Saturday, April 30, 2011

Fast Five

Who's Tough?

As far as franchise films go, The Fast and Furious series seem to be hitting the ground at top gear, with this installment not showing signs of slowing down, but prepping a new direction for future films to take, shifting gears from a film showcasing hot bodies (not solely just car chassis) and fast nox-enabled cars into the classic heist genre, given that it had that as its underlying premise from the first film, and now with a growing ensemble, are ready to give Ocean's Eleven a run for its money.

Rio De Janeiro provides the backdrop in which this installment takes place in (quite a popular location for films recently too), with the chief villain being Reyes (Joaquim de Almedia), a mobster with a businessman front, with his tentacles of vice and influence extending toward every part of the city. Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), Brian O'Conner (Paul Walker) and the former's sister Mia (Jordana Brewster) hide out in the city as fugitives having broken Dom en route to prison at the end of Fast & Furious, and with the kind of money available for the taking to start a family of their own with Mia found to be pregnant, they decide to assemble a team, not to pass up the opportunity of robbing Reyes blind.

So in comes a whole host of characters whom we have seen in past films, such as Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej (Ludacris), Gisele (Gal Gadot), and even Han (Sung Kang) whom we know what happened to in Tokyo Drift, hence putting the chronology of the films at 1, 2, 4, 5 and 3 (five films in 10 years is quite consistent), which is now sometime in the not so immediate future. Director Justin Lin takes on his 3rd film of the franchise and together with writer Chris Morgan have managed to introduce new elements to surprise audiences and fans up until this installment, keeping with the usual action laden elements, while bringing on new characters into the franchise, this time with Dwayne Johnson coming in as a no nonsense, dogged and persistent FBI operative Hobbs, with an arsenal of technology and attitude to aid him and his team in tracking down Dom and his crew.

And of course who cannot wait to see two tough guys in Vin Diesel and Dwayne Johnson go one on one with each other in a fisticuffs, especially since their time with family friendly films have taken a backseat to put them both firmly back into the action genre. It sets up new rivalry, while keeping the old between Dominic and Brian with the latter always keen to prove who's the better driver. And like most ensemble films, it's make or break given the character's appeal, and I'm glad to note they share this incredibly chemistry this bunch of highly skilled cons who each bring their know-how to the table in trying to pull off mission frickin' insanity, and everyone possessing a mean driver's license to power souped up vehicles.

And if it's action you're seeking, it's action you'll get in this film too, putting aside the rather rote and superficial theme of family and trust. There's no lack of races and wheels on the roads although I do note that there's not too much of signature cars to go around this time. Even a would be street race was unceremoniously cut off, although we do get it compensated with a four way race down two traffic lights amongst Roman, Dom, Brian and Han which was more of a fair competition since they were all essentially driving the same model. Then there's the big bang finale that you would have seen in the trailer, with Dom and Brian yanking a bank vault and travelling down the streets of Rio at top speed, in what would be a fittingly noisy last act destroying everything, and I mean everything, along their path, that has to be seen in a cinema to enjoy this guilt trip in sense surround glory.

Needless to say I am a fan of the franchise, and am excited about the direction this film would be going even if it would mean limiting the number of cars on the roads, since the film had already shown the potential of that chemistry between the cast and characters, and I'm eagerly anticipating more. From one fanboy and an action junkie to any other, this of course would be recommended fare.

Stay tuned while the end credits roll, and you'll be treated to a stinger that reaffirms and teases what's to come in the next film, with no less than two surprise appearances. But no, with the timeline, it'll take a while before Lucas Black will be able to link up with the guys. For an adrenalin pumping high octane entertaining film outing, Fast Five is that opener to a very noisy and crowded summer season to come.

P.S. For those who find it hard to suppress that inner racer in you after watching the film, you may want to consider getting it all out on a go-karting track. Head on to MC²! Motor Sports' Go-Kart Event to do so, and more details are available at their event website!

Returning Soon

The Roommate


Other than having a couple of up and coming starlets to promote, it will be a stretch to try and rationalize how a film such as The Roommate can be made other than to provide a platform to do just that, with a predominantly good looking female cast holding court and trying their best to act around a formulaic theme about how chummy one can get with someone who shares your dormitory room, before finally showing true colours that involve plenty of bitching and back stabbing (literally, and very seriously too). It also plays on the psyche of female competition amongst one another in trying to go one up constantly, and the slightest of provocation means a smile on the outside and contempt on the inside.

But to make it a little bit more palatable, the antagonist has got to be an outright psycho, which Leighton Meester does in her role as Rebecca, a Beverly Hills rich kid who is as mental as can get, although you have to admit possessing a brilliant criminal mind in scheming and plotting to get her way with her roommate, the fashion designer wannabe Sara Matthews (Minka Kelly, who had the bit role as Autumn in (500) Days of Summer), who comes with enough emotional baggage such as a good looking (hardly any ugly folks in this movie, people) ex-boyfriend, and a deceased sister who gets constantly mentioned together with a precious necklace, a small town girl looking toward making it big after her fashion education, aspiring to be like her more adult friend Irene (Danneel Ackles).

Simply put, it's the classic tale of desire and unhealthy obsession, of needing to feel wanted, loved, and accepted by someone else. It steered clear of any romantic notions (unlike Atom Egoyan's film Chloe, since this is more of a teenybopper film) between Rebecca and Sara with the former only earnestly wanting to be with and possess her friend, that enemies and loved ones all fall into her grand plan to be gotten rid of. So in comes the usual caricatures such as a slutty friend (Alyson Michalka) and a sleazy professor (Billy Zane) even, to show just how far Rebecca is willing to cross the line in being Sara's constant protector on earth, where nothing is not worth trying in setting others up for a fall.

Watching this film is like watching a stack of dominoes falling down, where scenes are set up and developed as expected, leading one after another all the way to the finale. You're likely to stay one step ahead each time in Sonny Mallhi's story, with Christian E. Christiansen's direction being unsure of making this a thriller, setting things up rather meekly without delivering any punches, except for the big finale when all hell broke loose, and it became a gladiatorial kitty fight, with Cam Gigandet popping up every now and then in the narrative as Sara's new boyfriend, in just about the same functional role he served in the musical Burlesque.

Perhaps the only more interesting thing to note about this film is the local censor's views again on kissing between members of the same sex. A girl on girl kiss would have warranted an M18 rating so long as lips made contact and not snipped off, but this got bumped down to a more forgiving NC16, so it's either the slow but sure path we'll see in being more liberal with the rating, or the conscious understanding that any rating other than what's given already had detrimental effects on the box office receipts, given that this film, sans established big stars, will likely struggle with its tried, tested and tired plot, and it's giving it a shot in the arm to be taken down fast enough.

Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa (Chronicles Of Merong Mahawangsa aka The Malay Chronicles: Bloodlines)

I Need a Multi-Lingual Hero

Other than the horror and comedy films that get churned out on a regular basis by Malaysia's mainstream film industry (who is going into 3D too by the way), KRU Studios showed that it had ambitious plans to make a big budgeted action spectacle that have some legs to travel the world, crafting a tale from centuries past loosely based on The Malay Chronicles involving a melting pot of Roman soldiers, Chinese warriors of the Han Dynasty, and natives of the land of Langkasuka in a joint battle against pirates of the marauding Geruda tribe. It's noisy, it's epic looking, and it features characters and a cast that would make the United Nations proud, speaking in English, Bahasa and Mandarin to highlight multple cultures.

The story is told in simple terms, with a Roman Prince Marcus Carprenius (Gavin Stenhouse) set to wed the Chinese Princess Meng Li Hua (Jing Lusi) in a deal to seal two separate empires into an alliance. The wedding is to take place at the mid point between the east-west sea routes of the empires, which would be where modern day Peninsular Malaysia is but of course. However, the young royals fail to see the merits of any loveless, arranged marriage, before finally casting their eye on each other and discovering they share similar long term ideals. But the Geruda tribe is to gatecrash the wedding day with plans of their own for riches by capturing and holding the Princess hostage, and it's up to our heroes to train, form an armada of brave men to take the enemy down within two moons, or risk having the Princess violated then killed.

While it's a film that features an ensemble cast of heroic characters such as the Chinese Admiral Liu Yun (Craig Robert Fong) and the Roman Prince Marcus, the main protagonist is that of Merong Mahawangsa (Stephen Rahman-Hughes), whom you can picture as a Captain Jack Sparrow equivalent, minus the comedic banter and attitude, with stronger physique and better fighting skills to boot. A wandering soul himself, his amorous exploits in various lands allowed an opportunity to meet Prince Marcus and his entourage in Goa, where the Prince saves his life from the mob and having Merong promising to take him back to his homeland in Langkasuka where the wedding will be, being late meaning an insult shown to the Chinese emperor. And it becomes a prophecy (as always) fulfilled when Merong makes land, being the chosen one to unite and lead his people to battle against their joint enemy, falling in love in the process and with an added objective to restore the honours of loved ones.

