Monday, January 31, 2011

I Love Hong Kong (我爱香港 开心万岁 / Ngo Oi HK Hoi Sam Maan Seoi)

Trying To Eat Our Tofu?

I guess one good turn deserves another, so following the well received 72 Tenants of Prosperity, Eric Tsang once again rounds up the who's who in Hong Kong entertainment to come up with yet another offering for the Lunar New Year period with a star studded ensemble cast leading the charge against another produced by Raymong Wong. As far as Hong Kong comedies go, this is cooked up to perfect Mo Lei Tau (nonsensical) standards in bringing on the laughs, with spoofs and physical comedy galore to tickle your funny bone.

The main crux of the story takes place in what would be the Hong Kong equivalent of Singapore's HDB flats, where its tenants stay in modest apartments forming close knit communities. This of course runs parallel to Eric Tsang's earlier film in 72 Tenants last year, with stories set around the neighbourhood and revolving around characters in the community. Here we are introduced to the Ng family, where a failed business in China meant Ng Shun (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) and wife Shun So (Sandra Ng) having to uproot their home back to Aberdeen where their father Ng Tung (Stanley Fung) stays, which of course brings back various memories of key incidents in Shun's life through a series of flashbacks. In tow are their three kids Ng Ming (Aarif Lee credited as Aarif Rahman here) an employee at the Food and Environmental Hygiene department, a wannabe model Ng Chi (Mag Lam) too conservative for the industry, and Ng King (Chan Wing Lam) the youngest daughter.

In comes Lung (Eric Tsang) the neighbour and good friend of Ng Shun, whose abrupt disappearance years back also demolished his credibility and casted doubts on his integrity when he was alleged to have siphoned off the community's charity fund, but as the story wore on with Bosco Wong and Wong Cho-Lam playing the youth versions of Shun and Lung, it opened up to plenty of flashbacks, most of which are simply side-splitting hilarious, laced with nostalgia of the times. This is in effect the narrative style of 72 Tenants, though if compared to the latter, this one lacked a more coherent plot - if you have read the synopsis of the film then it gives you the broad outline of the story, which you don't really get to see it all put on film. Which is a pity because scenes get put together in quite disparate fashion, as if extracting the best of in what's shot, and leaving out plenty of coherent story details.

But if it's a comedy you want then it's a comedy you'll get. With the number of comedians on board, Mo Lei Tau was the order of the day in joke design, poking fun at the quirks of everyday living, as well as carefully crafted set pieces that are reminisce of Hong Kong movies of old, such as ghost films and a direct spoof of Johnny To's The Mission, right down to Lam Suet in a starring role. At times it dug at its own plot development with mock lament that such tales could only happen in films, drawing attention where sometimes art imitates life, and vice versa. Sandra Ng is probably at her element here with great physical comedy and perfect timing when her character got roped in to an emergency television shoot where her "calafare" role meant getting physically abused by Wayne Lai, and an inexplicable development involving being cling wrapped. Other highlights include Tony Leung and Eric Tsang trying to wriggle their way out of a fix when their shenanigans got exposed in a bread shop, or a scene involving the delivery of a baby and the use of a suction pump, ala the Bollywood film 3 Idiots.

There are times when some social commentary and awareness topics got worked into the story, such as how checks are made on the tenants to ensure no overcrowding, the crookedness of how come business conduct themselves in the pursuit of increasing revenues, the immorality of real estate conglomerates in trying to disrupt lives through "redevelopment" projects, or even preachy ones such as the monologue on illegal hawking. But I suppose even if you tend to switch off during these moments, there is no lack of spot-the-stars to entertain oneself since almost every single character that makes an appearance here, is played by a who's who. See if you can spot as many as the touted 198 stars on display in a single film!

And for as long as we continue to have Hong Kong films dubbed, I will continue to add that some of the jokes will definitely get lost in translation. Sandra Ng had a hilarious scene where she dresses down and adopts a more Chinese accented Cantonese in order to obtain some special privileges when in the market. The joke was hinged entirely on a none too subtle mispronunciation that got totally tanked when in Mandarin, losing everything to a non Mandarin equivalent to try and bring the joke across, and naturally falling flat. There are other instances in the film that continues to baffle why an audience here cannot enjoy a Hong Kong film for what it is, after all, some DVDs here do get offered in multiple language tracks, Cantonese included. Let's not kid ourselves, Hong Kongers can speak Mandarin, but face it, Cantonese is the lingua franca of the city.

Without a doubt this star-studded film will attract its staple audience weaned on the many HK films and TVB drama serials, and its feel good factor of family and neighbourliness are always welcomed topics during this festive period of good tidings.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

U2 3D

From This

To That!

Waiting for U2 to play in Singapore is like waiting for snow to fall on this island. Enough red herrings have been passed around from time to time, so why wait when you can choose the next best alternative, and that's to soak up a U2 concert atmosphere minus the sweaty bodies without worry of rain to come spoil the parade. If you're not aware, the Science Center - yes of all places, it's a National Geographic film you see - is currently screening U2 3D at The Annexe block during the Fri-Sun weekends until the end of Feb.

With the Omnimax theatre under renovations, one may have reservations on what The Annexe has in its projection arsenal. After all, the picture you see above looks more like a school hall type with a large projection screen put on stage. I share similar concerns, but thankfully once the film started, you'll realize that the capabilities are adequate. The picture is crystal clear, and the sound system powerful enough to provide that surround sound desperately needed to put you right in the centre of the action. Meaning no warbled audio, and no echoes, at least that's what would have spoiled my experience. Sit up close to allow the screen to envelope your peripheral vision, and you're in for quite the ride with the quartet of Bono, The Edge, Adam Clayton and Larry Mullen Jr.

With a total of 14 songs in the set list which included 2 during the encore (With or Without You, woohoo!) and Yahweh during the closing credits, U2 3D was one of the select films that played to an invite only audience during Singapore's 3DX Film Festival back in November 2008. It took that long for this to be finally released here to the non-invited folks, but it's better late than never. 3D concert movies are nothing new these days, with the likes of Miley Cyrus, the Jonah Brothers and Justin Bieber's coming up real soon, but U2 3D was the grand-daddy of them all, with no punches pulled in a mission to evangelize 3D as a medium for concert films. Chocked full of many firsts in the shooting department right down to editing the film, it had aimed to deliver and make a concept point that it just works, and delivered on that promise this film did.

The film depicts a concert from U2's Vertigo Tour in Buenos Aires and the sheer amount of preparation and work put into making this film a reality is simply astounding, and deserves a read at . Fans of the group will find delight in the set list, and while I had enjoyed myself it really is too short as time always fly by when you're having fun. Before you know it the lights will come on, and it's all over. Some shots were deliberately shot to exploit the typical 3D gimmick, such as Bono stretching his arms and fingers out toward the camera, or Adam Clayton swinging his guitar up close to the screen, but these purposed scenes were few and far between. What you'll get instead are the typical concert shots of audiences going wild and bobbing up and down like jack rabbits, and plenty of wide shots to see how wildly popular the group is with the South Americans.

But of course nothing beats being able to see the quartet up close, which in a concert even if you're standing in the mosh pit you're still quite a distance away to see if Bono blinked. With the wide shots you'll also get to see the production brilliance of the concert (though sometimes you may feel the multiple cameras boosted the concert's look good factor), especially with that mega LED wall behind the group. I must admit I was more of a fan of the group's earlier works, and not so much of the more recent discography. With plenty of activism hours put in, inevitably some would creep into their songs and concerts, and this one was no different, especially with songs like Miss Sarajevo that provided Bono ample opportunity to be really preachy that it stuck out like a sore thumb.

In any case, this film was used to evangelize 3D as a viable medium to allow for a more immersive film experience, so that's the irony in preachiness in itself. I still think it's but a dream to be able to see U2 in an actual concert here, so fans shouldn't hold their breaths, and should just head toward the Science Centre to watch this alternative offering instead. And realize just what the concert calendar here has been missing for so many years.

Homecoming (笑着回家)

The Lunar New Year period has always been the period where we can look forward to a slew of films from Hong Kong and Singapore, with the former putting out films related to the festivities, the genre being comedy and having an ensemble cast of the who's who in the industry. Singapore's offering tend to be the expected tentpole from J-Team Productions, a comedy of course, but never (as far as my memory goes) about the festivities of the period. With Raintree Pictures putting out It's a Great Great World, its former head honcho's Homerun Asia had churned out its first feature with Homecoming, teaming up once again with the phoenix which is Jack Neo, who's making a comeback after the much talked about scandal, slowly but surely.

