Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Cat (Goyangyi: Jookeumeul Boneun Doo Gaeui Noon / 고양이 : 죽음을 보는 두 개의 눈)

Hello Kitty

With a bland title like The Cat (with a Korean subtitle as funky as "Two Eyes See Death" according to Google Translate), it just about signals how blase horror films can be these days especially when they dip into the generic bag of scary tricks to assemble a horror feature film by stringing together a series of cheap jump scares, and then finding an excuse to weave a narrative around the usual mystery cum unfinished business cum body to be found and exorcised type of storyline.

Granted the premise and set up is something begging to be done, and done it is with this Korean film, otherwise we can make a film called The Dog and have the dog howl at every suspenseful instance to signal some supernatural presence, which doesn't really work that well. Cats usually have this connotation to witchcraft and its eyes being quite creepy to look at especially in some form of darkness, so in the animal itself you have a ready made plot device in which to weave a narrative around. Here the chief pussycat called Silky belongs to a plump woman who was found dead in the lift to her apartment, and for reasons only cat lovers can identify with, So-Yeon (Park Min-Young to wide-eyed perfection) who worked on and groomed the animal before its owner's demise, got stuck with the feline.

As if one warning isn't enough, expect to see a whole slew of bodies turning up, usually accompanied by the shadowy appearance of a little girl, played by Kim Ye-Ron, whose sister Kim Sae-Ron had in recent years become a child acting force to be reckoned with in films like A Brand New Life and The Man From Nowhere. I'd wonder what made her sister take this path early in her career being decked out in face paint and acting all creepy, but herein lies the expected back story as to why and how this little girl and her cat, are out there trying to spook and become avenging angels against all cat abusers, which in a way seemed noble enough a reason to do what they did.

Ultimately writer-director Byun Seung-Wook does little except to showcase that he's as capable as other directors before him who have executed the usual suspense build up, and the typical jump scares to make audiences squeal, complete with sudden loud noises, light and shadow play, and tapping upon the expertise of makeup artists who applied the feline face of death look which is inspiration for anyone wondering just how to dress up during this year's Halloween. And to make matters worse, without the numerical advantage in getting characters bumped off, or have random bodies appear just to spook, The Cat would betray that it's actually all of a short film only, being extrapolated just because of its repetitive scare tactics to introduce another dead body under extraordinary circumstances.

The Cat will thrill anyone who hasn't seen his or her fair share of Asian horror films, otherwise to horror fanatics, this is yet another film exercise for the filmmaker to chalk up a genre film under his belt. This is one weak pussy after all.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

[DVD] It's a Great Great World (大世界 / Tua Seh Kai) (2011)

Watching The Fireworks

What's one of the best ways to enjoy the local film It's a Great Great World if you have missed it in the cinemas earlier this year? By getting the DVD and watching the film with friends and family, especially so if they are of the older generation who will inevitably have been to the actual Great World amusement park since it's on the social calendar of almost every Singaporean then.

Besides enjoying the narrative, you'll get a running commentary by the elders who will pepper your viewing with a reminiscence of the good old times sharing anecdotes drawn from personal experience to augment what is going on screen, since famous locales and attractions within the park get faithfully recreated for the film and will trigger good memories. Trust me on this one, and watch it with your elders, which shouldn't be too difficult to do so since this is one of the local films that boasts an ensemble of recognizable cast from television.

You can read my review of the film here.

The Region 3 (which played on my Region 1 player) DVD comes packaged in a handsomely designed, hard cardboard slip case, with an exclusive luggage tag included as a free gift. The film is presented in a pristine anamorphic widescreen transfer with audio in its original language track presented in Dolby Digital Stereo. Scene selection is available over 9 chapters, and subtitles are available in English and Mandarin.

A number of Special Features are included in this single DVD edition, that includes Trailers both in theatrical form (2:00) and 3 TV Spots running 0:25, 0:30 and 0:25 that play back to back continuously. A Photo Gallery contains stills from the Press Conference (9 stills), Gala Premiere Night (12 Stills) and more than 50 stills taken from the Movie itself.

Two made for television variety programmes also get included (naturally in full screen, letterbox format, in Mandarin without subtitles), which were played during the promotional run up of the film. Great World Once More (23:25) hosted by actor Chen Shucheng brings us through a short history of the amusement park where the Great World City complex now stands, with old photographs, clips from the film and a behind the scenes look at the production. Interviews with both cast and crew from Lucas Chow to Man Shu Sum and Kelvin Tong are also included, before the highlight which is a trip to the present day Yong Chun Yuen restaurant (now Spring Court Restaurant at Upper Cross Street) where Chen meets up with fellow cast members Chew Chor Meng, Kym Ng, Marcus Chin and Auntie Lucy to reminisce their experience of the actual locale, and their behind the scenes anecdotes. Lucky for them they get to savour the actual famed dishes that the restaurant is famous for, prepared by one of their (retired) veteran chefs. I think I want to make a trip to the restaurant sometime soon too!