This is an action adventure, so what mattered are the big fight sequences, filled with plenty of swords and sorcery, CG blood spewing all over the place, and what I thought to be admirable fight choreography to rival some of the best available out there, despite having some cringe-inducing acting from faceless extras who had to be various goons to fall in battle. The story doesn't waste time in presenting Merong Mahawangsa as a battle-weary individual, and launches into huge beachfront assaults that got repeated again as the finale battle, albeit on a different side with slightly different players. One thing's for sure though, that Malaysia has got the know how and capability to stage rather convincingly fights that combine choreography and CG (albeit some aspects of it requiring some polish), no longer having to play catch up with the more established film industries.

What I would have enjoyed a lot more would be stronger opponents, who possess some degree of sorcery to control the weather, though nothing else which blunted their supposedly mean and ruthless reputation of continuous victory. With bomohs and warlocks, it could have been more of a fantastical action flick with magical amulets, a mean looking kris and an Archimedes inspired device that looked a little bit puny due to a lack of budget. I do not have issues with the many languages used in the film since the country of origin of the film is multi-cultural, at least characters speak to each other in the same set of language rather than a mishmash of sorts, although you do have to stretch that believability a little in having almost all the characters in the film educated in more than one tongue for narrative convenience.

It may not be a classic, but it sure is quite a fun ride from the film industry of a neighbour that I'm recommending as worthy of your time during the weekend even. Now why couldn't we make a film as fun, loud and brash as this one here?

Thursday, April 28, 2011


Grow Up, Son

The Marvel Comics characters are burning up the screens with no less than three films offered this summer, all promising of bigger franchises to come. There's X-Men: First Class which I am absolutely looking forward to having been impressed by the trailers thus far together with a first rate ensemble cast, and then there's 2012's Avengers which had just started shooting. Which of course brings us to the origin tales of Captain America and now Thor to introduce these characters to a new generation, and introduce Thor did Kenneth Branagh manage to do, in an unusually functional treatment rather than coming to expect something more epically Shakespearean.

One of the main issues with the ambitious Avengers film is the introduction of the less than scientific, reality based elements of the Marvel films and characters to date, where radiation is root cause for the creation of The Hulk, Fantastic Four and Spider-man, and technology behind the likes of Tony Stark's Iron Man, meaning they're not too far fetched if you're a fan of science fiction. Even gene mutation still falls within the boundaries of believability. But with Thor comes something from the magical and fantasy realm, which undoubtedly will open the door to more powerful villains not bounded by the laws of physics at least, but still with the villain possessing incredible powers, unless the story is compelling, we're going to find ourselves stuck with a massively powerful hero, what more when he's a god?

Which is what made Thor somewhat a refreshing change in the way comic book heroes are portrayed in recent years, whether DC (who will have its hands full with Superman, sharing the same pain points), or Marvel. Enter Kenneth Branagh to try and make Thor more palatable to the reality so far in the Marvel film base, hitting it off where Iron Man 2 had hinted at its ending, before introducing us to a brief history of Asgard and Odin (Anthony Hopkins), together with his sons Thor and Loki and that aged old fued with the Frost Giants. In fact the story by J. Michael Straczynski and Mark Protosevich is already found in the theatrical trailers, with the arrogant Thor (Chris Hemsworth) being cast from his would be throne and onto Earth, and finding himself to be quite the mortal without his mythical hammer Mjolnir which he has to find with the help of scientists Jane Foster (Natalie Portman) and her friends Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgard) and Darcy (Kate Dennings).

AS I mentioned earlier, the story is purely functional at this stage, going from scene to scene in quite the fish out of water fashion where the Norse god of thunder finds himself caught up in poor slapstick comedy (how many times can he be hit by a vehicle?). Redemption doesn't come easy for the big guy even as he's made to feel guilty for his misdeeds when on Asgard that his brother never failed to remind him of, making Loki (Tom Hiddleston) chief villain just because he's looking toward being the favoured son of Odin. Yes the main villain of the story uses more of his brains than brawn, but is no pushover when the situation calls for a more physical response.

And the battle sequences impressed, which is kind of a surprise since I never associated Branagh as one who can film kinetically charged action for the big screen. With Thor's magical prowess brought about by Mjolnir, the CG here lives up in crafting the kind of extravaganza and incredible spectacle when Thor wields his trusty hammer into battle, twirling, throwing, flying and calling in some mean looking, bad weather associated reinforcements. A film like this couldn't possibly be done years ago, and technology coupled with an artistic team's imagination and reference from Thor's source material, made the big battle sequences interesting. But I will add that one should steer clear of 3D since it's converted in post prodcution, with nothing that truly stood out to justify the viewing in 3D.

Chris Hemsworth was a relatively unknown Australian, but I guess like Hugh Jackman this could be his ticket into the big league, having to look the part of the hero and portray him to a T with that streak of arrogance that required a lesson in humility and about the sanctity of life. Yes although it doesn't call for tremendous acting chops, I suppose looking the part and playing it convincingly with those rippling muscles, is already half the battle won. Anthony Hopkins lends that bucket load of gravitas as Odin (just as how Liam Neeson's Zeus in the Clash of the Titans remake was welcomed), while Tom Hiddleston as Loki provided that conflicting villain who's an excellent liar corrupted by power.

While it has the benefit of Hollywood It Girl Natalie Portman counted amongst its ranks as the main squeeze that Thor falls for, the romance here is a little bit stretched as well, since the two hardly spend quality time together to develop genuine feelings, with Jane sealing the deal just because Thor looks good when he got his groove back, armour, weapon and all, together with that sparkle in those blue eyes surrounded by those golden facial locks. The characterization of Jane Foster is wafer thin, and the love story lacked any real emotional depth, relying on a mere summary of someone else's narration than to come from pure feelings, but I guess having her around lends star appeal to the film.

And as for cameos (look away now if you choose not to be spoilt), well, look out for Jeremy Renner as Hawkeye who saved all nuances of action for Avengers, and Samuel L. Jackson's Nick Fury making his much ado about nothing appearance in the coda after the film proper, although in Thor's case it turned out to be a little bit weaker since it's supposed to tease into Avengers directly, and well, expecting something really does take the fun out of anything.

Thor the film did what it had to, and successfully introduced the character to film audiences in anticipation of a huge ensemble in The Avengers. It's getting crowded, but here's a feather in the cap for Marvel in having to chalk up another expected blockbuster and hopefully boosting comic book sales as well. Highly recommended, and I can't wait for the rest of the slated Marvel heroes to appear on the big screen in weeks to come!

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The Lost Bladesman (关云长 / Guan Yun Chang)

The General

Famed for their triad themed films, writer-directors Felix Chong and Alan Mak turn their attention to what would be the recent flavour of Chinese period films set in the Warring States period, dramatized in Luo Guanzong's classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms, with Daniel Lee turning in a fantastical Ressurection of the Dragon starring Andy Lau and Sammo Hung, and John Woo presenting his two film epic Red Cliff, which was marketed as staying true to supposedly real events if not for a vanity ending that let the cat out of the bag, aligning itself more closely to Woo's universal themes and stylistic brand of action. Romance of the Three Kingdoms had plenty of stories in its tome, and it's no surprise that Chong and Mak chose their preference of a story from that of Guan Yun Chang, aka Guan Yu, whose moral values and principles alike have turned him into a revered deity worshipped by people on both sides of the law from the Chinese territories.

The usual portrayal of Guan Yu is caricatured in films, meaning the default choice of actor would normally be as tall as possible, with a charismatic regal presence, long beard, garbed in green and wielding a mean looking halberd known as Green Dragon Crescent Blade (Guan Dao), and normally with a red face. Ti Lung played this role in Daniel Lee's film, while Ba Sen Zha Bu took on the role in John Woo's, both very much looking their parts, with fight scenes incorporated to display his tremendous strength. Personally, from impression, books read and computer games played, Guan Yu is the more complete general on the side of Liu Bei (the cameo here played by Alex Fong), being a lot more level headed than Zhang Fei, while possessing intelligence and fighting abilities to rival some of the best. But what made Guan Yu amongst the favourites is his unrelenting loyalty toward his sword brother, despite being courted and enticed by Cao Cao (Jiang Wen) with the latter putting in his utmost efforts to recruit Guan Yu to his ranks of mercenaries.

The story of Guan Yu, played by Donnie Yen, focused on his short stint of plying his trade for Cao Cao - for one of the honorable reasons of protecting Liu Bei's wives who were captured by the enemy - followed by his exodus based upon a caveat that he would leave once he knows the whereabouts of Liu Bei. This provides for the perfect balance for a film in having ample drama to portray two large historical characters, while yet having enough action sequences during Guan Yu's flight to satisfy action, and Donnie Yen fans as he ploughs his way through the famous crossing of the five passes. But here's where the film, which started off and had good potential and promise, started to falter, resulting in a less than satisfying, and choppy narrative.

