its introduction of key characters, allowing you to get to know these friends as we move along the narrative, and it isn't hard since each has their particular primary trait that caricatures them. For fans of the television series I'm quite sure they'd prefer to dive right into the thick of the action rather than be given yet another "origin" act, so in this respect, Palmer found the balance required to satisfy both sides. And the deep dive into the thin plot involves the four of them going on a holiday to Malia, Greece, where they're expected to hang out and hang loose on a budget, with expectations of booze and getting laid constantly at the back of their minds.

In terms of quality of comedic moments, this film is somewhat like American Pie in its premise, and developed like the light version of The Hangover film, with the group encountering episodic instances with various people, from the pub promoter right down to the strapping jock of a holiday planner for Carli, who was also there in Malia with her friends, and provided opportunity for Simon to continue his post-breakup infatuation with an ex who is now more into her Greek guide. While the group doesn't have much luck in fulfilling their tour desires, a bumpy road to would be romance comes in the form of a quartet (not the convenience?) in the female group consisting of Alison (Laura Haddock), Lucy (Tamla Karl) who has to ensure Simon's extreme insensitivity, Lisa (Jessica Knappet) the punching bag for plenty of fat jokes, and Jane (Lydia Rose Bewley) being relatively quiet but constantly at the tail end of being rejected for Neil's strange fetish for, shall we say, less conventional and more mature women.

As you can already expect, The Inbetweeners makes plenty of politically incorrect remarks and pokes fun at such situations, never for once feeling apologetic for it. It's a full on raunchy comedy flick that is no holds barred, and everything and anything that can be made fun of, from physical disabilities down to the outright bawdy, crude and toilet humour, will find its own placeholder somewhere in the film. And that's including gratuitous shots of full frontal male nudity, or showing off a particular male appendage in more instances than one. Some will be disgusted by the cavalier manner the film pokes fun at everything, although I will recommend the chill pill when you knowingly opt for something lewd on screen. Most of the jokes hit their mark, although some

Written by the creators Iain Morris and Damon Beesley, The Inbetweeners Movie will be right at home for fans of the American Pie series, who had to endure sub-par sequels in that American delight which is now in pre-production of having yet another sequel made with some quality attached to it to reunite the main cast for one last hurrah. But in the meantime, you may want to switch to an English flavour and who knows may be hooked enough to give the series a go. I am tempted to do that, thanks to this film being a recommended fun romp!

Thursday, December 22, 2011

We Bought a Zoo

The Gang's All Here

6 years. It's been that long since Cameron Crowe last did a feature film in Elizabethtown, before taking that long a hiatus and coming back with a bang this year through his documentary Pearl Jam Twenty that chronicled the life and times of the Seattle based alternative rock band, and We Bought a Zoo, a family drama filled with all the good themes necessary for a year end celebration. If you're as big a fan as I am, there's always this feel good factor in his films, together with that whimsical feel and that inevitable touch of romance.

You can't help but to feel just how cathartic this film could have been for Crowe himself, who had during this time split from wife and frequent music film collaborator Nancy Wilson, and short of sounding like a cheap tabloid, you can feel every bit of his emotion and state of mind even as we follow single dad Benjamin Mee (Matt Damon), whose wife Katherine (Stephanie Szostak) had already passed away, and now at the crossroads of his life where every turn is a hard decision, especially tasked with raising his kids, moody teenager Dylan (Colin Ford) and the very much younger daughter Rosie (Maggie Elizabeth Jones). Priding himself to be an adventurer of sorts thanks to his journalistic days at being gung ho and a risk taker to get the story he wants, Benjamin now faces the adventure of his life when an almost impulse decision to buy a zoo for its compound and house to live in, led to an expansion of his family to include zookeeping staff, animal handlers and the animals themselves, thanks to his injection of fresh funds to keep the zoo alive for just a little wild longer.

No you can't turn into an instant zookeeping expect after viewing this film, as the narrative constantly reminds us how primal some predatory animals can be, the routine experienced by the keepers themselves and essentially a character and relationship exploration between friends, would be lovers whether amongst adults or young ones, and that between family members. Between Benjamin and daughter Rosie, Maggie Elizabeth Jones will definitely steal your heart as the adorable young one whose innocence and sprightly nature boosted the first half of the show thanks to her antics and unbelievable ease and naturalness in front of the camera, while the focus between father and son Dylan had the spotlight to resolve in the latter half, with Colin Ford convincing enough for any parent to want to give him a piece of their mind.