The next programme Amazing Great World (23:11) is a little bit more of the above with similar interviews conducted with the production big-wigs. Hosted by Ben Yeo and Apple Hong they go on a spree within Great World City to ask shoppers if they know where certain iconic landmarks from the Great World amusement park were situated, from the Ghost Train to the cinemas. As always with camera-shy Singaporeans, many run far and fast when the two hosts make their approach (and a lot of foreigners too who obviously do not have a clue; tells you a lot about our composition these days), although they do get successful and provide us that glimpse into where the landmarks were. Since this was a variety show conducted on location, they also held a Tikam Tikam game in a bid to raise awareness during the promotion of the film.

And finally, there's the Full Length Audio Commentary with Director Kelvin Tong. The audio quality had a little echo, and it took a while for Kelvin Tong to warm up and shift as the commentary wore on from being descriptive of scenes that are currently played, to opening up and sharing a lot more details from behind the scenes and anecdotes from the shoot, although it did sound like the heat and humidity were topics that never fail to crop up. Some uncomfortable periods of silence do creep in once in a while.

[DVD] Sanif Olek's LOVE Trilogy (2011)

You have probably read about Sanif Olek's acclaimed and award winning short films collectively known as the LOVE Trilogy comprising Lost Sole, à la folie and Ameen, and now they are all readily available in this DVD collection, which is produced in part to raise post-production funds for his debut feature film Ramuan Rahasia (The Missing Ingredient). What better way to celebrate the Hari Raya holiday by (finally) getting down to watching his short films at one go, thematically connected through Love?

Lost Sole (2006) (16:53)

It's almost customary to leave behind one's shoes at the door before entering places of worship, and although one would have that tinge of dread should one's footwear get taken away by somebody else, it's almost improbable you'd think that something like this will happen at a place of worship. But they do from time to time, which inspired Sanif Olek to make a film drawn from personal experiences with the premise being just that.

Mahadi Shor plays a man whose pair of sandals, sentimental because it was bought from Mecca during his Haj, was taken away probably by mistake by someone anonymous, leaving him barefooted and exasperated about what to do next, since his family is waiting for him to get home for lunch. Making that trip back home sans footwear isn't an option, and thus begins this mini, annoying trek around the compound and surrounding areas of the mosque hoping to chance upon his sandals, or meet with good Samaritans who would offer some kind of help. You'd also ponder why sometimes people have trials and tribulations put into their way as a challenge to overcome, and here there's a little surprise that plays out in revelation.

Story aside, this short allowed one, especially non-Muslims, to have a sneak peek into the Sultan Mosque, as well as a glimpse at a Friday prayer session, so beautifully shot and composed by the filmmaker.

à la folie (2008) (11:34)
Taken from my earlier review

A Singapore premiere, the second part of Sanif Olek's LOVE trilogy sees an adaptation crafted from the classic Ramayana text, with the characters of Sinta, Arjuna and Rawana given a new, experimental spin on themes such as manipulation and revenge rolled into one simply put tale. The cast also played to their stereotypes wonderfully, and we can see how one being dumped would offer that second chance at getting back, if only a mission of sorts was fulfilled. The two transsexuals also provided plenty of humour by way of how jesters and comics come in to fill in the narrative gaps in-between scenes. I can't say that I'm an expert, but the animated film Sita Sings The Blues, which is also based on the Ramayana, had elements of the same.

Filmed in and around the area of the Sultan Mosque, Sanif had shared that this was shot without a script, but only a concept, so plenty of stuff in here were improvised. What more, the film was shot over a period of two nights, and he allowed for the film to gestate for almost one year (!) before going it to edit it into the form we've seen today.

Ameen (2010) (14:49)
This is the story of a simple Mosque helper Johan (Sani Hussin) whom we'd have seen from Sanif's first short film Lost Sole with the subplots revolving around his interactions with a woman who frequent the mosque but found to be in contemplation alone whom Johan interrupts and interacts with, and his friend Bilal who has two of his inspired heroes in P Ramlee and Bruce Lee tattooed on his arm. Johan finds the hots for two girls from a Madrasah school who hangs out at his mosque, whom he fantasizes how they would look if they would be out of their tudungs. Two kids jibe that Johan better learn how to recite the Al Fatiha by heart if he wants to befriend the girls and to make his wish come true, and to what extent does this prank go, forms the central core of Ameen.

Sani Hussin's excellent portrayal as the simpleton makes the film, as he straddles between being the unfortunate, irritating jester to that of earnestly wanting to befriend new people where he hasn't a clue if they would accept him, and is willing to make some sacrifices to overcome stumbling blocks and break the ice. It's still amazing how three stories got put together, above love in different forms, into a short film blessed with a hauntingly beautiful score.