For starters, Donnie Yen as Guan Yu certainly raised a few eyebrows, although you realize the filmmakers may have wanted to break conventions. I can live with that, having Guan Yu more of Donnie's physical stature, although traded off with being a little bit more nimble. While Yen's portrayl of Guan's fighting prowess is excellent par none, with the actor also taking up action choreography responsibilities, his dramatic range is undoubtedly hampered, nary breaking into a smile (which is a good thing after that very smiley performance in All's Wel, Ends Well 2011). Thankfully this got compensated by the presence of Jiang Wen as Cao Cao, adding much needed gravitas to a role that Jiang excelled in making Cao both a hero and a villain, who on the outside does and makes everything fine and dandy for Guan Yu, but harbouring deep evil beneath the facade that we see behind closed doors amongst his most loyal of generals.

And given that the set action sequences are spaced far apart, it is Jiang Wen who prevented the film from sagging in its middle act, as we see Cao Cao's dogged pursuit to build camaraderie with Guan Yu, and wonders just what it takes to have men of quality joining his ambition to rule all of China. Meanwhile we have a romantic interlude that deals with Guan Yu's infatuation with Qi Lan (Sun Li) the woman he loves but cannot woo because she is betrothed to Liu Bei. While this was inserted to show how Guan Yu is a man who sacrifices personal happiness for others, what with his saving of her skin a number of times and with his escorting her back to Liu Bei's camp, this was perhaps the weakest link in the story given Yen's unconvincing performance, and Sun Li's role being nothing more than decorative and a pretty face to build on the temptation factor.

But the second half picked up from where the first scene left off, with large action pieces to thrill audiences with Guan Yu in full battle, despite not having his famed Green Dragon Crescent Blade with him, nor the story of the Red Hare steed incorporated, which would be a nice touch to build on established mythos. Yen shows why he still has it in him as a top notch action star and choreographer with a variety of fighting styles and mano a mano battles against opponents hell bent on slaying his Guan Yu to gain instant recognition and fame. The characters Guan Yu come up against are adapted from the infamous Five Passes Crossing, which happened because of Cao Cao's instruction to go against his own word, or that of his subordinates' defiance of orders (which is why Jiang Wen is best here as an astute politician presented with a dilemma with trying to please one man at the risk of losing loyalties of the others), and becomes almost like a computer game with the clearing of one boss level after another.

There's Kong Xiu (Andy On) refusal of safe passage resulting in a fight within a constricted passageway getting in the way of weapons in full swing (sort of reminiscing Yen's swordplay in Tsui Hark's Seven Swords), Han Fu's betrayal and his poisoned dart episode, Bian Xi's ambush with hundreds within a temple, and the governor Wang Zhi's fight with Guan Yu in a snow covered landscape, which is probably the best amongst them all despite losing plenty of backstory that builds up to the fight. Come to think of it, there was a conscious drop of background to how Guan Yu got to each stage which removes plenty of drama, and made it really look like Guan Yu going on a rampage to rid all who stood in his way.

The cinematography also was found to be left very much wanting with one extended fight sequence shot very much in the dark so much so that you can hardly see anything, except knowing that Guan Yu is dispatching a lot of goons repeatedly, and Bian Xi's episode was also quite the let down in a cheat sheet of shots, stylistically quite innovative, but with doors closed and plenty of noise coming from within before revealing the obvious winner, you would have hoped the camera was placed on the other side instead. Perhaps it will be there as a deleted scene in the DVD. And while I mentioned this isn't your usual gigantic Guan Yu, Donnie Yen's fight choreography may have confused him with Chen Zhen which Donnie also played in Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (directed by Andrew Lau), having Guan execute dexterous moves as seen in that film running around in a circle and dodging arrows which seemed to have been fired from a machine gun. I'm all for reinterpretation, but adopting something so recent from one's own film (perhaps he really liked those moves to repeat them here again), is shortchanging fans and audiences, coming so recent.

Romance of the Three Kingdoms cannot possibly be made into a one off feature film, but it contains a lot of stories and characters that serve as a wealth of resource material to tap upon for translation to the big screen. This probably isn't the best and won't be the last of the lot, and despite its flaws, still managed to turn in some pure entertainment, although with the pedigree of talent involved, one can be forgiven to have expected a lot more.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Water for Elephants

The Elephant Couple

I have to admit my tinge of skepticism about the film after watching the trailer as it looked like one of yet another formulaic romantic drama that Hollywood churns out on a regular basis, but thankfully this turned out to be better than expected, surprisingly brought about about by the presence of Robert Pattinson being able to hold his own as the well-liked protagonist Jacob. Based upon the novel by Sara Gruen and set in the early 30s of the Great Depression and Prohibition in the USA, director Francis Lawrence wastes no time in cutting to the chase, putting Jacob right into the thick of the action with a travelling circus troupe which would be his new home and family.

There aren't too many circus related films these days, with the last I can recall being Tim Burton's Big Fish, so this was a refreshing shot in the arm rather than to revisit yet another comic book film, or a reboot / remake. And with a circus comes the myriad of bountiful performances from clowns to acrobatic acts, right down to the taming of the lion even, that we the audience get to enjoy ringside seats at the celluloid big top spectacular, under the guidance of ringmaster August (Christoph Waltz), an astute businessman with a violent temper and penchant to get to his objectives set through any means possible.

Jacob, a Cornell veterinarian undergraduate into his last legs of study until a family tragedy meant a wiping of kin and money, forcing the kid to grow up fast and take to the streets in order to survive. In a stroke of coincidence he finds himself in the company of a circus troupe headed by August who decided to take the chap in based upon his close qualifications, in a session that really hit the nail on the head with its rationale of providing talent a chance at something rather than be bounded by paper certificates. It's not always easy for the new guy in the various orientation / honeymoon stages of a new job where he's tasked to look after the circus animals, and then that of its star attraction, the aged elephant christened Rosie.

What I enjoyed about the film isn't the romance, but rather how the troupe opted to survive under the leadership of August, who doesn't always make the popular decisions, but the right ones, sometimes dubious, necessary to ensure the continuation of their corporation. In some ways it almost resembles local politics even, where this party got chosen for its leadership team, who often also has enough muscle to dish out punishment if someone were to stray from the party direction. A conforming behaviour is expected where questions aren't supposed to be raised, and everyone going about their assigned duties to ensure economic survival in dire straits, with leaders obssessed with performance and revenue figures, while at the same time highlighting how those who fail to perform get unceremoniously tossed aside, since they aren't contributors and the circus isn't a welfare. Every conceivable trick of a circus or performance having to employ its own insiders, cannot get more pronounced here, which makes it quite fun to observe at the wayside, showing the darker side to things we seldom see beneath the surface.

But the film isn't really all about Circus Tycoon, than it is about the troubled romance between a married woman, and the newest kid on the block. Smittened by Marlena (Reese Whitherspoon), Jacob tries to keep his feelings under wraps but I guess when there's an almost animalistic like attraction between a couple, no force in this would could come in between. And here's where I thought the romance failed with the pairing of Whiterspoon and Pattinson, with one clearly older than the other, and it shows in the most unlikeliest of pairings that makes it a stretch to believe they could be anything more than platonic friends, with weak attempts at innuendo to betray their true feelings. It could also be that biting the hand that feeds you isn't my cup of tea in the first place, and the love shown by the respective individuals for the elephant they have to work with, chalks up more mileage instead, with emotions running a little deeper especially when they have to rehabilitate the mammal.

Those who suspect Robert Pattinson's acting chops outside of the wildly popular Twilight series will probably change your mind when you see him whip up a spectrum of emotions as a youth at the crossroads of his life having opportunities ahead of him being whisked from under his feet, from downcast with losing the only folks he knows in the world, to the elation of finally being accepted and finding meaningful work with his own abilities. Reese Whitherspoon on the other hand didn't lift her game opposite her more youthful co-star, and didn't look at all comfortable which shows in the film.

Animal lovers will likely take offense at Christoph's ruthless portrayal of August, which is a good thing as he makes it easier to dislike his sociopathic character. Like his previous roles in Inglourious Basterds and The Green Hornet, he lulls you into complacency with a friendly demeanour, only for his true colours to show later on which provides that additional sucker punch feeling of danger as you realize the presence of pure evil. But the brilliance of Christoph's portrayal also means playing the sympathetic card as well, since the real push of the character over the edge, is the slow losing of the grip on his wife, and his troupe as well, in what would be a CG filled final act that didn't quite look too polished.

Francis Lawrence that took a leaf from how James Cameron's Titanic bookended the film, with Water For Elephants delivering a surprisingly enjoyable period piece with great production values set around train travels, animals and circus acts, complete with emotional maturity befitting a classic, if not for the relative weaker romantic elements to rob it of some shine.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Aku Tak Bodoh

Aku Samseng

Does a Singapore film need a remake so soon? I'm not sure, and judging by the end product of Aku Tak Bodoh, a Malay language film for the Malaysian market, adopting Jack Neo's I Not Stupid Too (the second, not the first film), the answer is a resounding no, unless of course the sole purpose and objective is to cash in on a successful formula, with the original being too Chinese-centric, to try and milk from a much larger audience pool. No less than 5 production companies are involved in this, including J-Team Productions flying the solo flag from Singapore with the rest being film production houses from across the Causeway.