With this release, I dare say it'll be interesting for local audiences if the gauntlet has been thrown to expect relatively big budgeted productions with ensemble casts to hook the heartlanders to making a beeline for the cinemas. It's an open secret that cinemas here rake in huge amounts during this period, so while it's interesting to see how these two local films will fare against other offerings, what I would celebrate instead is that Singapore finally has her own own festival specific film offerings (like Hong Kong's) to usher the Lunar New Year. Yes, Homecoming probably marks the first such film, a co-production with Malaysia since it opens up a bigger market, as well as having the narrative reflect what's essentially the biggest deal in the Lunar calendar with the Reunion Dinner, where there are bound to be Causeway crossings by relatives on either side.

As such, there are two main threads to the narrative, with each taking place in Singapore and Malaysia. The first deals with an arrogant Hong Kong chef Daniel (Mark Lee) who is tasked to whip up a "fantabulous" meal for the reunion dinner of the Culture Minister of Singapore (erm, no such post now actually). One of the top chefs in Singapore, he thinks his French cuisine background means he can hire and fire on a whim, leaving his restaurant manager (Jacelyn Tay) in a fix in hobbling together a makeshift kitchen crew made up of family, and to avoid disastrous end results with clash of personalities.

The second involves Karen Neo (Jack Neo) and son Ah Meng (Malaysian singer Ah Niu) who are travelling from Singapore to Kuala Lumpur with Daniel's famous Yu Sheng, to meet up with relatives for that all important Reunion Dinner, as well as to matchmake the single Ah Meng. Expect hilarious road blocks in what would be a home for the holidays type of setting, much akin to many Thanksgiving and Christmasy movies that Hollywood churns out, with subplots here involving relatives such as a yuppie couple (played by Huang Wenhong and Rebecca Lim) who are adamant about skipping the Dinner just to jetset to Bali on a free holiday, a madcap taxi driver (Afdlin Shauki) who gets into various tussles with Karen, and chef Daniel's daughter (Koe Yeet) to link the narrative threads together as she leaves Singapore in a huff to look for her mom in Malaysia.

The stories here all deal with the importance of family, acceptance, and set the tone on the meaningfulness of tradition, together with the cultural and social significance of the Reunion Dinner, and doing so without sounding very preachy is a plus point. While each subplot deals with a singular idea, putting them all together will probably reminisce of one's frustrations and joy if you're celebrating the same come a few days time. It's this feel good, fuzzy factor that wins in the end of course, and ultimately that's the feeling you'll end up with when the end credits roll with out takes, leaving you to anticipate one's own celebrations that are hopefully minus the drama.

Homecoming triumphs and stamps its mark because of its simple, succinct stories that never seemed like a drag, with gags knowing when enough is enough (save for that "fantabulous" word that got overused). Everything happened for a reason, and nothing got wasted, just for the sake of. Technically, this film boasted a brilliantly executed opening tracking shot following Jacelyn Tay into chef Daniel's restaurant and kitchen (it's the National Museum actually) which I thought could have continued for a bit longer, and I don't recall any local film employing or attempting this to date, so that's a feather in the cap.

Mark Lee continues chalking up points for his portrayal of characters, here as the arrogant chef, expertly and comically tackling accented dialogue once again, having to nail the Malaysian-Chinese accent in Ah Long Pte Ltd, to the Hong Kong one here, sounding really authentic. It's been quite the 2011 so far for him as he added directing to his resume, and being one of the seniors in J-Team Productions, I think we can expect a lot more from this funnyman in the near future. And what about Jack Neo? Cross dressing is nothing new since he had done Liang XiMei and Liang PoPo before (the latter in a feature film too), so I suspect his Karen Neo is an attempt to regain trust from his heartlander supporters. After all, his other two characters were what had sealed his fame in recent years, so perhaps Karen Neo is his ticket back with some facetime in front of the camera instead. Chemistry with Ah Niu as mother and son is somehow believable as they anchor half the film.

Directed by Lee Thean Jeen, Homecoming succeeds on all fronts in being that Lunar New Year related film for exactly this period of time, where friends and family gather over food and good company, to take stock of health and wealth, and various good tidings. For all the Singapore-Malaysia co-productions thus far, this one had a point to do so aside from a business reason making way for something reflective of real life, and made the most sense.


Simple Math

Based upon the bestselling book written by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner, Freakonomics the film is an omnibus of shorts, where different filmmakers adapt a segment of the book for their respective sections, and then putting them all together into a feature length documentary. In some ways, it could have been directed by an invisible hand rather than the "big name" documentarians of today and probably still come up on tops, since the subject matter is rather contentious at best, and in my opinion, a little bit too stretched.

For my limited understanding of basic economic principles from school, there's hardly any straightforward demand and supply theories that can be applied by anyone not too well versed with various theorems and hypotheses that Economics deal with, though you need not have intimate knowledge of the subject in order to view the film. I thought it was more of a sociology experiment, since there are many of topics here that deal with the basic human condition on social principles rather than an economic standpoint, and in many ways, through its touted in depth analysis, it's more akin to hammering a square peg into a round hole.

It adapts from chapters in the book such as discovering cheating as applied to teachers and delving deep into the closed community of sumo wrestlers, the patterns that emerge with the naming, or misnaming of children, and how bribery can be used as an incentive to succeed. You can imagine how economics can be applied to these, so perhaps it's quite apt that the concepts discussed are freakish to begin with. Economics theories and principles are filled with plenty of assumptions and "ceteris paribus"es, so in twisting some of these assumptions, what you get is the content as explained in Levitt and Dubner's book, which are adapted by the likes of Alex Gibney (Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room), Morgan Spurlock (Super Size Me and Where in the World is Osama Bin Laden), Eugene Jarecki (Why We Fight), Rachel Grady and Heldi Ewing (Jesus Camp), and put all together with various transitional, brief topics by Seth Gordon (The King of Kong).

Perhaps the only economics related idea here is how the lack of information and irrational choices by consumers have led to skewed markets, which goes to show the sneaky arsenal of tactics that real estate agents have up their sleeves to manipulate markets to their advantage. But while you shouldn't expect economics to fit into most of the subject matter discussed here, the concept that gets explained are incredibly sexy, and brought out through eye-catching methods, sometimes with the use of effective animation like a lubricant to force ideas down and eventually nailing that square peg into the round hole.

What's more important is the fact that we cannot deny the little things everyone does to get ahead, where the objective is to use whatever means possible to get a desired outcome. The teacher and results segment remind one about how school ranking pressures here become an obsession, with results to the detriment of those who somehow fall by the sidelines, and how an elite community help each other to stay afloat for various benefits and back-rubbing. It's human nature to seek out competitive advantage, and one constant in sitting through the various topics and scenarios presented, is how data mining (a term I got introduced to when in varsity) has that ability to present a wealth of information that can be used to analyze for gaining that upper hand. Businesses use it, and so does the many researchers of topics in Freakonomics.

You won't become an expert or a whiz after viewing this, but what it'll open your eyes and mind to, are the plenty of behind the scenes shenanigans that even the seemingly innocent industry or individual get up to, that indeed like the tagline of the film says everything has a hidden side to them. It's really more than meets the eye, and presented here in a very alluring manner.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Stan Helsing

That About Sums It Up

There are some comedies that just try too hard, and Stan Helsing falls into this category. Written and directed by Bo Zenga who has more producing credits and making his directorial debut, Stan Helsing stars a cast of relative unknowns hobbled together to forcefully create laugh-a-minute sequences that don't always hit their marks, but instead fall quite short in not being silly for silliness sake.

One thing's for sure though, is that Zenga dug deep to throw plenty of movie references from the horror genre into his comedy, especially when the villains turn out to be cheap knockoffs of their real cult counterparts, with Fweddy (Freddy from A Nightmare from Elm Street), Mason (Jason from Friday the 13th), Needlehead (Pinhead from Hellraiser), Pleatherface (Leatherface from Texas Chainsaw Massacre), Lucky (Chucky from Child's Play) and Michael Crier (Michael Myers from Halloween), and not including minor ones such as the Hitcher, and a giant cockroach. But ultimately there's nothing here to make this film anywhere near being horrific, except that the end product is quite horrific in itself.