After a glamourous three film outing as the spy Jason Bourne and not so glamourous ones with characters like in The Informant, Matt Damon puts on a little weight to star as the everyday fatherly figure who at times have absolutely no clue how to connect with his children, while having the zoo face pressures in getting the bills paid on time. He does enough here to show that he can tackle dramatic roles with aplomb, while Thomas Haden Church supports the role as Benjamin's accountant brother and realist Duncan. Scarlett Johansson tries hard to deglamorize her sensuousness as the head zookeeper Kelly Foster who slowly develops a liking for Benjamin in part due to his determination in not abandoning the zoo's revival project midway, with the story throwing in a little trivial argument over whether to see off aged old animals humanely, with that theme and plot element of death weighing heavily in Benjamin's inability to let go and coming to terms with his wife's death.

Then there's Elle Fanning starring as Lily Miska, who hangs out in the zoo and is involved in the romantic subplot with Dylan Mee, a puppy love if you'd like that that on one hand didn't quite work out its kinks despite the potential of a clash of system values between small town girl and big city boy, but on the other showcases enough of her ability to step out of her famous sister's shadow and stand on her own ground, especially after a fabulous run in Super 8. If anything, We Bought a Zoo makes you sit up and want to take notice on how Fanning's, Colin Ford's and Maggie Elizabeth Jones' career will continue from this point, having allowed each to shine in their respective roles here.

Like all Cameron Crowe films, the strength lies in the characters, and We Own a Zoo is no slouch in that department, even if the pacing of the narrative may seem to puzzle at certain points, and a blip in characterization most noticeable midway where a serious tiff had Benjamin abandoning his children and left to their devices for dinner, which I felt was a major departure from character, even if one may counter argue he knows that Kelly would be around to see to it that the children are well taken care of after all.

And while Crowe's films at times may seem to sprawl, it always has its moments in the film that will talk and engage you directly with its nuggets of wisdom. There's no shortage of such moments here that will touch, and will also on the flip side inadvertently seem to bear his the director's own heart and emotions. There's a single takeaway that I thoroughly love involving 20 seconds of courage, and that awesome, tear inducing finale scene that brings everything full circle with that coming of terms, that's absolutely brilliant in treatment and full of heart. That scene alone is more than worth the price of an admission ticket, I kid you not. Coming from a Cameron Crowe fan this film is naturally recommended.

Based loosely on the memoirs "We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Young Family, a Broken Down Zoo, and the 200 Wild Animals That Changed Their Lives Forever" by Benjamin Mee that talk about his experience in refurbishing the Dartmoor Zoological Park in England, it's quite obvious that Crowe and co-writer Aline Brosh McKenna (who wrote screenplays for female-centric stories like The Devil Wears Prada, 27 Dresses, Morning Glory and I Don't Know How She Does It) made major dramatization for their film here, but I suppose if anything it will pique more interest in the real zoo, especially when the film starts to premiere and travel around the world. I know mine sure is, and if I follow my plans for April next year I may just make a detour and head out to Dartmoor myself.

War Horse

The Horse Whisperer

A review embargo meant that this preview watched on 12 December can only be published now, and trust me it wasn't easy holding one's horses when a film that good, has to be kept mum about probably because the powers that be have absolutely no confidence with such a magnificent piece of filmmaking. Strange, but true, since embargoes are usually imposed on films that will clearly stink.

In any case, War Horse is Steven Spielberg's return to form. He's more than capable in making family oriented adventures that's befitting what epic, sweeping dramas are known for, and does that with War Horse, his finest filmmaking venture in recent years, what with trip ups such as the last Indiana Jones film which he squarely pointed the finger at George Lucas for its flimsy story. There's no lack of a powerful story here, based upon the children's novel of the same name by Michael Morpurgo, which gives us a strong foundation in which to understand the friendship of thoroughbred stallion Joey and his owner Albert (Jeremy Irvine), before branching it off into four years worth of World War I.

Steven Spielberg may have had enough experience with making WWII stories from Saving Private Ryan to Schindler's List, and brings that knowledge to venture into his first WWI tale, where new advances in technology in the turn of the century brought about new horrors of war, and an imbalance if you may add with steel versus flesh in some ways, where calvaries meet with impending doom when up against new machine guns and tanks. And who can forget the horrors of trench and chemical warfare, things you'd read about in history books, now brought to the big screen, with Spielberg's knack of putting you in the thick of the action.

But this is not a film that deals with war action, but more about the episodes of humanity that Joey gets to experience along his remarkable journey to try and get back to the comforts of home and his owner. We journey with Joey through to both sides of the theatre of war in Europe, and get to meet various characters which the ensemble cast does its utmost best to provide depth to, rather than coming off as caricatures. These episodes are what makes War Horse unique and powerfully memorable, and one of my personal favourites involve the meeting of enemies in No Man's Land for a temporary truce in getting a joint objective fulfilled. That scene alone, is worth the admission ticket.