There has been much flak and talk about this film trying to market itself as Singapore's First Malay Movie, which in itself is so wrong on all counts. It's clearly a Malaysian film, from its cast and crew right down to setting, and the only thing Singaporean about it is probably a director who hails from this part of the world, and a story that originated from Jack Neo. It's almost scene for scene on fast forward, seemingly on steroids as it breezed through all the emotional ups and downs plus comedy (that fell flat mostly) in a compact 90+ minutes that signals a real lack of purposeful pacing.

The trio of actors in Suhairil Sunari, Rohaizat Hassan and Wan Noor Aizat take over from the Singapore counterparts of Joshua Ang, Shawn Lee and Terry Khoo respectively playing Sudin, Roy and Jefri, the latter being the main narrator as he introduces us to his uncaring family with Riezman Khuzaimi and Amy Mastura Suhaimi playing the dad and mom roles that Jack Neo and Xiang Yun tackled, and Namron in Huang Yiliang's abusive dad role who never fails to berate his son Sudin. The main theme of the story is of course on the importance of family and family ties which in our modern day lives we tend to neglect and take for granted. Jack Neo managed to pull it off in his version, but unfortunately, with more or less the same material, his protege Boris Boo failed miserably, with the clear lack of an establishing shot to introduce characters, choosing instead to throw them all on screen in haphazard fashion.

It's like skipping the foreplay totally, eager to get his hands on the funnier comedic aspects of the original film, so much so that even the jokes got recycled lock, stock and barrel that they are incredibly unfunny the second time round. Granted nobody who has watched the original would be expected to give this version a go (except perhaps, erm, me?) but seriously, remakes don't have to trod the lazy path and lift every aspect from the original source material. Scenes got reassembled that watching this turned out to be an exercise of deja vu, totally expiring any emotional goodwill that the original contained.

I Not Stupid Too was a film some 5 years ago, and clearly some topical issues (that Jack is famous for incorporating into his films) cannot survive the test of time, and look terribly outdated here - take for instance, would a kid now be thrilled with a 2G phone (or a 3.5G one that looks fashionably 2G?), and I hate to say this but blogs are a bit passe with Twitter and other social media tools now entering mainstream. But the original story had those as plot elements, and the lazy remake just adopted them. Blindly. Some filmmakers may try to include some extra elements in a remake to keep it fresh for those who had seen the original, or the filmmakers may have include their signature style, or managed to capture the emotional essence of the original, but definitely not this.

Don't expect much from the acting department as the cast failed to deliver, looking comfortable to just be reading off their lines of dialogue. It's bad enough for scenes to try and make some sense when the pacing was continuously eager to move onto the next, with some crafted just for the sake of, like the preachy schoolteacher telling off another for his disciplinary methods, but it is worse when the cast fail to even bother to give their all. The limited fight scenes were laughable throwing it back to the 70s with cheat sheet fast-forwarding and lack of contact, although Suhairil Sunari does have the form to look like a modern day teenage warrior who can waltz right into an action flick.

The verdict? Give this one a miss. Should you be tempted, then go with the original that has subtitles. At least it had far better acting, better pacing and while not a masterpiece, has its redeeming values. If not for J-Team's association with it, you may not be wrong to think it was a completely unauthorized, pirated ripoff. Aku Tak Enjoy.

Saturday, April 23, 2011

[DVD] Red Light Revolution (红灯梦 / Hong Deng Meng) (2010)

Broken Dreams

Nominated for Best Unproduced Screenplay at Australia's 2008 Inside Film Awards, Red Light Revolution becomes reality for Australia born and China based writer-director Sam Voutas as his first feature film that tells of the classic underdog story, with a likable but downtrodden Beijinger Shunzi (Zhao Jun) whom we see being sacked from his cabbie job, before slowly and grudgingly finding his footing in opening up a shop in a quaint district to hawk adult toys.

Although it's China we're talking about, I'm pretty of the issues that one will probably face from friends and family if one were to open the same here in Singapore, with the usual disbelief and embarrassment that comes associated with opening such a shop, since we're still quite the conservative society at core. So it's easy to identify with the protagonist's predicament, and the multitude of challenges faced from family, friends even and that of the authorities, who get portrayed here through the personification of a neighbourhood watch inspector who patrols the grounds on the lookout for anyone circumventing rules and regulations in place.

But for Shunzi and business partner Lili (Vivid Wang) whom he came to know during a short lived supermarket job, it's an uphill battle in trying to figure out their business model in a shophouse provided courtesy by Lili's auntie, having taken stocks from an eccentric Japanese businessman Iggy (Masanobu Otsuka) to sell to what is the world's largest consumer market. In fact, the opening of this film is economics 101, which explains the pure and simple rationale of making money should one be able to tap on the needs of the population, so adult toys it is for Red Light Revolution, which the narrative has a character explaining that one should swallow one's pride to do anything to make ends meet, with the option open to always move on from doing something that is perceived to be embarrassing, but one eventually walks away laughing last and the loudest with profits, then able to do something else that one desires.

Sam Voutas crafted this film with plenty of memorable supporting characters who become the inevitable patrons of Shunzu and Lili's shop, making this the delightful comedy it is through various comedic situations they find themselves in. An extended running joke involving Shunzi's aged parents (played by Tian Huimin and Ji Qing) has to be seen (well, implied really) to be believed, who on one hand frowns upon the son's career choice given what would be the shamelessness of it all and the loss of Face to the family, but on the other are quite the jackrabbits behind closed doors. Zhao Jun also proves to be quite the excellent comedian in playing the down and out guy seeking his fortunes, playing his part with aplomb and sharing great chemistry with co-star Vivid Wang.

As a first film, this certainly ranks high in terms of production values, with a nice story to tell and great comedy to boot, and although the underdog struggle isn't exactly a new narrative tale, having this filled with a sense of cheekiness helped as well, with Voutas also appearing in a small supporting role that demonstrated the fearlessness of the filmmaking in making fun of himself, while at the same time contained some veiled critique on a touchy (pardon the pun) subject. It stayed focused on the story it wanted to tell without going off on a wild tangent as with some debut efforts in trying to encompass everything, and didn't bite off more than it can chew in its subplots that provided additional flavour to tickle that funny bone.

You may be skeptical whether someone outside of China could nail a taboo subject of and in a foreign land, but this film hits it squarely on the head you'll be surprised to discover it's not directed by a native Chinese. Red Light Revolution is currently travelling the festival circuit, so if you do come across it one day, make it your priority to watch this. Certainly recommended!

Friday, April 22, 2011

Dum Maaro Dum (दम मारो दम)

Deepika The Item Girl

Item girls are back with a vengeance given the much talked about Sheila Ki Jawani with the midriff baring Katrina Kaif in Farah Khan's Tees Maar Khan, that fast forward till today the buzz baton was ringing very loudly for Deepika Padukone in her item for Dum Maaro Dum. But personally I still preferred Sheila for the music, the narrative flow in which it was picturized on, and of course the dance performance. In Mit Jaaye Gum (Dum Maaro Dum), Padukone got decked with a shorter dress number sporting a mean looking cobra tattoo, but I don't have a thing for the drugged out look, given this was solely a song and dance number performed at a rave party before Abhishek Bachchan's ACP Vishnu Kamath came gatecrashing with the cops in tow.

Dum Maaro Dum provided what I would deem as a lift from the rather lacklustre lineup of Bollywood films released so far in this year, with the story keeping it fairly simple, yet intriguing with a mystery, with a great ensemble of actors fleshing out their carefully crafted characters. It's a basic cops and robbers tale on the war on drugs in Goa where the stakes are high on either side of the law with matters and issues hovering around the grey, never outright black or white. Cops are on the take, gangsters can turn informers, and you're never too sure just who you can trust, and who will switch allegiance.

Which makes the film thoroughly engaging to follow, paced fairly quickly and clocking just over two hours. The first half of the film before the interval allowed director Rohan Sippy to dabble with a non linear narrative structure to introduce the lead characters, starting with Lorry (Prateik Babbar, last seen in Mumbai Diaries and has another film lined up later this year as well), a student at the crossroads of his educational path, being stopped short at clinching a scholarship, and therefore unable to follow his girlfriend to the USA for further studies. Money woes meant subjecting himself to influences from a friend who had persuaded him fast cash from being a drug mule. Then there's the story of ACP Kamath, a once corrupt cop on the take who had now turned his life around (shades of Dabaang anyone?) given the death of his family, and going all out to take the war on drugs by the horns. The romantic story arc of DJ Joki (Rana Daggubati) and Zoe (Bipasha Basu) has the lovebirds being impacted through the drug trade, with the former being a easy-going, laid back bystander to his girfriend's woes, with the latter being really hard up to be an air-stewardess, and got sucked into a road of no turning back when short term gains were traded for longer term loyalties.