On the other corner of the ring of good, we follow the adventures of a foursome consisting of the slacker Schlockbuster video clerk Stan Helsing (Steve Howey) whom everyone mistakes from Van Helsing the monster exterminator, who has been tasked to drop off some videos en route to his Halloween party with hottie ex-girlfriend Nadine (Diora Baird), his best friend Teddy (Kenan Thompson) and an exotic dancer cum massage therapist (interpret this as you will!) Mia (Desi Lydic), on a road trip filled with last minute detours leading from point to point and incident filled. The entire journey unravels with inexplicable coincidences relying on cliche after cliche to bring on some cheap laughs, which when proven inadequate there's always the odd toilet joke to stink bomb everything.

Dialogue is full of sexual double meanings, with Mia being the group idiot to fall for, or become the butt of the jokes. Nothing in the narrative ever makes much good sense other than to react or create a hilarious situation for our foursome to get into, and filmmakers perhaps need to stop and take stock of the comedy genre now that spoofing pop culture, or pop icons, are no longer a quick and easy way to surprise and satisfy an audience, and not when the impersonations was far from their mark.

Don't get me wrong that I've lost my funny bone, but this relatively cheap production didn't have much to laugh at. What's more painful is that it starred the late Leslie Nielsen in drag and makeup as a bar waitress, and seemed more like a desperate role meant for paying the bills. Filled with jokes with some being naughty while others nonsensical and silly, probably the scenes set within the video store bookending the film with patrons providing sight gags and trash talking became the main highlights.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Green Hornet


My first brush with The Green Hornet was through the reruns of the 60s television series which starred Van Williams as the Green Hornet / Britt Reid, and none other than martial arts superstar Bruce Lee as Kato, where its seriousness in tone contrasted with the really campy Batman and Robin series starring Adam West and Burt Ward as the caped crusaders. It only survived one season then, and I was pretty excited about the big screen treatment only for the musical chairs production to throw a spanner to that expectation. But as it finally turned out, Michel Gondry's film starring Seth Rogen and Jay Chou was a lot of fun!

And we thought the film would never see the light of day, with Kevin Smith originally set to make the film, followed by the horror of the less than trim (at the time) funnyman Seth Rogen being considered for the lead, leading to fears that it would be a vulgar comedy. Stephen Chow was attached to direct and star at the same time as Kato, before creative differences saw him giving up the director's chair, and then dropping out altogether. Who would have then thought French director Michel Gondry, known for his really inventive and creative eye with films like Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Be Kind Rewind and The Science of Sleep, would have come onboard and therein was a hope that all would be well, before Jay Chou the Asian multi-hyphenated superstar would join in as the sidekick. While Jay had some experience looking pretty convincing with his martial arts moves (Kungfu Dunk being the case in point), but it's Jay-I-know-no-English. Really?

I suppose here's when all stars got aligned, and a fine product got delivered. Who would have thought Gondry would be comfortable in helming a mainstream commercial blockbuster fare, while retaining some of his quirky sensibilities and techniques which do call attention to themselves, one of which was an impressive multiple split screen unravelling in real time. Knowing that Jay Chou is no Bruce Lee, a visually gimmicky "Kato-vision" got created to compensate for Chou's lack of speed viz-a-viz Lee's version, coming up with an explanation of an adrenaline overdrive that makes him lightning fast. Hmm, ok. At least a tribute to Lee's famed One Inch Punch made it to the film.

Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg share story credits, and while yes it was jokey at times and not taking itself too seriously, on the whole the treatment worked, breathing life to a stifling serious than thou costumed crimefighter films that are glutting the screens. The Green Hornet turned out to be a breath of fresh air, dealing with the origins of the hero and sidekick, how their mutual disdain for Britt's father James Reid (Tom Wilkinson) and his demise led to the enlightenment and awakening of Britt and Kato to not waste their lives, to live them to the extreme, and to do so by pretending to be the bad guys, in order to take down the real ones. It's a serious bout of Bromance between the two that started off well, punctured by envy and jealousy courtesy of token female Lenore Case (Cameron Diaz) who got hired on the spot for Britt's The Daily Sentinel media company (note: it's updated for the modern age, so newspapers just aren't its only medium on offer), but like "brothers" (or Xiong Di as it is in Mandarin), they forgive in time to bring on some major pandemonium to the gangland of Los Angeles.

There's no let up on the action sequences, from fisticuffs to set pieces to just about throwing everything into their Black Beauty vehicle that will make James Bond and Batman drool with envy. From noisy, menacing twin machine guns to a wicked flamethrower, the Black Beauty has plenty of surprises up its chassis (check out that door gun!) that will make this go down as one of film's most memorable vehicles on par with the DeLorean and the various incantations of the Batmobile, with its fair share of property demolition and destruction, and a line of cop cars lying in its wake. Expect plenty of montage action scenes that had found their way to various trailers and TV spots.

Christoph Waltz was a major casting coup, hot off his dastardly evil turn in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds which made everyone sit up. His opening in The Green Hornet was not lacking in that creation of impact, where again he owned his character's introduction balancing some repeated comedy about his name Chudnofsky, with some really bad ass attitude that will strike fear into opponents - here an uncredited James Franco as a pub owner cum meth dealer who rubs Chudnofsky the wrong way. Rogen and Goldberg equips the evil man with a handgun to behold in order to satisfy their innate fanboy tendencies, while weaving a character with serious psychotic overtones struggling with an identity crisis. It's a pity this role wasn't expanded to allow for the heroic duo more time, as Waltz played his part to pitch perfection.

Clocking in at almost two hours, not everything is about the man while in costume, as he spends significant time outside of it as Britt Reid, although not quite the newspaper editor we have known since the television days, but someone who's struggling to step out of his father's shadow, and a tale about how Britt climbs from a life of irresponsibility, to realizing the resources on hand to find the battle against the corrupt, through a free press, where advantages can be seen if politics get mixed into the equation to make the proponents strange bedfellows indeed. Slight twists come late in the game to add in some smartness to the storyline, and as you may find it hard to believe, the slight comedy in The Green Hornet worked wonders.

Due credit has got to go to Seth Rogen for being serious about looking the part, shedding kilos to get into the suit, and Jay Chou in putting in tremendous effort to learn English, despite some enunciation issues now and then. The Green Hornet is a fun filled romp of the costumed crimefighter like never seen before, and I was grinning ear to ear when the theme tune finally played. I'm not sure about you, but should there be another installment, I sure am looking forward to it.

Fast and Furious

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

It's a Great Great World (大世界 / Tua Seh Kai)

There was New World, Gay World and of course, Great World amusement park, which combined had entertained crowds from the 20s to the 70s in Singapore and were probably premier night life destinations of yesteryears, boasting something for everyone with their myriad of shows, rides, and of course, food. Nostalgia had crept into our local filmmakers psyche before, but it's not until now that filmmaker Kelvin Tong had taken a big step in stamping his mark on what would be an ambitious studio backed film that reminisces about the past, and boasting an ensemble bevy of stars from today to introduce the new generation to something from our collective past.

Kelvin Tong and his co-writers Ken Kwek (with creds from Glen Goei's The Blue Mansion and Tong's film of last year Kidnapper) and Marcus Chin came up with four stories set in four different decades that Great World had seen through, from 1941 to 1975, and five stories of course if you include the narrative glue set in the current era. Told through the memory of Chew Chong Meng's Ah Meng character, a kebab seller who once hawked his food on the grounds of the amusement park, in flashbacks to the grand-daughter (played by Olivia Ong) of his recently deceased acquaintance, the short stories were rather independent of one another, each tackling the various entertainment offerings across the decades and famous highlights such as the Ghost Train ride, the Sky Cinema, the Flamingo night club and even the legendary Wing Choon Yuen Cantonese restaurant.

This film has something for everyone young and old, either introducing new perspectives to the former while humouring the latter group with sights and sounds capturing what was a entertainment lifestyle epi-centre. Meticulous research culled from archive trawling as well as extensive interviews with the older generation got translated to the screen with a quarter of the 2 million dollar budget going toward ensuring the sets, costumes and props were as close to what actually was decades ago, ensuring a consistently high production value brought to life by plenty of cameos from television - in all likelihood the largest ever assembled in a local film thus far - which will of course rake up the film's appeal.

But what worked first and foremost are the stories which covered a wide spectrum of ideas, themes and genres, from simple tales to more elaborate affairs with the slightest of political undertones against the historical background of the respective eras, with cheeky references all rolled into one. There's so much to like and fall in love with the film, that minor petty flaws are forgiven (such as that continuity edit involving a Rolls Royce).