One cannot complain about Spielberg's chosen few in which to make this film with, boasting beautiful cinematography, a powerful score and everything else that make up the ingredients of a memorable epic. War Horse clearly gallops its way to end the year as a contender for being amongst the best 2011 had to offer. Definitely highly recommended!

You can read my review of War Horse at by clicking on the logo below.


Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Darkest Hour 3D

Up Yours, Invisible Monster!

Granted I wasn't expecting a great deal from The Darkest Hour, where the trailers have probably spelt out the entire film from beginning to end, and more than validated it to be nothing but a special effects extravaganza. Then again, what you have already seen is it, as The Darkest Hour indeed is the darkest in terms of filmmaking, having nothing else served up to excite nor to thrill, sticking to what would be a rote storyline packaged hundreds of times over.

The selling point of the film is of course Timur Bekmambetov's name on the credits, a filmmaker who had made everyone sit up and take notice of his inventive, stylish science fiction films out of Russia - Night Watch and Day Watch - that Hollywood had come wooing, and from then on it's either producer creds to help boost some languishing production, or allowing the filmmaker to helm his own like in Wanted. Not everything he touches turns to gold of course, and sadly The Darkest Hour boasted what could have been something he could have done, but ultimately falling very flat on its face because of the lack of freshness in its story, written by Leslie Bohem, M.T. Ahem and Jon Spaihts, who also had screenplay responsibilities.

The premise is as bland as you can get, and frankly can work in any other major city if not for the exoticness of Moscow, and Bekmambetov's connection of course. The characters too can be anyone other than the software engineering duo Sean (Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella) who flew halfway across the world to find out they were outplayed by their Swedish competitor Skyler (Joel Kinnaman), and two holidaying teenage girls Natalie (Olivia Thirlby) and Anne (Rachael Taylor), who all got together in a hip pub, only for what could have led to respective one night stands interrupted by a parade of lights falling from the sky, which from the trailer you will know contain some mean, invisible aliens out to annihilate all of humankind for our energy.

Yes you read that right, invisible aliens. They have this innate ability to light up bulbs activate anything that's run by electricity, since it's a signature they carry, before being allowed to reveal something extra in the final few scenes. Sure, something invisible would work in playing up our fears, but the way director Chris Gorak did it, his inexperience shows. Similar genre films like Attack The Block built anticipation nicely, but here we get nothing of that sort of emotional engagement, as it teases through elements that suggest vulnerability and chinks in the adversary's armour, force fields of sorts that are entirely resistant to whatever arsenal us humans can throw at it, if we can get to realize their positions first.

The plot could have been written by any newbie hack sent packing home to watch countless of alien invasion and monster movies, to be able to come up with something that's really quite plain and lacking true suspense. In some ways it's like an amalgamation of science fiction films from I am Legend to other contemporary alien invasion type movies, except that we don't give a hoot too much for the characters involved here, so much so that the filmmakers have the audacity and courage to ensure equal opportunity to become alien fodder, which is a rarity.

Effects wise, this two trick pony will soon wear out its novelty, the first of which is the way the aliens turn humans and all living creatures into swirling dust upon contact, and the second of which is an electrical whip-like probe that goes feeling around for lifeforms. Nothing terribly original here, and after a while these limited bag of tricks do become a little stale. As for its 3D presentation, there's only depth of field, getting human dust falling all over, as well as having exploding debris hurtle toward the screen. Some large scale effects like collapsing walls and huge probes to siphon Earth's resources still looked a little bit raw,

Perhaps then if you're looking for any sliver of merit to watch this, it will be for the on-location shoots in Russia, as well as having this film mark what would be a rare treat at having Russian soldiers/mercenaries in action up against the enemy compared to the usual US led war machinery in any alien invasion film, and this one also marking a USA-Russia collaboration amongst survivors in this post-cold war era. But you need not have to look that deep into this film, because it's indeed a struggle to find something unique and of narrative quality, failing which The Darkest Hour is only at best a mediocre film that offers nothing new.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Margin Call

Oh My God

Written and directed by debut feature filmmaker J.C. Chandor, Margin Call belongs to the pedigree of a few where a strong, gripping contemporary story that affected societies worldwide one way or another, gets made on a relatively shoestring budget, yet uncompromising on its vision and production values, and best yet, boasting a bevy of an ensemble class act that delivered all round stellar performances. Based on a fictitious financial institution that you can't help but reference that it's loosely modelled after Lehman Brothers in the dawn of the most recent financial meltdown, Margin Call is what I would deem a superb take on the crisis, positioned just at the cusp of real life hindsight, and its reel life breaking point prior to the fall of the first domino.