In some ways this is like Brian De Palma's The Untouchables, where Elliot Ness gathers a few good, uncorrupted man to form a core team to challenge the biggest gangster in town, and here, ACP Kamath does just that when he goes up against Lorsa Biscuta (Aditya Pancholi), a well connected and well oiled businessman who dabbles in the drug trade and is one of the biggest in Goa, carved out into various territories as controlled by various foreign enclaves operating the drug business. With ACP Kamath turning the heat on their operations, Biscuita becomes the guarantor of every drug baron's illegitimate business with the involvement of an enigmatic Michael Babbossa, who becomes the primary mystery man that ACP Kamath and team are trying to unravel.

So begins a cat and mouse game after the interval, where all story arcs merge into a single thread but between the two halves, the first was more of Sippy's playground with tremendous use of seamless and slick editing techniques and transitions. And something that I've always enjoyed watching is the extended single take of an action scene, which Dum Maaro Dum now has bragging rights to, involving a very fluid camera following ACP Kamath and team as they go on a drug bust in a building, continuously weaving into and out of corridors and doors, windows and down a drain pipe even in one long extended take. I'm always in awe given the sheer amount of planning that goes behind the scene to have this achieved, and it is nothing short of fascinating always.

The violence is strong as well with ACP Kamath and the villains all dishing out punishment in no holds barred style, whether using a weapon or through their bare fists. And again there will be the usual police tricks and unorthodox techniques used by the no nonsense ACP that may raise some questions, even though he's given the mandate by the chief minister to eradicate the drug problem. It's been some time since Abhishek Bachchan had headlined a box office success, and I'm backing this film to be that shot in the arm for him as he reunites with director Rohan Sippy (since Bluffmaster). Rana Daggubati also shone especially in the second half of the film where his role got expanded and turned meatier, but unfortunately for Prateik he had opened the film, but because of the narrative had to disappear for the most parts in the second half.

Still, this is one of the more satisfying Hindi films that I've seen in recent weeks, with a strong story by Shridhar Raghavan (dialogues by Purva Naresh) coupled with strong performances from the ensemble cast that makes you feel for the characters and their predicaments. Music by Pritam stand out excellently, and if you're in need of a good old fashioned cops and robbers thriller with a mix of interesting cinematography techniques employed, then Dum Maaro Dum will be your film of choice this week. Highly recommended as it goes into my shortlist as some of the best of this year!

Drive Angry

What a Ride

Fast cars, wicked guns, gratuitous nudity and unadulterated violence. No, we're still about a month away to the next Fast and Furious franchise, but while waiting for Vin Diesel and gang to zoom into cinemas, Patrick Lussier's Drive Angry powers into 3D cinemas here offering what would be as close to a B-grade exploitation/grindhouse film as possible, with plenty of tongue-in-cheekiness that often raises your eyebrow and let out a guffaw or two at the audacity of it all.

Nicolas Cage revisits his links with Hell again, no longer making a pact like he did as Johnny Blaze in Ghost Rider (which he will be reprising in another reboot of sorts), but a Crow-esque like character called John Milton who steals a heck of a multi-barreled gun from Hell, and busts out of Hades back to Earth in search of the cult leader Jonah King, (Billy Burke, who played Bella's dad in Twilight) who had murdered his daughter and taken his infant granddaughter (yes, Cage plays a grandfather!) as a sacrifice to the devil. Needing to save his only kin he returns with bad attitude as the avenger on fire seeking to kill every cult member who stands in his way, and then some.

Amber Heard continues in her blonde femme fatale stereotype as Piper the waitress whom Milton hooks up with for a deliberate reason other than that she drives a mean car - the black Dodge Charger (seriously with that kind of wheels and velvety purr of the engine who wouldn't want to hook up?) and embarking on a gun totting adventure together, filled with car chases and adversaries from both Earth and the nether world with The Acccountant (William Fichtner, the bank manager in The Dark Knight's opening scene) hot on their heels to try and recapture Milton back to where he belongs in the underworld. She doesn't have much to do here other than to look hot, swear and deliver some hard hitting punches and kicks, though Nicolas Cage also didn't venture any further with this role, growling constantly, posing and preening to look good when behind the wheel, or in preparation with his gear all set up for the next hit, blessed with a certain degree of invulnerability given his character's background.

Everyone seemed to be going over the top with their roles, even the supporting ones, and throughout the film you felt that director Lussier probably instructed his cast not to get too serious with the material, with lame one liners standing in for witty wisecracks, big bang action that borders on the impossible but undoubtedly a lot more fun, cheesy special effects at times to lend some B-level gravitas, and action that had comical results at times. Take for instance a knock off from the Clive Owen-Monica Belluci starrer Shoot 'Em Up where the hero takes on a constant stream of faceless goons while making love, although this one had an unexpected, wickedly comical moment midway through that impossible feat.

I'd watched this in the 2D version since I'm jaded with the slew of mediocre 3D offerings that employs the cheat sheat of not shooting the film in 3D but converting them during post production. This would be one of those films that would justify the 3D format given that it was shot in it, and had plenty of specifically crafted scenes done to exploit that medium, which honestly are quite nicely done since one does notice them when things start flying toward the screen, from the opening title right down to the finale with almost everything blowing to smithereens, sans 3D glasses.

This is that guilt trip of escapism and entertainment that cinema offers, if you're in need for that right mix of screen violence, comedy and action all rolled into one. It probably won't be an instant classic, but it's one heck of a modern update and tamer version of the grindhouse genre accessible to mainstream audiences.


The King Buffoon

Can one lose touch with reality? I suppose if one has multi-millions to one's name without even trying, then probably yes. There's a rather poignant moment in the film that a key character hammers this point home to the titular Arthur, played by Russell Brand, that brought out a smile inside of me since it brought to mind how some folks in power start behaving as ridiculously as Arthur and spouting some of the most inane nonsense just because they can, and do so because there's not a worry in their world possessing that kind of obscene wealth.

Yet again we have another remake of a movie descend upon us, with the original Arthur some 30 years ago played by the late comedian Dudley Moore. Russell Brand takes over the main role as the alcoholic playboy whose family riches fuels his major consumption habits of wine, women, and plenty of movie cars from the Batmobile to the DeLorean without time travel components. Getting into trouble seems to be his hobby, with butler and driver Bitterman (Luis Guzman) and nanny Hobson (Helen Mirren) ever ready to bail him out. You wonder just when this man child will grow up, which forms the crux of the issue at hand when his mom Vivienne (Geraldine James) issues an ultimatum for him to marry her trusty assistant, the ambitious Susan (Jennifer Garner) or be cut off from his inheritance of a billion dollars forever.

It brings to mind just how some will want to be amongst the elites and are willing to do just about anything to achieve that. And while Jennifer Garner has limited screen time to make you really hate her Susan character, you can feel the type of craving she goes after to be associated with a family with its own coat of arms. With her rich contractor dad (Nick Nolte) money isn't an issue, but to be associated with Arthur's last name of Bach that owns a global conglomerate rather than to still be looked down upon for a less than modest family background, now that's something to aspire to, even if it means going through a sham marriage that Arthur is reluctant to get into. I suppose this also carries some weight when put into political ambition that we see today, since some lust after the more surefire way to get into a seat of power through the compromising of principles, versus the school of harder knocks when sticking to one's ideals against something that's fundamentally wrong.

And it's also because the story's actual romantic thread has that something going on between Arthur and a random lady he meets on the streets, the tour guide Naomi (Greta Gerwig), who proves to Arthur that life isn't necessarily always centered around the money, although you do know that a little something does help with the daily bills, and a network of names do help to open doors to new opportunities, just as how Arthur helps her on the sly to push her writing/drawing talents through. In fact this films is really about Arthur and the four women in his life, one after his last name, his mother, his true romantic interest, and Hobson.

Originally a male butler in the original, this remake has Helen Mirren step in as the nanny, or more accurately the surrogate mother since Arthur's biological one cannot peel herself away from the business. For all his flaws, Hobson is the one to see through to Arthur's strength, even though his constant shenanigans test her every patience. Helen Mirren and Russell Brand share that incredible chemistry together on screen, that probably gave reason enough why someone ought to sit through this remake, with Mirren putting in her fair share of gravitas in a role that may seem like an over-glamourous Alfred role to a Bruce Wayne, dishing out good advice laced with sarcasm if warranted.