You will definitely have a favourite tale amongst the four/five on offer, and I take exceptional liking to the segment involving a marriage banquet between Chong Meng's Ah Meng and his mute wife, played by Apple Hong. This particular short had glimpses akin to Kelvin Tong's early short film Movable Feast, and here we get introduced to the mouthwatering cuisine of the famous Wing Choon Yuen, and showcased with comedy, the range of languages that the Chinese spoke at the time - we may not know exactly what the other is saying, but either we were all hidden dragons to not reveal our innate linguistic abilities, or we do get by in comprehension ultimately. Undesirable traits associated with the respective dialect groups also got an airing here, but never meant as an insult, but to underline the petty beliefs held by generations in their sweeping statements and attitudes. What more, this arc boasted some superb SFX in a poignant, moving tale about uncertainty that a viewer today will come to identify as one of the darkest periods of our history, and fear what's in store for all the characters. With Marcus Chin, Bryan Wong, Kym Ng and a host of others, perhaps Cheng Shu Cheng stole the show as the stingy provision shop businessman who wants to keep up the pretenses, with Dennis Chew's Aunty Lucy turn being the blip in this offering.

The other stories are also no pushovers. There's a romantic tale between a game stall operator (Joanna Peh) and the son of a medicated oil seller (Zhang Zhen Huan) that got set against the backdrop of Singapore's separation and independence, with each of the characters representing one half of the neighbours linked by a Causeway, who share a frequently testy relationship, that deep down we actually have a lot more in common than we would like to admit and acknowledge. When this segment rolls around you'll just about see how creative one can get with dialects in self-promoting one's wares, be it the Ghost Train (Tong has great difficulty distancing himself from horror?) ride, the kebab stall offerings or to entice someone to part with money for medicated oil, or a try out at the game stores. They ring off in perfect melodies, and plenty of comedy that just cannot be represented by the use of Mandarin.

Then in what I thought was a casting coup, Huang Wenyong and Xiang Yun star opposite each other with the former as the host of the Flamingo nightclub, and the latter as the has-been singer Rose who's seeing the twilight of her career, in a story about unrequited love. One of my earliest memories of local television was a serial with the both in leading roles in a period drama, and to see them paired up for this big screen outing, just highlighted how time flew by. I'm not quite sure if Xiang Yun had to lip sync through the various songs here, but she did look a tad uncomfortable and stiff especially in her dance routine, but perhaps playing up to her role as one who is already jaded and tired of playing the waiting game.

And in what would be yet another pairing between Malaysian actress Lai Ming and Singapore comedian Henry Thia as mother and son, this was perhaps one of the simplest story in the film's offering, showcasing live performances for kids' entertainment, and for movie groupies (*ahem*), camping out to catch a glimpse of the stars wasn't something remote as it had happened before as well, though here with hilarious and heartwarming results about a son taking pains to bring cheer to his elderly mom. Rounding up as characters serving as narrative glue include Yvonne Lim as the chain-smoking photographer whose photographs got picked up for a closer look by her descendent, which also involves Hong Konger Nancy Sit in a small supporting role that together with Olivia Ong, tackles how one should not just discard the past (that Singapore of today is very prone to), that some things are worthwhile to hold on to.

The rating of this film is peculiar and probably noteworthy. It's rated G, meaning it's as squeaky clean as early Disney films, and frankly it really is, with things kept chaste and nary a vulgarity uttered. Also, unless I'm dreaming, this film had a dominant non-Mandarin language track, keeping close to how Singapore/Malayan Chinese would have spoken in the past before the conforming Speak Mandarin campaigns started to kick into society and schools. I'm glad it did not have to suffer the indignity of being dubbed into Mandarin since we all know how bad the trailer had sounded, but for its artistic and historic merits had probably been given the go-ahead to keep its language track intact, which had a smattering of major Chinese languages from Cantonese, Hokkien, Teochew, and a host of others such as Hainanese, Shanghainese and Hakka as well.

The wikipedia entry for Great World City might be nothing more than a stub now, but hopefully there will be some inspired by this film to dig a little deeper, and probably expand the site through extensive research done. If this film proves to be a success, one wonders if there could be an amusement park filmic slam with stories told based upon the backdrop of the New and Gay Worlds. After all, there was a Rose Chan biopic being mooted once before, and she was one of the "red cards" back then - if a feature can't work, then perhaps a segment of an anthology just might.

As a local film engineered to take an audience on a trip down memory lane, it doesn't pull its punches in making it worthwhile through its all round quality production values, with earnest tales to tell that strived to capture just about everything that epitomizes the myriad nightlife and entertainment offerings from the past all under one shared compound. Highly recommended!

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Shaolin (新少林寺 / Xīn Shao Lin Si)

The Shaolin movie I know, was one in the 80s that launched the film career of Li Lianjie, who somewhat faded away until his portrayal of Wong Fei Hong in Once Upon a Time in China that launched him to superstardom. Superstars aren't lacking in this update of Shaolin Temple which promises spectacular action sequences, but what's surprisingly excellent here isn't the action, but the spirit of Buddhism and themes that come along with it.

It isn't a remake per se of the old Shaolin Temple movie given a fresh set of characters and a premise that's remotely similar, set after the fall of the Qing dynasty with warlords battling it out for supremacy and territory in China. In what I thought was quite a stark message in warning of any future infighting amongst the Chinese if they do not stand united, that foreign powers are more than willing to wait for an opportunity to exploit. Economic advantages offered should also be scrutinized beyond immediate gains, where corruption of the few in power would mean severe losses on a national scale.

That aside, this film centers itself squarely on the central character of the ruthless and cunning warlord Hao Jie (Andy Lau), who has no qualms in constantly gaining upper hands amongst enemies and allies even. In a wrongly calculated move to take on his sworn brother in an ambush, his protege Cao Man (Nicholas Tse) probably had understood his mentor's philosophy that no man is indispensable to quash his insatiable appetite for power and glory, and through the countless of indoctrination in the Hao-Jie-School-of-Thought, it is no wonder that Cao Man ultimately decides to betray his master. Think of it as striking when the iron is hot to become top dog and making decisions, rather than taking them.

In a tale about retribution and karma, Shaolin doesn't deviate very far from those themes, of how evil intentions can lead one astray and suffer inconsolable consequences, only for religion to point one back to the path of righteousness and all things good. In some ways this resembled the story of Huo Yuanjia in Fearless, where pride comes before the fall of man, stripping him of everything and down to his core, then comes the rebuild of character, and ultimately walking the talk and redemption. Hao Jie's story follows this trajectory and there's no qualms about Andy Lau being cast in this dramatic role despite his lack of real martial arts skills as compared to his other counterparts in the film, opposite the likes of co-stars Nicholas Tse, Wu Jing, Xing Yu, Xiong Xin Xin and Jackie Chan who serves as comic relief as a Shaolin monk-cook.

But most of the co-stars were severely under-utilized, as the story, with responsibility coming from no less than five writers, didn't pay the others too much attention. Nicholas Tse probably had the meatier role as the chief villain who schemes and sneers, while the rest are in to showcase more of Shaolin martial arts in one film, except for Xiong Xin Xin being the villainous sidekick to Cao Man, with no dialogue. Wu Jing, Xing Yu and Ye Shaoqun all starred as the requisite monks caught up in the firefight as the latter two become part of a group who steals from the army to feed the villagers. Fan Bing Bing was a complete waste as the token female amongst the cast, and although she had a scene or two in a big action sequence in an ambush, little can be said once she appears on and off as the damsel always in distress.

Action direction came from Cory Yuen, with choreography courtesy of Yuen Tak (responsible for Gallants) and Li Chung Chi, all veterans in their field, so quality is almost assured when the combatants take on each other, although I must say that most fights ended as soon as they began, which is a pity. Quality also goes toward the art direction, with production values culminating in the recreation of the Shaolin Temple, made to resemble a bastion of compassion open to all and sundry displaced by warring factions seeking refuge at its doorsteps in tumultuous times.

Benny Chan's filmography may have blown hot and cold in recent years, but Shaolin establishes him back at the top of the game able to handle a big budgeted spectacle that doesn't necessarily rely on star power and action to deliver the goods, but actually is a thinking man's film on the philosophical aspects of Buddhism, and the balance of Martial Zen. Recommended!

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Dhobi Ghat

A Good Wash

Dhobi Ghat finally makes its theatrical run in India and the rest of the world, having travelled through the film circuit the last few months after its Toronto International Film Festival premiere. Written and directed by Kiran Rao, the wife of Bollywood's Aamir Khan, Dhobi Ghat is quite unlike the typical masala film, without the signature song and dance sequences, and having a runtime that's more "conventional", although no less epic in its storytelling, involving a handful of strong characters and the relationship links that they share in a snapshot of their lives in the city of Mumbai.