The Region Free DVD presents all the short films in an anamorphic widescreen format with audio in stereo, and subtitles in English made available during the non-English language portions. There is a section showcasing Upcoming Feature Films that Sanif is currently making, which includes Ramuan Rahasia (3:11) and Voluptas (1:22), the latter presented in a most interesting fashion being a lyrical mood piece.

So spread the love people, and get this compilation DVD, where in doing so you know you're helping to fund the completion of a local feature film. You can find more information on the LOVE Trilogy's Facebook page.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Kylie Aphrodite: Les Folies Tour 2011 in 3D

The Aphrodite Herself

Ever since 3D burst onto the cinema scene in recent years and with U2 becoming what would be a concept attempt at proving that a concert film would work, we've seen a proliferation of 3D concert films, and GV being one of the cinema chains now bringing in a slew of titles over the last and next few weeks, featuring the likes of Mayday, Ayumi Hamasaki, Super Junior together with music documentaries such as Cameron Crowe's Pearl Jam Twenty, in addition to acts in the past like May'N during ScreenSingapore, and others from Hanna Montana/Miley Cyrus, The Jonas Brothers, to Justin Bieber and Glee 3D next week.

Then there's Kylie Minogue's recent Aphrodite World Tour which concluded earlier in year in July 2011, having been on the road from February throughout Europe, Japan, USA and Asia, with the Singapore leg that happened on 29 June 2011 at the Singapore Indoor Stadium. That version though was Aphrodite Live, a smaller set compared to this one that was part of the European leg, shot on the 11th and 12th of April on the last two days of the London leg at the O2 arena. While the set was largely similar across all geographies, the highlight of the performance was definitely that of the water jets and movable stages that became the piece de resistance of the encore segment where Kylie Minogue performed On a Night Like This and All the Lovers. Sheer spectacle. Period.

In just under two hours the pop princess showed why she is still, in her early 40s, at the top of her game, being the consummate performer at her element over the set of 25 songs, strutting her stuff on an elaborate stage setup complete with a circular styled runway, mega video walls that sometimes have the camera focused too much on that the performers get sidelined, the aforementioned water jets and fountains that form a splash zone for fans right in front of the stage (probably the best area to be during the concert) and a multi-layered platform. Technical strengths aside, there were plenty of aerial performers, dancers, greek mythology inspired costumes and moves, with Kylie herself decked out for the tour by Dolce and Gabbana.

Unfortunately this screening was limited to four sessions only, but to those curious to check it out, I'm pretty sure portions of it would have been uploaded onto YouTube, otherwise the DVD will be out by the end of September. My favourite segment will be the consecutive performances of Slow, Confide in Me and Can't Get You Out of My Head which were made over with very different sounds and tempo, while the downsides, and probably what would make me think twice about going to any concert, will be the constant, almost ridiculous, proliferation of mobile phones and cameras flashing away, making it seem like an army of concert goers not all that out to enjoy themselves, but to outdo one another in capturing the best pictures, videos and moments from the performance.

Some may argue watching a concert movie is no substitute for the real thing, but I suppose it's a good enough alternative, which also gives you better than ringside seats, and an outlet to watch your favourite musicians and performers at their element during a tour, especially if they don't swing by to this part of the world.

Cars 2

I'm Stealing Your Thunder!

Pixar had always treaded carefully when it came to follow up films, with only Toy Story getting the honor given its established fan base, and soon, Monsters Inc getting a prequel as well. As to why Cars warranted a second film would be anyone's guess, but I suppose the story allowed some bandwidth to break out of the small town of Radiator Springs and into the big leagues of an international racing circuit to the tune of a lot more merchandise and toys to make money from, that it perhaps proved to be irresistible.

The idea is a no brainer, since there's F1, the World Rally Series and others to tap more ideas from, that the story by John Lasseter, Brad Lewis and Dan Fogelman could adapt from, featuring cars of all makes and series being put together and competing with one another around the world. Or at least that's what the initial premise was thought to be, until someone decided to include a major plot to centre this around a James Bondish espionage tale about oil versus bio fuels, sidelining what would be simple to follow for the kids, and making this one vehicle based spoof of Bond, complete with gadgets, planes, trains and more automobiles.

But that's not to say I didn't like the idea, since it had a very interesting motivation and adversary built between the elites - those branded, luxury models and the lemons, mass produced vehicles who don't have prestige nor prominence, but go about their daily chores if not for faulty and cheap parts to break them down at times. This was an aspect that was present, but could have played up a lot more, especially since we are dealing with fat egos in Lightning McQueen (voiced by Owen Wilson), and that of his rival in this installment, the Formula One Italian car Francesco Bernoulli (John Turturro) with an even larger ego that came complete with ill wisecracks.