And the subplot which took the cake involves Arthur being woken up to have lost touch with the common man, and to prove a point he was to seek a job, which naturally demonstrated he cannot. It's a reminder to those sitting in ivory towers that without coming down once in a while in all earnestness to learn about the plight of the masses, one can almost be sure of losing touch, and begin to spout nonsense and behaving in a jackass fashion like how Arthur does it. I hate to politicize the film, but with the environment we're in currently, one cannot fail to see how there are those who belong to the Arthur camp, others belonging to the Susans of the world, or even the Hobsons who remain blindly loyal and probably see gold even when Arthur descends into idiocy.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

8th Singapore Short Cuts - Call For Entries

Call for Entries for the 8th Singapore Short Cuts
Presented by The National Museum of Singapore Cinémathèque and The Substation Moving Images
Submission Deadline: 20 May 2011

Submission Criteria: All entries must be made by a Singapore Citizen or Singapore Permanent Resident produced between 2010 and 2011
Venue: National Museum of Singapore, 93 Stamford Road, Singapore 178897
MRT Station: City Hall, Dhoby Ghaut or Bras Basah
Contact: 6332 3659 / 6332 5642

The National Museum Cinémathèque and The Substation Museum Moving Images invite budding filmmakers to participate in the 8th Singapore Short Cuts. An annual event that showcases short films produced by local talent and celebrating its 8th season, the Singapore Short Cuts continues to maintain its position as one of the most popular and highly anticipated presentation of local short films made by local talent. Entry forms are available for download at and for more information, please contact Warren Sin at warren_sin[at] / 6332 3957

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Chinese Ghost Story / A Chinese Fairy Tale (倩女幽魂)

Keeping It Platonic

It's not just Hollywood that is raiding its own archives to remake and reboot, but Chinese cinema as well given new market opportunities in China and a chance to apply spruced up the visual effects techniques to past fantasy films to turn them into an extravaganza. But redoing and retelling a tale come with its own challenges, especially with what could arguably be one of the most well known tales of Liao Zai that has been translated on screen by Tsui Hark and Ching Siu Tong in both animated and live action formats, and starring none other than once household names in the late Leslie Cheung, Joey Wong and Wu Ma in lead roles.

So isn't that very, very big shoes to fill? A Chinese Ghost Story, or A Chinese Fairy Tale as it is known in some parts (and more accurately too), turned out to be quite bold in its take, standing its own ground in crafting relatively new backgrounds and motivations for some, while staying true to the mythos for others. Directed by Wilson Yip, who brought us the Ip Man films, you can sense his itch in wanting to dabble in computer generated effects and plenty of kinetically charged wire-work to compensate for the rather stoic, real world sensibilities in his previous, famous martial arts epic, and here he's like a spring that has been coiled and wound up, finally letting loose.

The original film by Ching Siu Tong has this aged old charm in it, being narratively very straightforward, where a tax collector Ning Caichen arrives into a quaint little town only to find himself falling in love with a beautiful ghost Nie Xiaoqian who is doing the bidding of a tree demon, and along comes a priest in Yan Chixia to save the lovebirds and destroy evil in demonic forms that appear in their way. What made that work was the incredible performances by the cast, and of course Leslie and Joey sharing this amazing chemistry. Wu Ma also turned in a rather comedic performance as the priest with his incantations, and with every mention of the film's title, this version will spring to mind, nevermind the lacklustre sequels that followed.

In this reboot, the characters got younger, and in comes a bold move in making priest Yan a much younger man, embodied by the ever presence of Louis Koo, and having him actually romance Nie Xiaoqian (Liu Yifei)! The opening scene sets the scene for these two star crossed lovers, where Yan learns that their impossible romance is doomed to failure, and commits a magical mind wipe of sorts to condemn Nie Xiaoqian's memory of their romance. And thus the demon hunter, with equipment that would put Van Helsing to shame, ironically becomes the protector, watching and admiring his ghostly beau from afar, and stepping in once in a while, painful as it may seem, to try and reign her in.

The new Ning Caichen still remains a scholar, but enters town as sent by the court to help the townsfolk with their drought, believing that the source at Black Mountain, where the tree demon, co-manifesting as a temple for years, will hold the key to fill the people's wells. His investigation allows him to encounter Xiaoqian, and the two strike up a passable romance. Passable because unfortunately, given the young age of the principle cast, made this look very much like a teenage puppy romance rather than one charged with very strong romantic inclinations, lacking an X-factor that the original possessed by the truckloads.

Ye Shao-qun continued his rather dismal performance brought over from Kungfu Wingchun, and maybe because he has the biggest shoes to fill in Leslie Cheung's, showed that he's overawed for the occasion and fell flat most of the time with an abysmal showing. Partly because his character was very bland, making a major contributing in feeding his lady love some sweets during the course of the movie. The alluring Liu Yifei did what she had to do in becoming the vulnerable femme fatale in her version of Xiaoqian, but while the original had some sensualness (it's Joey Wong after all) and fighting spunk, this interpretation made her a little less feisty and a lot more cloying, and gone are those long sleeves that served as weapons, with her flight ability also getting severely clipped.

But the saving grace was actually in her scenes opposite Louis Koo, which became the real emotional crux and core of the film, even if we get 2 romantic stories for the price of 1, Caichen and Xiaoqian's romance got diluted even though it had longer screen time as compared to Yan and Xiaoqian, which was more powerful. Fan Siu-Wong got a supporting role as Thunder to bookend the film, a fellow priest who despises Yan for betraying their order in having fallen in love with a ghost, while Kara Hui, on a roll of a professional career comeback, completes the supporting cast as the chief villain of the film, aided by plenty of visual effects as the sinister, scheming tree demon. For the action junkie, this film will satisfy given the plenty of battle sequences amongst men and spirits, with special effects hailing from Korea providing the visual feast that peppers the film.

If you have not watched the original film at all, then this version will work wonders for you as you enter into the Chinese Ghost Story mythos for the very first time. But those who have grown up watching the original, a sense of nostalgia will sweep your senses whenever the original score got played, and you'd have to try hard to accept this new reboot, and not get too sentimental with the original and start comparing. I know I'm guilty of doing the latter since in some ways it's a classic after all, but truth be told, this still comes across as a recommended viewing if only to add another dimension and spin to an already familiar tale.

Monday, April 18, 2011

2nd Experimental Film Forum

The 2nd Experimental Film Forum
13 experimental videos on the theme - Eternity

Thursday 5 – Sunday 8 May, 7:30pm
The Substation Theatre
Admission: $7 or $5 (concession) available from the Substation box office

Curated by experimental Singapore filmmaker, Victric Thng, and the programme manager for Moving Images, Aishah Abu Bakar.

Watch this space for more details.

21st European Union Film Festival

Into its 21st edition, the European Union Film Festival is back from 5th to 15th May 2011 at GV Vivocity with a slate of 18 films scheduled for single-screening each, which means you'd better act fast once tickets go on sale this Thursday 21st April at any GV Box Office and online at Also, in partnership with the New York University Tisch School of the Arts Asia, there will also be a screening of some of its students' best short films before some of the selected features, so you do get more bang for your buck this year.

The official website of the film is now up, although you can always pop by its Facebook page for a glimpse of the films that would make it in this year's edition. Specifically, the ones that pique my interest are, in no particular order:

From Hungary: Team Building

From Austria: Mount St. Elias

From France: Of Gods and Men

From Finland: Playground

From Germany: Friendship!

From Ireland: Perrier's Bounty

From Denmark: Headhunter

From Sweden: Darling

From Poland: The Reverse

About the EUFF in Singapore
The European Union Film Festival is a showcase of some of the best films to come out of Europe. It is held every year in May and is Singapore's 2nd oldest film festival. Each year, new films are handpicked from EU's member-states. Together, they represent the diversity and rich culture of Europe. Organised by the rotating presidency of the Delegation of the European Union to Singapore, the EUFF aims to cultivate a love for European culture and cinema amongst Singaporeans.

V1K1 - A Techno Fairytale

If you’re looking for consistently unconventional short films in Singapore, look no further than the works of Tzang Merwyn Tong, who throws up non-formulaic tales that fuses fairy tales with edgy punk and heavy techno influences concocting a strange amalgamation of genres that always somehow click and work wonders. Known for e'TZAINTES and A Wicked Tale, the latter which took on Red Riding Hood in more adult terms before Catherine Hardwicke's came along, Tzang embarks on yet another tech-influenced project this time with students from a local Institute of Technical Education.

As such, while the film undeniably has Tzang’s signature treatment all over it, the execution though did come off more as a student project to allow his largely student crew a first hand experience in making a film, never shying away from dabbling with special effects that worked in some moments, while others did come off as slightly raw. But no venture no gain, and hopefully Tzang did manage to influence some of the students to further explore the technical competencies required in filmmaking, and hopefully we do see a fresh crop of graduates skilled in both the art and science of genre and fantasy filmmaking as the years move along, possessing no fear in tapping onto their imagination to tell stories.

And a fantasy sci-fi story this is, with a group of what’s termed as Fairies of Misfortune having to spend time on earth as self-proclaimed agents of change, possessing supernatural powers that remained under wraps until an action filled final act. In the meantime you get plenty of philosophical talk between Fairies, and a scientist who had captured one of them for further research, the former who unwittingly discovers a weak point in the chinks of the Fairies’ armour that provides for an upper hand in negotiations, or so he thought. Ah, the follies of the human being.