Singapore too had her very own "Dhoby Ghaut" many, many decades ago in the area sharing the same namesake where malls and a train station now stand. With what can be seen from this film in its capture of the Dhobi area, perhaps that was how ours could have looked like back then, with the colours stemming from various fabrics laid out to wash and dry, and the hardworking, sun-kissed men who are constantly hard at work with that sense of professionalism and pride in their jobs, where mistakes are taken back and then corrected without a qualm.

Kiran Rao's film tackles different narrative threads with characters who intertwine in one another's lives. After an introductory scene in a cab which cements this as quite the unconventional fare from the usual Hindi masala films, the first star that comes on screen is Aamir Khan, who after two blockbusters Ghajini and 3 Idiots have toned it down tremendously, playing Arun the painter, a recluse of sorts seeking out new accommodation to move into. Here his story dwells on drawing inspiration from his surroundings, and the bulk of his narrative deals with his viewing of some video tapes left behind by the previous tenant of his new abode.

The second track is of course that of Yasmin (Kriti Malhotra) the previous tenant, whose story is told on a different timeline and scale, unravelling itself through Arun's viewing of collective segments in her videos, meant to be sent to her brother to tell of her new married life in Mumbai. Like the other stories in Dhobi Ghat, this segment also takes on the responsibility of showcasing the lesser seen parts of the big city without succumbing to touristy feel good shots , and in some ways one of the most harrowing of the tales, where little is seen or said since most of it involves Yasmin speaking to camera, but much can be drawn upon.

And of course the glue to keep almost everything together is Munna (Prateik Babbar), the dhobi who plies his trade amongst the well to do, or the lazy bums as I term it, in outsourcing their laundry chores. Munna serves as the glue between the tales involving Arun, and that of Shai (Monica Dogra), a non resident Indian whose profession is by way of an investment banking consultant type, in Mumbai for her sabbatical and dabbling in her photography hobby. Needless to say a romantic triangle gets played out between the trio, one that's hesitant and none too forthcoming, plagued by issues of compatibility.

Which brings us to the none too subtle takes on the class divide, since the subplot deals with the potential budding romantic angle between Munna and Shai. I may have missed or misinterpreted this, but I suppose there's some significance in serving a drink in either a mug or a class. Then there's the stark contrast between the haves and the have nots, with one seeking out the other for recreational drugs, and the constant ribbing on Munna by peers that Shai is never compatible because of his lower social standing. But as Kiran Rao paints it, it's always a possibility for something beautiful to happen, if one can put aside having to look through baseless prejudice. The characters are obviously aware of this stumbling block, and this struggle is part of what makes this film hopeful.

Blessed with a wonderful cast with that star in Aamir Khan (so strong is his presence that a smoking warning has to come up before the movie begin to warn of its hazards - his character is rarely without a cigarette), it is in fact Prateik Babbar who steals everyone's thunder as the charming Munna, a simple man living in simple conditions but possessing a great heart and a giant dream. I'm sure like most wannabes in Mumbai, he too seeks an opportunity to try and break into the film industry, having Shai assist him by building up a portfolio. In what I think will be real life mimicking the one on reel, Prateik has the charisma to take on leading man roles, and I wonder if his career, obviously boosted by his heartfelt performance in Dhobi Ghat, will take off in more mainstream fares, or go through the more art house, independent route.

Kiran Rao pays tribute to the city of Mumbai and its inhabitants, and for someone who hasn't been to the city yet, one can catch a glimpse of every day life apart from the glamourous parts already seen in many other films, for something real and down to earth, helped by beautiful cinematography that captures the look, feel and mood of characters and the environment. It challenges the conventions and preconceived notions of what and how a Hindi film should be. It's a brilliant film by debutant standards, and it will be of interest to see how both Kiran Rao and Prateik Babbar's careers move on from here. Recommended!

Exorcismus (La Posesión de Emma Evans)

I Compel Thee!

The Exorcist stands out as the definitive film about exorcism with priests battling it out with demons in possession of a young girl's body, and to date no film can surpass that brilliance, and I am of the opinion it will stand the tests of time and various interpretations of the horror sub-genre to knock it off its perch. Attempts will come and go and it's up to filmmakers to find certain spins to their stories so that they don't get drowned out. The Last Exorcism by director Daniel Stamm was quite an effort with its documentary styled narrative with those huge twists that came with it, and the Anthony Hopkins starrer The Rite will hit our shores quite soon.

Then there's Exorcismus right now by Spanish director Manuel Carballo, which tells of a young girl Emma (Sophie Vavasseur, the schoolgirl in Resident Evil: Apocalypse) whose family suspects she needs mental help for her recurring fits and behaviour, until an inexplicable levitation opened their minds to engage the services of their relative Christopher (Stephen Billington), a priest with a tainted record in exorcism no less, to try and save their kid from the clutches of whatever demon is possessing her. That's the basic crux of the story, but what the film is about comes from the manipulation that mankind is capable of, and the folly and greed of man's pride, wanting to prove oneself to peers for that one-upmanship, or to exact some unintentional vengeful hatred arising from petty, hissy fits.

As the saying goes, don't push your luck and tempt the devil, because you'll never know the true impact of such an unwarranted pact, that you'll probably live to regret it. The film opens with the persistently angry teenager Emma, whom we learn through the course of the narrative isn't quite the docile, demure girl disciplined through home-schooling and always under the watchful eyes of mom, but one who does not hesitate in dabbling with mushrooms, and oh, the ouija board. All these spell trouble, and trouble does come knocking. Half of the show went to Sophie Vavasseur's performance as Emma, and she plays her role quite well, continuing the legacy of fellow peers who have stepped into the shoes of characters possessed by demons, in providing a fitting rendition with what some may say is the same old usual bag of tricks with bile spewing and eye rolling.

On the other corner of the ring is Stephen Billington as the priest Christopher, who is as eager to assist his niece as he is to laying down some ground rules which are a bit peculiar even for horror fans, such as performing it outside of holy grounds, not engaging more spiritual help from fellow brothers of the cloth, and not arresting the problem on the spot, spreading the exorcism over a number of days, with vast periods of intervals as well. This raises alarm bells of course, but all will be addressed as the film wears on, leaving room for various dastardly deeds to be performed, as if a lesson to be learnt against the dabbling with the occult.

For an audience looking for cheap scares and thrills, this is not that film unfortunately, even though it is steeped in the horror sub-genre of possessions. You don't get to see much since the details of the exorcisms are kept under wraps by way of the narrative, although you do get glimpses of it in the final act that turn out to be nothing quite new from what's already been done, such as the trash talking, sexual come-hithers, and more levitations, together with the Lord's Prayer, use of holy water and other equipment in a priest's arsenal.

Like The Last Exorcism, this film also relied on the final act to differentiate itself in quite radical terms, so it's pretty much hit and miss, and more of the latter if you're expecting something to make you jump at your seat, or linger in your thoughts way after the end credits roll. I bought into the explanation so it didn't turn out too bad, but be warned, if you're not receptive to little creative sparks adopted by the filmmakers, then perhaps this may be quite frustrating to sit through given a number of plot conveniences you have to buy into, and having more talk than to show for it.

The Last Days of Emma Blank (De Laatste Dagen Van Emma Blank)

Eat Up!

Anyone who has taken care of the aged or the sick, not necessarily during the end of their days, will probably attest to some difficult, testy situations faced from time to time, especially with demands made, reasonable or otherwise, that you'd try to fulfill, rationalized by innate, good natured intentions to try and make it as pleasing and comfortable as possible for the one needing care. But what if you get taken for granted, and worst, being ordered around like a slave to deliver goods and services on the forgetful whims of the sick?

This is one extremely dark comedy that plays on that notion of wanting to please, but only so because of the expected reward that should come at the end, especially if it involves the likelihood of given a larger chunk of some inheritance. Emma Blank (Marlies Heuer) is dying soon, and the household of her chief butler Heneveld (Gene Bervoets), the maid Gonnie (Eva van de Wijdeven), cook Bella (Annet Malherbe), handyman Meier (Gijs Naber) and even the family dog Theo (Alex van Warmerdam! Yes! The writer-director himself!) all do their best to cater to the flip-flopping whims of their mistress of the house. It is a little bit artificial in their hugely dysfunctional setup, but you haven't known dysfunctional yet especially once the story wears on, and the relationships with one another get more defined.