Chandor's script is tight, and is what made the story riveting as we get to be that fly on the wall watching how proceedings get escalated up the food chain to the prime decision maker of any company during a crisis, yet feeding our guilty pleasure of watching how board room fat cats may be getting what is deserving unto them for their greed. But the story goes beyond that, and points its fingers in a lot more directions, giving us just cause to imagine just how deeper the rabbit hole goes, and how it's indeed a vicious circle brought about by man's primal, insatiable greed in wanting more, no thanks to rejoicing at the availability of fast and easy credit, with mortgages done in many times over, over nothing more than a paper trail of value that isn't backed by solid, concrete assets.

It played out like a fish bowl experiment with the myriad of characters all mixed together in primarily a single setting of an office, beginning with major corporate layoffs for the bottom line to look good, and Stanley Tucci's Eric Dale happened to be one of many given their unceremonious marching orders. But before he made his final way out, he handed over his uncompleted current task to junior staffer Peter Sullivan (Zachary Quinto who also served as one of the film's producers) who had worked all night to try and unravel what Eric's parting shot of "Be Careful" was all about. And lo and behold, the discovery that the company is sitting on a financial time bomb, becomes the catalyst for escalation and crisis management over the next 12 hours.

Which opens up the floor to the brilliance of Kevin Spacey to expand upon his role as head of sales who is about to address a conflict of conscience against a bloodbath waiting to unfold no thanks to decisions set by bigwigs such as securities chief Jared Cohen (Simon Baker), head of risk Sarah Robertson (Demi Moore), legal counsel Ramesh Shah (Aasif Mandvi) and CEO John Tuld (Jeremy Irons), some caught offguard, while others knowingly aware of the road bumps, and trying to rally and consolidate for advantageous positions, which you know just how the rich can get richer, and the poor not knowing just what had hit them.

Unlike the toxic assets which were the cause of the firm's impending doomsday scenario, Margin Call the film is built upon the foundation of a solid story and a solid cast, paced to allow you to think about implications and the gravity of the situation at hand, that can be extrapolated to just about any serious crisis any company in any industry can face. It's about doing what's ethical versus doing what may be, as a key character puts it, first past the post, the smarter thing to do, or just plain cheating just to ensure basic survival of the fittest, ethics be damned. It's at times a morality tale, and one that holds up the mirror against ourselves, and society at large in general.

Executives aren't where they are without stepping on a lot of toes, and the film doesn't make any apologies for its characters' behaviours in the cut-throat world of business, and especially when their numbers chasing contribute directly to their ladder climbing potential, and the fat paychecks and bonuses awarded at the end of a successful year. Little moments in the film stem from incidents in life you'd come to identify with, such as disbelief at the incredulous salaries and perks banking executives draw, and what they actually stand to gain in whichever way the market moves, even with things that will irk such as how Wall Street has the cheek to reward itself despite the debacle created. Margin Call the film epitomizes these issues and more through its many layers.

What I thoroughly enjoyed about the film is to say so much without having to go through most of the dry, minute details that only rocket scientists could understand, and that's precisely how the world got into one of the messiest financial tsunamis just exactly because nobody bothers about the nitty gritties, but gotten seduced by the big picture potential, and I mean potential, of what could be the size of the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It is this corrupting system that the planners and risk managers know how to package and sell, that the greedy and gullible accept wholeheartedly, hook, line and sinker. It mirrors real life so vividly and accurately that it's really scary, cutting so close to the bone how schemes can actually be poisonous to the layman.

Chandor also nailed it accurately on the different layers of staff and management in a corporation, where you have the rank and file really employed for their skill sets and are the Ivy Leaguers, the middle managers and number crunchers who have to manage them, knowing just enough to milk and motivate the best of minds, and those who live at the top of the food chain in board rooms who can only deal with, and have time for, simplified watered down summaries on the basis of which to make their decisions. Which worked for the film in witnessing how different levels react with the issue at hand. Any working adult will lightly chuckle at the absurdity of it all and will not find a lack of choices to plop in their real life counterparts into the multi-faceted roles here.

Should you be keen in a "shit hitting the fan" narrative film after recent local debacles involving our transportation system, then Margin Call, even though belonging to a vastly different industry, would be that choice at the cinemas. In essence the crisis decision making, the scapegoats and the likes are all up there on screen, except of course in real life the personas may not always be that engaging, though its impact equally as far reaching across all segments of society.

It's a late entry of the year by the time it hits our shores, but it's definitely saving one of the best that this year had to offer since premiering in Sundance at the beginning of the year. Making a film about the financial industry and doing so on the relative cheap may be an oxymoron, but Margin Call just proved that it can be done, convincingly, engagingly, and enjoyably. It's forcing its way into my top 10 of the year, and is for sure, highly recommended.

Margin Call opens 29 December 2011 at Cathay and Filmgarde Cineplexes.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...