In some ways this short film also served as a showreel of sorts to demonstrate the raw energy that the ITE students bring to the table. Granted not all aspects of this film is as polished as Tzang’s earlier works, but you’d realize that perhaps one of the best and more direct ways of learning is to walk the talk. And at times I felt the techno-babble came on a little too strong for the actors to grasp, that their rote memorizing of lines unfortunately rang through to take some shine off their performances. But it more than made up for it with some incredible VFX stunt sequences for a modestly budgeted film.

Still, for its objectives set forth, V1K1 managed to have the Tzang rubber stamp in concocting a tale of the unconventionally engaging, and one wonders just how different this would have turned out with if the writer-director had a much larger budget at hand. For those who are keen to catch this, you can do so this Thursday at Sinema Old School, and details of the encore screening can be found here.



Making of:

Related Links
- Official Movie Website
- Production Talk at SINdie
- Production Blog

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Source Code


With the number of remakes and reboots and adaptations going around Hollywood, it isn't everyday that a film emerges with something relatively original and creative, except perhaps for the science fiction genre when it creates its own rules to play by. Duncan Jones proves he's no fluke with Moon, coming up with an equally entertaining and engaging Source Code that has Jake Gyllenhaal in the lead role as military man Colter Stevens who finds himself in a groundhog day type of situation, tasked with a mission of investigating and stopping a bomb from exploding on a commuter train headed for Chicago, failing which he has to "die" together with its passengers, again and again.

The less said about the film, the better because letting slip any plot points no matter how minor would be a huge disservice to an audience. Suffice to say that Stevens has to achieve his mission objectives in a race against time, all 8 minutes of it, based upon a program created by Jeffrey Wright's Dr Rutledge that taps on the final collective memories of victims in any disaster, where an investigator can somehow find himself in the body of one of the victims and be at the recreated scene of the crime, interacting in a simulated environment to discover clues and of course, perpetrators. It's an extremely sexy scenario that provides a leg up in any investigations should something along the same lines get translated to reality - imagine scores of crime being solved, and being a powerful tool in the fight against terrorism.

Jake Gyllenhaal plays his character with aplomb, resigning to knowing he cannot get answers from his handler Colleen Goodwin (Vera Farmiga) unless he delivers with each cycle some intelligence and findings, while at the same time getting attracted to Christina Warren (Michelle Monaghan) through the identity he assumes. The love story snuck in was a nice little touch, as does the backstory of who Stevens is, and how he gets himself into where and what he is currently into now. Things start to pick up when Stevens becomes situationally aware and desires to take control over his own fate.

The visual effects here didn't go overboard and Jones knows exactly the limits required before they take over and overshadow the strength of the story. It's less gimmicky, with more detail to attention given to the host of supporting characters and series of events going inside the train, and covering a lot more aspects of the expansive simulated world that addresses some of the major issues that could have made plot loopholes, but thankfully didn't.

But the downside which I prefer to overlook because it doesn't detract the viewer from the experience, involves accepting the reality that the filmmakers present to you. If you do not buy into the paradox of time travel, then you won't enjoy any time travel movies, and the same applies here if you aren't a big fan of alternate realities - there's the world that everyone exists in the main narrative, and a recreated digital one that is used for investigations purposes, defined to exist only within the specified limits of an event centered around 8 minutes worth, and no direct line exists between the real world and the recreated one, except perhaps to send one into, and retrieve one out of.

The other minor disappointment involves what I thought to be pressures existing to have a Hollywoodized ending that perhaps would be more acceptable to mainstream audiences. There's a moment in time in the final act that would have closed the film nicely given the moral conscience and decency to provide proper closure, and I felt it would have been pitch perfect rather than to push the realm of an alternate reality even further. There has bound to be a cheat sheet somewhere that the story by Ben Ripley decided to pull out to allow scenes to run and continue into the final few minutes that were quite unnecessary, if only to wrap things up in a more hopeful, and expectedly straightforward manner. Some implausibilities that broke its own rules on collective memories however do provide for post-movie discussion, especially if one's stance were to centre around one of the most powerful abilities of the mind known as imagination, and the desires to hear just what one wants to.

Still, Source Code belongs up there amongst contemporary science fiction stories that leaves you engrossed and engaged with every repeated cycle and turn in the story, and with excellent cast chemistry making it worth the ride. It presents something that isn't done to death already with that tinge of science fiction that looks like an attractive proposition to create in our world. Highly recommended as it goes into my shortlist of the best movies of the year thus far.

Norwegian Wood (Noruwei No Mori / ノルウェイの森)

Three's Company

I once had a girl, or should I say, she once had me...
She showed me her room, isn't it good, norwegian wood?

She asked me to stay and she told me to sit anywhere,
So I looked around and I noticed there wasn't a chair.

I sat on a rug, biding my time, drinking her wine
We talked until two and then she said, "It's time for bed"

She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh.
I told her I didn't and crawled off to sleep in the bath

And when I awoke, I was alone, this bird had flown
So I lit a fire, isn't it good, norwegian wood.
-- The Beatles
Based upon the novel by Japanese author Haruki Murakami, Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung boldly translates the story to the big screen with a cast of familiar faces in Kenichi Matsuyama and Rinko Kikuchi in lead roles, but somehow this attempt seemed to float along rather casually into a typical tale of a love triangle, loss and sexuality without much emotional depth. Set in the late 1960s in Japan with a whole host of student turmoil, this aspect of the story got shelved aside to focus more on the personal coming of age tale of Toru Watanabe (Matsumaya) and the women in his life.

So putting aside the various one night stands he benefitted from hanging out with casanova Nagasawa (Tetsuji Tamayama), Watanabe has to choose between Naoko (Kikuchi), a girl whom he knows from his younger days when she was the girlfriend of his best friend Kizuki (Kengo Kora) who inexplicably committed suicide, and that of Midori (Kiko Mizuhara putting in a very charismatic performance) who actually had made the first move in getting to know him better, although stopping short of going the full distance given a boyfriend whom we never see on screen.

Depending on your preference and emotional pull toward broad stereotypes of people, the two girls are very much distinct in their personalities, one being an emotional wreck given the loss of Kizuki and spending her time in rehabilitation, which accounted for the many lush, green and white sceneries depending on the calendar month, while the other is a perpetual sunshine, confident, outgoing and attractively lively. It's pessimism versus optimism, although you'd probably understand Watanabe's obligation toward Naoko having spent time growing up together, losing their mutual friend and growing close, not to mention an awkward deflowering process that happened to seal the emotional deal and attachment.

And you wonder if you'd call that love, or attraction even, as opposed to the proposition with another girl who had entered into a crossroads in his life, being stuck in time having to want to care for someone close, versus a new opportunity being presented with Midori's presence. Tran's vision puts one into a deliberately slow paced evaluation as Watanabe struggles to understand his emotional predicament and dilemma presented, where if one doesn't know how to proceed at a forked road ahead, one stalls for time, and stalling is what this film felt like.

But thanks to cinematographer Mark Lee Ping Bin, this allows for plenty of beautiful postcard picturesque shots of the countryside, and many visually stunning captures of emotions of the characters at hand, allowing sensitive, moving moments to come through, and even chances to showcase a long tracking shot set out in the fields which flip flops across the screen as Naoko shares with Watanabe her oft confused state. My favourite however involved that between Watanabe and Midori in a snow filled landscape, cold in scenery but completely filled with the warmth of heart. The cinematography added a boost in the mundane state of characterization, and when things can't move forward, at least your eyes can start to roam at the well crafted technical shots and composition of the film, in addition to the era of the 60s.

The subplots of the rich story tried to muscle its way into the film but ultimately got sacrificed to stay focus on the primary trio, in a tale about finding it tough to let go and move on without being perceived as uncaring. And just when I thought the story had finally found its grounding from which to move off, in comes a deus ex machina moment to help propel it forward, taking off the shine of emotional roller-coaster of the previous two hours, which made it all seem a little futile and a waste. Draw your own conclusions if you will since the film left things unsatisfying and open ended, and what you take away from the film, will probably be self reflective. I tried to love this film, but ultimately I can't.

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Ultimate Winner (赢家 / Ying Jia)

Easy Money

Some of you may have heard me talking about how Mediacorp artistes should be given more opportunities to cross over into film, given a ready pool of unpolished stars in the television stable. For every Fann Wong and Zoe Tay headlining a local feature film once in a while, there are plenty of others playing supporting roles in various other projects. While the big wigs representing the female stars have made their mark on film to varying degrees of success, I suppose the time is ripe for who was once Mediacorp's biggest artiste Li Nanxing to finally make that leap of faith, and not only by starring in a film, but to go behind the camera to direct one in his maiden effort too.

And in what better manner than to start off with a film that deals with gambling since one of his most memorable roles on television is that of Yan Fei the gambler that spawned two drama series. That experience tucked behind him also proved to be useful as Li becomes the gambling instructor for this film, which proved to be what's the most exciting part about Ultimate Winner that had a lot of other aspects going against it. The gambling scenes were thankfully interesting enough, no doubt stuffed by caricatures to lend comic relief, sometimes boosted by small visual effects and cheap, simple camera tricks such as speeding up the frame rate to compensate for the dealer's lack of speed. Games are kept extremely easy to guess, and I have to admit I was a little intrigued.