You'd soon realize all is not normal, especially when you have a human, at first whom can be thought to be mentally challenged, behaving exactly like how a dog would. It seemed that Emma Blank has this hold on everyone else, and with every single instruction being obeyed to a tee, with no questions asked. An example will be like how Heneveld got ordered to have a moustache. Overnight. And to have one that is to Emma's liking so that it'll fit in with his position in the house.

There's plenty of playacting here since the family isn't that ostentatiously rich to afford that many servants to wait on Emma hand and feet. And what the fun is in the film, is when these facade get systematically pulled back to reveal the character's true position in the household, and their real family ties, which in summary, can deal with things like potential incest, a sexual predator in the waiting, a fake steady relationship, mutual advantages gained from keeping up the pretenses, and even an extramarital affair all thrown into a heady mix. Keep your ears peeled of course as these are sometimes mentioned in passing, which can disorientated you at first, but the payload's all the more worthwhile when the inevitable happens, and these dynamics all rear their head in full glory.

And this cannot be done without the excellent acting chops of all the cast members, who in essence are taking on dual roles as who their characters are, and the make believe roles that their characters play. Marlies Heuer is frustratingly good as the overpowering matriarch barking orders with conviction and sarcasm, never slow in laying the blame on anyone who dare cross her moody path. And who would have thought that the writer-director will get into self-deprecating mode by playing a dog for the most parts. Comes with a catchy theme tune that will become a earworm.

If you're keen to catch this Dutch film, you'd got to do so soon as it's into its last screening leg at the Picturehouse, before Thailand's Uncle Boonmee pays a visit from this coming Thursday.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Solomon Kane

The Scourge of Evil

Created by Robert E. Howard (best known for his Conan the Barbarian), Solomon Kane has origins in pulp fiction before the leap onto the big screen now, starring James Purefoy as the titular British adventurer who wanders the world in search of evil to vanquish. Serving as an origin story to introduce the character to new audiences, it's quite the standard swords and sorcery film with a tinge of theological elements, with little surprise being offered as it focuses on the man's redemption.

Damned by the devil's reaper and escaping from the clutches of having his soul claimed in North Africa, Solomon Kane finds peaceful refuge in an English church, spending a period of overturning his violent past, before being expelled to seek his own destiny. He hooks up with the Crowthorn family (the head of the household played by the late Pete Postlethwaite) who are en route to a new life in America, before discovering that most of England is now under the clutches of the mythic sorcerer Malachi (Jason Flemyng), and it is up to our hero to try and kill a lot of birds with a single stone, with the liberation of the land, the rescue of damsel in distress Meredith Crowthorn (Rachel Hurd-Wood), and hopefully, redeeming his soul as part of the process.

The storyline hinges on Solomon's downward path from ruthless warrior to a peace loving man who renounced violence, before he's being dragged back to the killing game again, with swords and that occasional (not sure why though) use of the pistols. The first half dwells on this dalliance in not wanting to break his vow of non-violence, until evil comes knocking on his doorstep, and throwing his vow out of the window in order to rid scores of faceless goons dispatched through sword parries and thrusts, coupled with plenty of CG blood and decapitations.

To expand the mythos Solomon's backstory gets brought up through a series of flashbacks, which will suggest to you its significance early in the film on how the finale will come together. Writer-director Michael J. Bassett's story and direction follows a very formulaic path that shortcuts at every opportunity, such that the final assault and battle in a castle has loopholes of The Rock proportions. The story plods between the action sequences, and just about throws plenty of stuff from a zombie sequence to a crucifixion scene even (religious imagery going into overdrive here), just because it can. Purefoy perpetually scowls throughout the film, though looks convincing enough to be the skilled warrior who relies on a rapier and a cutlass on each hand.

This is one of those films that isn't great, but isn't all that bad either provided you haven't been jaded by countless of other similar looking films, and with the lack of a main villain to complement and make the hero look good, choosing to hastily introduce him only at the end. For an action adventure it doesn't have any surprise elements, with a series of action and CG that seemed to have that ring of familiarity to it. Don't hold your breaths wondering if this could spawn off a film franchise.

Thursday, January 20, 2011


Read Me?

It's still pretty amazing to see the quality works that Clint Eastwood churns out as producer/writer/director/musician even, and I admit I've been quite the fan in recent years, where he can tackle films at blockbuster levels, or tell a simple tale with so much heart in his signature low frills, no flashy gimmick manner, allowing characters to shine through from Million Dollar Baby right down to Invictus shown here last year. His latest film Hereafter explores the afterlife, and what it means for those who have experienced it fleetingly, or have that burden in their heart that cannot be let go lest they forget their departed loved ones. Boasting three separate tales that you know will inevitably converge, Hereafter was somewhat clunky in execution as it stumbles its way to the expected finale.

Which is surprising, because writer Peter Morgan is famed for stories and screenplays such as The Queen, The Last King of Scotland and Frost/Nixon amongst others, compelling stories that would keep one glued to the screen and engaged in the story, but here the offerings were a mixed bag, where the potential strengths of each tale far outweighed the combined end product. Recognizable stars like Matt Damon, Cecile De France and Bryce Dallas Howard even lend star power, but ultimately couldn't get enough of the chemistry going, especially with the hokey suggested romantic angle that came out of nowhere but to forcefully bridge two of the three narratives.

Hereafter started with a bang in putting in the money shots, which involves Cecile De France's Marie LeLay, a famous news anchor, being caught up in the Sumatran tsunami of 2004, with huge waves crashing deep into mainland like how a disaster movie would. While effects looked cheap at times with unrefined superimposition work, this segment had the weakest story as plenty of time got devoted to how Marie tries to reconcile being given a second chance at life, with frequent post traumatic flashbacks to the incident. There's a takeaway here though, which is the reminder on how to best survive this natural disaster - being a strong swimmer never actually helps, because of the dangers posed by debris of all sizes under current that upon impact will have deadly ramifications. Head to high ground, fast!

The second segment takes place in England, where a pair of twins Marcus and Jason (played by Frankie and George McLaren) try their best in keeping their dysfunctional family together, since mom (Lyndsey Marshal) is almost always intoxicated with a drinking issue, and frequent visits by social workers threaten to tear them apart, with mom checking into rehab, and they would probably be split into foster homes. A tragedy strikes, which will leave you quite dumbstruck, and lead into how Marcus continues to stoically face life, while being torn apart inside. There's a moment of brilliance here that ties his chapter into real world incidents, with a natural disaster in the earlier arc, this one boasted a significant man made disaster without going overboard with it.

Reuniting with Matt Damon whom Eastwood had worked with previously on Invictus, Damon cuts down the mass gained there to play jaded psychic George Lonegan in the third story arc, turning his back on his calling, preferring not the automatic riches he could have milked from clientele, but for an average, everday Joe job that pays modestly. It's the classic tale of not wanting to exploit one's abilities that will make one become rich and famous, choosing instead the simpler lifestyle without feeling lousy over one's psychic connections with those on the other realm.

This arc I had thoroughly enjoyed, because it showed how the simple life can be the more attractive one, with nary a care in the depressing world of sorrow and guilt, two strong emotions the reluctant George has to subject himself to should he become that bridge for masses of people. We get glimpses of how accurately powerful he is, measured in contrast with slight comedic proportions on some of the quacks encountered. A sensitive love story with Bryce Dallas Howard got worked in that was too little too soon, and the character of George Lonegan definitely deserved a lot more screen time for us to get under his skin, since there's plenty of potential here that had gone wasted.

Other films tackling similar subjects would have steered the film toward the horror and thriller genre, but definitely not Eastwood as he has that knack for powerful dramas. Others may paint the afterlife as either that beautiful heaven or that horrific fiery hell, but in Eastwood's hands it's simply just a void of nothingness, where spirits hang around for that one opportunity for closure with loved ones before departing. The actors did a wonderful job in perfecting their characters' nuances, and stealing the show would probably be Frankie and George McLaren who play the twins, and it's hard not to feel moved when they share screen time opposite Matt Damon eventually.

Perhaps it could have been the heavy, sorrowful subject matter that turned people off, or that even keeled pacing that didn't seek any crescendos or sensationalize issues at hand that made this film gloomy in overall terms. Hereafter becomes one of those that doesn't have too many merits to make it great, but contained enough to keep it treading about average.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

[DVD] Sukiyaki Western Django (2007)

Swords and Six Shooters

Trust Japanese director Takeshi Miike to dream up something as outrageously funny, wicked and dramatic such as Sukiyaki Western Django, his take on what a Japanese Western would look and feel like, encapsulating genre themes, character motivations, and action done to violent perfection. Fans of Westerns will definitely not want to miss this, just as how Thai director Wisit Sasanatieng had taken the genre and given it a Thai spin, Miike does the same for this film in a daring attempt to weave something unique into his vastly varied filmography.