But on the whole, this film seemed like it fell prey to Singapore's strict moral code of conduct. We have casinos, but we cannot advertise them, at least not directly. Our movies can deal with gangsters like The Days, but it will be rated higher than PG which to a local film is box office suicide. To keep things permissable under the PG rating, we have to make our films squeaky clean and have characters with evil thoughts and doing meet their just desserts, and to that effect, is why Ultimate Winner turned out to be on the losing end.

Take for instance the race on our streets between two luxury sports cars. Li Nanxing does have a knack in his vision to shoot something exciting for an audience, and with a competent crew which included a Hong Kong director of photography (Which accounted why this film does have a certain cinematic quality to it than the usual videographic look of say, a Jack Neo film) to boost technical and production quality, but narrative wise, it just had to have the Traffic Police in the way to warn of drink driving and excessive speeding on our roads. What I thought to be the saving grace to this embarrassing narrative development, would be how Foreign Trash think they own our little island since they have direct ties to our Ministers, then yet again being told off by a Sergeant no less, that our politicians are whiter than white, or at least like to distance themselves from such shenanigans.

Or how about a tale about gambling just having to be a cautionary one, where we cannot have our own God of Gamblers equivalent, but being a must to have our gambling protagonist suffer, and hammer home the mantra that even the most skilled (because Li's character Tiancai is nothing more than a card counter and a pattern recognizer with superb memory skills) cannot win the banker, personified by the Taiwanese tycoon Champion Lee (Aaron Chen spending most of them time laughing out loud as the chief antagonist), over a long period of time due to the laws of statistics and probability, though for the sake of narrative length, shortened the BS to just single games where the winner takes all.

But what would take the cake is what I suppose would be one of the most overt portrayal of a single religious group in Singapore mainstream cinema. It's been done before in independent production such as The Olive Depression, but for the first time we have scenes of prayer, shots of religious grounds, having cell group influences, the cursing of the diety when chips are down (we are man and sinners after all), and the best of the best, a ressurection scene no less! This must be seen to believe, with the character returning as the constant nagging reminder of a consistently broken vow of Tiancai promising to quit gambling, if not for the usual pitfall where one begins from a good intent (here to clear an in-law's debt), as most addicted gamblers will probably tall you.

And who can not resist gambling when this film consistently promotes it as an easy way to strike it rich under Singapore's rising cost of living conditions, where bringing up baby requires multi-millions in order to sustain a moderate lifestyle. On one hand it's a cautionary tale, but on the other I think it's extremely seductive having to see how winning it big, and almost always, with flashy cars and loose women all coming as part of the big fat pay cheque package, would not negatively influence the weakest of wills who happen to get to watch this because of its ensemble of stars. And in almost all gambling instances, this film plays up the exclusive, elitist invites that one has to get, in Tiancai's case through a proxy and partner Honey (Constance Song), god daughter of a rich man (Chen Shucheng) in order to get a foot in the door to be amongst, and play with, the high rollers.

Story wise, Harry Yap stayed true to form by having the story go all over the place, since his directorial effort in Happy Go Lucky (which also featured gambling in its last act) was crafted in similar fashion too, wanting to cover a wide spectrum that it dilutes the film, together with plenty of side show "Calefare"s. There's Rebecca Lim playing the long suffering wife of Tiancai's in what would be one single emotion played up in most of her screen time, the sudden and unwarranted comical appearance of Phyllis Quek and Rayson Tan as a couple whom we will know later to be Tiancai's sister and brother-in-law being the most resolute in their belief as they stand outside a hospital room and pray rather successfully, the master-apprentice/slave relationship between Champion and his assistant Sky (Dai Hao Tian, watch this guy, he's intense) that failed to exploit an opportunity for a deeper exploration, and the tragic love story between Honey and Tiancai, the former clearly having the hots for the latter, but this being quite the religios film that adultery is something frowned upon - one must keep certain morals in the Commandments.

Despite the final few scenes which just demonstrated the filmmakers didn't have a clue how to end this, with two deus ex machina moments, strangely enough the film ended in a manner that screamed and left the door open for a sequel to happen, with what could be a plot of a comeback and tale of revenge. I would welcome that honestly, if only the story would be paced tighter, keeping its focus on gambling and just at most skimming on the goody-two-shoes issues gambling would bring, and having an edgier take rather than to play it safe for favourable classification. For a film about chance, it needed to give itself just that and taken bold, calculated risks instead, the irony in which it didn't and this had to languish below average.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Scream 4

Guess Who This Time

Rarely does a fourth film live up to its franchise, but Scream 4 has Wes Craven and writer Kevin Williamson, who wrote the first two installments, to thank for in bringing a lot more to the table through this film than if it were to end in a trilogy, since Ehren Kruger's story in that one is the weakest of the lot. So instead of ending the franchise with a whimper, this takes it back to a roar, and doing so also by reuniting members of the original cast in Neve Campbell, David Arquette and Courteney Cox.

It is some 15 years since the first Woodsbro massacre, and the town is geared up for the return of Sidney Prescott (Campbell) who is doing a homecoming of sorts in a new career as a writer, sharing her experience through an inspirational book. But to welcome her back is a series of murders purported by yet another Ghostface, though this time round this serial killer seems a little more savvy, edgy, and clearly a lot more psychopathic in wanting to get rid of Sidney's loved ones, and then some. Joining the fray and as fodder for Ghostface include the return of Dewey Riley (Arquette), now Sheriff, his wife Gale Weathers-Riley (Courtney Cox) who is now at a loss of a crossroads in her life without much meaning since Sidney and Ghostface have been dormant, Sidney's cousin Jill Roberts (Emma Roberts), her ex boyfriend Trevor (Nico Tortorella) and her best friend Kriby Reed (Hayden Panettiere) a horror movie junkie, as well as nerds Charlie Walker (Rory Culkin) and Robbie Mercer (Erik Knudsen) who started Stabathon and into its third season.

You may remember the Stab films, which is the film within the film in Scream that adapts the murders, and the opening sequence of Scream 4 is rather fun as it pokes fun and almost self-parodies itself. And this is where it provided opportunities as a launchpad for the filmmakers to lampoon the recent Hollywood trend of torture porn films (will surely get some Saw film fans up in arms), and to criticize the numerous reboots and remakes especially in the horror genre. Trivia pursuit in the horror genre also becomes the order of the day since there are a number of nerdy characters here who preach about the merits and patterns formed in modern day horror stories, and every moment where it can reference other films, or the genre, Williamson's story exploits and takes full advantage of that, as well as digging deep and going back to the first film as a loopback of sorts since the new killer seemed to have followed the pattern as seen in the original.

To say anything more would mean to spoil the story and its surprises along the way, but do bear in mind that while Scream 4 tries hard to reinvent itself yet stay relevantly formulaic to its established rules, there are some consistencies that cannot fail to go away, such as how gung ho Sidney Prescott can really be in fending off Ghostface as compared to other smaller, more unfortunate characters, and how the cops always seem to caught flat footed and not arrive until the show's over. Rules get revisited thanks to the a pause in the narrative to run through how things have got updated in today's world, and what would seem like a stinging commentary on youths of today, having the mindset of instant gratification and adopting shortcuts to success in wanting to emulate their heroes rather than to go through the school of hard knocks.

While Wes Craven doesn't direct anything too fanciful in the film to allow the story to shine, after all he did exclaim he'll only be back if the story's up to mark, I have to confess that he still possesses the knack for crating moments to make you jump at your seat or to make your heart skip a beat even though you know something's peering and expected around the corner. With the right material such as this one on hand, he again shows why he's quite up there as masters of the genre, and what made this a lot more meaningful is the return of the original principal cast members to guide the newcomers through, even though they look visibly aged, in line with the characters they play in real time, being idols that are looked up to, from Dewey the Sheriff and his female deputy Judy Hicks (Marley Shelton) to provide for some tension with his wife Gale, Gale herself being idolized by Sidney's publicist (Alison Brie), and needless to say Sidney Prescott being the celebrity that she is to have stood up against multiple versions of Ghostface.

Scream 4 will be a definite treat especially for those who have followed the series right from the start. There are plenty of references and easter eggs here pertaining to the earlier installments, so the challenge here is to try and spot them all in one sitting, which contributes to the fun. Those who have not acquainted yourself to the Scream trilogy will fare better if you spend some time dipping into the older films so that you can get to enjoy this one at a much deeper level. As I mentioned, rarely does a fourth film live up to the expectations set by the first, and continuing with that level of confidence that it will not be the worst film of the lot, and Scream 4 satisfies on both accounts. A surefire recommendation for Scream fans to wipe that bad aftertaste of Scream 3, and a worthy finale (if it ends here) to the franchise.
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