Such is Miike's clout that he had gotten Quentin Tarantino to play a character with different outlooks, in an introductory scene that resembled the color saturated scenarios in Sasanatieng's Tears of the Black Tiger. This scene alone will set the tone for the film, in being amusing in the black humour sense, filled with impossible action amped up for entertainment sake, and a host of characters you'd want to know more of. Like any classic Westerns, it then progressed some years later, with a mysterious, skilled gunslinger (Hideaki Ito) riding into a town to decide to which clan should he offer his skills to, the Reds or the Whites, each needing resource to track down the location of rumoured treasure in the land.

It's like the good the bad and the ugly, where the only good guy you know is the skilled gunslinger, with his introduction already showcasing what he's capable of. We learn more about the backstories of both clans and their leaders, and from then on the gunslinger's allegiance turn to focus on Shizuka (Yoshino Kimura) the widow, the daughter in law of Ruriko (Kaori Momoi) where the latter turns out to be more than who she's willing to tell. Taking an interest, the Gunslinger hatches a quick plot to rid the land of its scourge, which culminates in a crazy all out gun battle where winner takes all.

The cast is filled with recognizable faces from contemporary Japanese cinema, where besides those already mentioned, Teruyuki Kagawa stars as the irreverent Sheriff who has his own agenda, and I'm sure is in a role that's quite unreal as the character who just refuses to die. Yoshino Kimura also deserves special mention in her role as the temptress out for revenge but not sure how, and has this really strange dance to perform midway through the film. Hideaki Ito oozes machismo as the classic hero who talks less and lets his skills impose his will, and just about everyone puts in double the effort to ensure that their English enunciation is as perfect as can be, with the benchmark I used was whether they were comprehensible even with the subtitles turned off.

It's pretty violent but in the cartoony sort of way, heavily relying on special and practical effects to make you feel every bullet spinning in the air, every round that impacts the body, and the aftermath damage caused, which I mentioned hovers in quite an unreal manner which is likely played out just for laughs. Action is carefully crafted to avoid repetition, though with what's inherent with the genre you do occasionally feel for anyone to dispatch another with less theatrics. But this is Sukiyaki Western Django, and part of the fun is to see how the tried and tested formula got spun on its head. Not quite memorable, but a fun ride nonetheless.

The Region 1 DVD from First Look Studios autoplays with Previews (6:30) for Transsiberian, War, Inc., August, and Priceless. The film proper is presented in an anamorphic widescreen format, with audio available in English 5.1 Dolby Digital which is great to hear bullets zipping by, or in Stereo form. Subtitles are available in English and Spanish, and scene selection is over 12 chapters.

The main Special Feature of this DVD is the Making of Featurette, which runs 52:37 in letterbox format, filled with tremendous content that serves as a video log of production from the very first day. Expect the usual interviews and behind the scenes look at how the film was made, though you have to avoid this until you've seen the main feature proper since it's obvious it contains spoilers. One of the highlights must of course be how the cast had to tackle the English language since they have to be proficient in it.

The Deleted Scenes (6:37) contain six such scenes which got left out from the final cut, though no reason through commentary was available. Scenes last a few seconds to minutes, in varying degrees of completion. Sukiyaki Trailers is just that, containing the Sizzle Reel (3:12), the Theatrical Trailer (1:58) and two Selected Clips which are the effects laden ones that show the Stomach Hole and the Sword Clap scenes.

Rounding up the Special Features are the same Previews that got autoplayed when the disc is popped into the player, with the addition of the trailer for Contract Killers.

This Sukiyaki Western Django DVD is available for loan at the library@esplanade.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

More Local Films at The Arts House

Han Yew Kwang's little indie film is still gaining traction in its limited release, and the good news is that its run will be extended by another week given sellout sessions over the weekend. Screenings will be as follows:

Jan 20-21, 24-26 at 7:30pm
Jan 22: 3:30pm and 7pm
Jan 23: 3:30pm and 6pm

Tickets for these sessions will go on sale tomorrow, and you can book your tickets only at the Bytes website here.

You can read my review of the film here, visit the official movie website and Facebook page

And for those who had missed Boo Junfeng's Sandcastle last year, fret not, as The Arts House will screen the film in February as follows:

Feb 18, 25: 7:30pm
Feb 19, 26: 3pm and 6pm

with the director and cast members in attendance for Q&A sessions after each 7:30pm and 3pm screening.

You can click on this link to purchase your tickets online, and my review of the film can be found here, which also contains the Q&A from the Blog Aloud session in August 2010.

Monday, January 17, 2011


The Christina Aguilera Show

With singers making their leap onto the silver screen from Mariah Carey to Britney Spears even though with varying degrees of success, it's taken quite the while for the pint sized girl with that tremendous big voice to cautiously and finally dabble with film, making her big screen debut playing a performer no less, guided by and given her break by the legendary diva Cher. Welcome to Burlesque, which is probably the cheapest ticket you can find in order to sit in a Christina Aguilera performance.

Written and directed by first timer Steve Antin, don't expect a story that will knock your socks off, as playing it safe is the catchphrase here, telling a tale that's been told a thousand times involving a small town girl aspiring to make it good in the bright lights of a big city, overcoming adversary and encountering romance as part of the package called Life. Burlesque doesn't attempt to deviate from formula about a from rags to riches story, where perseverance is the order of the day if one's talents should be discovered, and a chance given to prove oneself.

The opening scene establishes Ali(ce) (Aguilera) leaving her waitressing job in Iowa for Los Angeles, and finding herself inexplicably burgled, and waiting for that chance of a lifetime to perform in a cabaret called Burlesque, run by Cher's Tess, the only veteran performer who uses her real singing voice, amongst her posse of beautiful women who gyrate to and lip sync to classics. Think of it as one Bollywood song and dance routine on stage, with lights, colours, larger than life personalities such as the diva with bad attitude Nikki (Kristen Bell). Enter Ali into Tess's life by gatecrashing and working for free on the only job she knows how, picking up moves on the sly and barging her way into an audition which, well, turned out good. And as they say the rest is history.

She's Christina Aguilera after all, so how can one not be surprised by the quality of the vocals and performing routine? What Burlesque made up for its lack of a quality story and clumsy romantic subplot involving the bartender Jack (Cam Gigandet) and a rich real estate mogul Marcus (Eric Dane) setting his sights on acquiring the land Burlesque sits on, is that of Aguilera's performance with her powerful voice coming on when Ali has no choice when sabotaged on her lip sync routine, to let the real deal out of the bag. However even then the slower numbers turned out to be quite a drag, with the film actually coming alive with the more upbeat, electrifying numbers with Aguilera and the ensemble of supporting dancers and stage performers.

And those numbers, from Express to Show Me How You Burlesque, are bang for the buck and that's what musicals are made of, with performances, song and music that stand out from the competition, entertaining as hell, without trying to hard to stick a sultry image on Aguilera with the slower numbers in cheesy, cheeky cabaret routines. These set pieces are what made Burlesque worth that close to two hours to sit through, and one had hoped for an encore performance of sorts when the end credit rolled, which did not materialize.

The rest of the film is largely forgettable, with Cher playing a character who's bogged down by money woes to save her club, though her musical numbers You Haven't Seen the Last of Me, and Welcome to Burlesque will leave you wondering why she isn't given more to do, having to disappear in the middle section of the film to may way for the emergence of Aguilera's Ali as the very polished gem to have landed on her lap. Cher can't play mean and sarcastic, and the surrogate mom turn and potential wasn't capitalized other than a few sporadic scenes, which I suppose is expected from Steve Antin's rookie attempt.

Musical numbers don't move the narrative forward, having to stand out as standalone pieces of singular performances, which of course makes this almost akin to a Christina Aguilera concert. The supporting cast of Alan Cumming got wasted in scenes that don't last five minutes combined, Kristen Bell playing a prima dona that doesn't have much to do except hiss at Aguilera's character, and Stanley Tucci once again plays the saviour and shield type of character protecting young upstarts from the wrath of the resident boss, reprising a role already seen in The Devil Wears Prada, and probably an avenue and outlet for that character to explore should he be served the pink slip at the fashion magazine house.

Christina Aguilera fans won't miss this for the world, but for the rest of the movie going audience, it's more of a musical deja vu of stories set in a cabaret that could have benefitted from a gutsier storyline and better fleshed out characters, but be prepared to be enthralled at how Aguilera can conjure up such powerful vocals for her size and allows for her character to breathe some hope into Burlesque.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

[Q&A with Apichatpong Weerasethakul] Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Loong Boonmee Raleuk Chat / ลุงบุญมีระลึกชาติ)

LtoR: Uncle Boonmee, Apichatpong Weerasethakul and Moderator Karen Chan

A post charity screening of Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives included a Q&A session with filmmaker Apichatpong Weerasethakul which lasted for about an hour at The Picturehouse Lounge. The first filmmaker from Southeast Asia to win the Cannes Film Festival Palme d'Or, you can view the entire session with Apichatpong here, moderated by Asian Film Archive's Karen Chan:

Part 1 of 5

Part 2 of 5

Part 3 of 5

Part 4 of 5

Part 5 of 5


Fans queuing up for the filmmaker's autograph. You'd see postcards, DVDs and even the December Issue of Sight and Sound magazine being whipped out for signature

I got a smiley face on mine :-)


For those interested in joining the Sold Out Masterclass with Apichatpong Weerasethakul tomorrow afternoon, you will be glad that the venue has added 20 more seats, so hurry!

Date & Time
17 Jan 2011 (Mon), 3:00pm – 6:00pm

Price (inclusive of tea reception)
$50 per person

NYU Tisch School of the Arts Asia, 3 Kay Siang Road, Singapore 248923

You can click here for more detailed information on enrollment.


Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Loong Boonmee Raleuk Chat / ลุงบุญมีระลึกชาติ) opens exclusively at The Picturehouse from 27 Jan 2010

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives (Loong Boonmee Raleuk Chat / ลุงบุญมีระลึกชาติ)

Who Was I?

For those who have not heard of Thai filmmaker and artist Apichatpong Weerasethakul, I guess you must have heard of his latest film Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives, winning the Palme d'Or at last year's Cannes Film Festival, and being the first Southeast Asian director to do so. That should interest you to take that leap of faith to experience the coming of Uncle Boonmee yourself, and that feeling of being frustrated yet enthralled, fascinated yet perplexed, all at the same time, fighting to stay engaged, and making sense of the visuals flitting around dreamscapes.

This film is like a diamond with many different cuts made to make it shine, each representing a facet from which you can choose to look at, or interpret from. Like a prism which dissipates light shone on it, your take on this film will likely be entirely different from mine, and what more, you'll probably have different takes on each of the different aspects of the film, since the scenes that make it up are as disparate as can be. It makes the film going experience a little more interesting since it's open, and never crystal clear given the takeaways for one based on one's journey in life thus far.

At its crux, the story is exactly that of its title, where we see Uncle Boonmee (Thanapat Saisaymar) living the last days of his life with kidney failure, choosing like most Asians do with the preference to live out the last days at the comfort of one's home, rather than at a sterile hospital. It is said that those on the death bed will see their life flash pass their eyes, but for Uncle Boonmee, his plodding walk toward the light at the end of the tunnel, means giving the film a lot more exploratory path to tread on, with a look at what his past lives were as well, ranging from the suggested buffalo, to even a member of the aristocracy (and that much talked about scene with the catfish. Hmm... maybe he could be the catfish too!)

Things get a lot stranger of course, even as it seems that Boonmee can remember his previous lives before reincarnation. As far as my limited grasp of that process goes, one has to drink up a liquid that will make you forget what you've gone through, and one's karma accumulation has bearings on what next you'll be incarnated, with the human form being quite OK, rather than an animal. I suppose Boonmee in his previous life did OK to be reincarnated as a human in this life, and in his last days get visited by his late wife (Natthakarn Aphaiwonk) with whom he shares a poignant, heart-wrenching scene with, and also a visit from his son (Geerasak Kulhong behind heavy makeup), whom you'd have already have an idea of from the various promotional material, and no, he's not captured in a picture just because the camera did not have an anti-red eye function.

Don't be shy if you don't understand the film. For starters, I suppose any film based on dreams and fantasy opens itself up to a lot of leeway in interpretation, and not taking everything verbatim, verbose or literal. Even the auteur himself has said that you "don't need to understand everything" in an interview with The Guardian, probably a relief for those like me who emerged from the screening with more questions than to know where to begin asking them. Like most art films, this one moves at a leisurely pace, and is filled with plenty of art house sensibilities and techniques, and while I won't say will reward the patient viewer, it will challenge you to think through about what you've just seen, and I felt it was easier to make sense of individual scenes, than as a whole when trying to fit the jigsaw in a coherent fashion.

To paraphrase Bruce Lee, this film is like water, having no form of its own, yet taking up form based on the viewer's individual experience and interpretation. I guess that's what makes Uncle Boonmee unique, coming from a filmmaker who's bold to conceptualize this piece of art that works itself through different strokes for different folks.

Fair Game

It's Unbelievable

There are many sides to a coin, and this film is based on the memoirs of Valerie Plame's Fair Game: My Life as a Spy, My Betrayal by the White House, and that of her husband Joseph Wilson's The Politics of Truth which chronicled their experience in The Plame Affair, or the CIA leak scandal which blew the cover of Valerie Plame as a covert CIA agent in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion in 2003. That of course rings plenty of alarm bells because unless one is 007, having one's secret identity blown spells trouble with a capital T in both the professional realm and personal life safety of family and loved ones. Getting one's back turned by your employer is one thing, but in the high stakes game of intelligence and espionage, getting yourself exposed by the highest office in the land points to being made a scapegoat hung out to dry.

Directed by Doug Liman is himself no stranger to themes of betrayal and spy vs spy type of films like Mr and Mrs Smith and The Bourne Identity. Fair Game had competed in Cannes earlier this year for the Palme d'Or, and has two solid thespians in Sean Penn and Naomi Watts, who had starred opposite each other in two other films before, to thank in keeping the narrative solid and riveting through excellent performances as the husband and wife team who get heavily involved in the analysis and searching for WMD evidence for Langley, and finding themselves at the wrong end of everything just because the powers that be have a hidden agenda and ulterior motive. Either that, or through shooting by the hip it's tough to retract a gung-ho policy in motion, and blame has to be squarely set somewhere.

I sat through the presentation given by then Secretary of State Colin Powell live on TV, and I'm sure many of you did as well as he went through slide after slide, photo after photo in presenting his case for an Iraq invasion. And who would have thought that this was actually based on non-recent intelligence gathered by the many hardworking men and women working frantically behind the scenes to justify beyond doubt the authenticity of evidence before submitting a recommendation. For what it's worth I learnt something new today, that intelligence could perhaps be a collection of opinions being evaluated for that bigger picture.

With any big screen adaptation comes the caveat that there are always certain dramatic liberties being taken to tell a story for the masses, so if you were to keep an open mind, you're in for quite the thrilling ride in this intelligence game about the battle to restore one's integrity. Way before Wikileaks (again a subtext here being the distrust of the Middle Easterns against the Americans because of promises unfulfilled), the media is used by either side to tell their version of the story, and you have to admit that sometimes this channel is open to subtle exploitation with the skewing of public opinion and distraction through very savvy public relations rather than to focus on cold hard facts, hyping things up in character assassinations and letting the cogs in the machinery work itself. Sounds familiar, don't you think?

A reminder that rings out really loudly come from the different approaches the couple adopted in their response to adversity posed. For Valerie Plame (Naomi Watts) it is that of silence, preferring to fade away after attempts to wrap up her yet to be completed covert operations become stone walled by her supervisor, which was expected when they had discussed the approach he would have to take should their secret discussions and operations turn awry. But her husband and former ambassador Joe Wilson (Sean Penn) is adamant in speaking up against untruths and being played out, portrayed as the bogeyman, and you can't help but feel a little bit inspired that so long as you're speaking up for a true cause, there's really nothing to fear. After all, the responsibility to keep in check a runaway rogue government from running the country into the ground through immoral and unethical methods, lie with every citizen, not just a select few who may also harbour thoughts that it's their birthright to run the country.

If Green Zone by Paul Greengrass deals with troops running around on the ground to find proof to justify their boots on Iraqi soil, then Fair Game is that companion piece that deals with events on a diplomatic and covert level before the invasion, that of course went unheeded, deliberately misinterpreted, and we find the world in the mess it doesn't need compounded today. Recommended stuff as it takes contemporary politics and massages it into something more palatable with themes to hit home with a resounding outcome.
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