And who knew the main character of the film swung from Lightning McQueen to his small town buddy the tow truck Mater (Larry the Cable Guy), who enrolled his race car friend into a competition organized by Sir Miles Axlerod (Eddie Izzard), a tycoon bent on proving bio fuels to be a safer alternative to oil. So a crew from McQueen's posse at Radiator Springs got put together, and off they go into three legs of a race around the world, in Japan, Italy and England. But it's spy versus spy stuff with Mater got tangled with British spies Finn McMissile (Michael Caine) and his assistant Holley Shiftwell (Emily Mortimer) as they go about trying to uncover who the mastermind is behind the sabotage of the race, and perhaps these episodes were the most fun, having the bumbling Mater working together with the slick spies in many set action pieces. It's pretty adult with its espionage theme complete with torture and murder, so parents you've got some explanations to do.

With Pixar you can be quite assured of the quality of animation in this film, but somehow when compared to the other Pixar films of late, from Wall.E to Up to Toy Story 3 even, those films had a lot of heart and emotion put into their characters, whereas this one lacked that emotional punch, coming close to reiterating the importance of friendship again, but overall feeling too superficial, focusing a lot more on the technical aspects of an animated film, and the buffoonish Mater for comedic effect. It's akin to waxing the exterior of a vehicle to shiny perfection, but pop the hood, and the flaws show up with the lack of a proper, driving engine to fuel the story.

It's still not that bad when compared to other animated films in recent years, but given that Pixar had raised its own bar so high, Cars 2 fell a little short, though still no less entertaining as a film, just never being able to reach the company's stratospheric heights in terms of storytelling, and heart.

Those who missed our friends from Toy Story will do yourselves a favour by coming into the cinema earlier to catch the usual short preview before the main Pixar feature, where we see the toys rather settled in their new home and new owner, and turning their play environment into a Hawaiian paradise so that Ken and Barbie can share their first kiss. It's a short feature, but these precious minutes prove to be quite the powerhouse with drama, romance and comedy all rolled into one, and in itself worth the price of an admission ticket.


Rookies in a Relationship

Beginners is one of those films that blows away any preconceived notions you may have formed from the synopsis and trailer, being full of heart and emotions in its unconventional storytelling techniques that just draws you into the film and its characters. For writer director Mike Mills, the premise is based on his own parents, where with the passing of his mom came the revelation by his dad who had decided to come out of the closet. Questions will undoubtedly race through anyone's mind, much less the son's, as to why and how the couple decided to stay together despite obvious knowledge of one's sexual orientation that this heterosexual relationship just wouldn't work out naturally, but that it did was nothing short of amazing, and amazing is the word to describe this film.

It's unique presentation utilized still shots like photographs from memory, wry humour, flashbacks galore and plenty of narration from the protagonist Oliver, played by Ewan McGregor, who is at the crossroads of his life with the death of his mom Georgia (Mary Page Keller), and his dad Hal (Christopher Plummer) revealing that he's gay. In a way it's one depressing blow after another, especially when his mother's death seemed in a way a release for his dad to finally lead the remaining years of his life in as honest fashion as possible. In a poignant scene it reminded us of romance and attitudes of the days bygone, where marriage is an institution, and homosexuality thought to be an illness that can be addressed and cured through well, holy matrimony. At least the intention is pure, and laid the path for us today to question themes about commitment, and love itself.

And love served all the subplots in the film, such as that between a very different mom and dad, that between Oliver and Hal as son and father with the former concerned about and caring for his father's twilight years toward the inevitable, that between Hal and his younger lovers, Oliver and his mom from whom he seemed to have been imparted her sense of dry humour, and with Oliver himself falling for a French actress Anna (Melanie Laurent) who also has issues of her own to contend with. The narrative shifts through time constantly but never at any time leave you high and dry figuring about just where in the story you find yourself in, with the editing being superb in execution for such a result. Not to forget that the father's pet dog interacts and has some of the best lines (yes) in the film - you'll probably fall in love with the Jack Russell if you haven't already.

What's made a lot more poignant, perhaps in more personal terms, is how one can never be too sure about one's romantic relationship with another, with a level of ambiguity setting in, and apprehension and hesitation playing a part in creating self-doubt, that what is working well, could be taken apart rather effortlessly not because of ego or envy or the usual issues, but that of just being clueless. Ewan McGregor and Melanie Laurent both share this wonderful chemistry together so much so you'll be rooting for their characters to stay together, and weep silently with an aching heart when they don't. Equally Ewan shows how effortlessly it can be with his chemistry with Christopher Plummer as well, and brings home to my mind similar care-taking efforts personally experienced. Then there's Keegan Boos playing the young Oliver and Mary Page Keller as the mom whose segments together with its dark humour left me in stitches, and left me wanting a lot more.

Beginners possesses that sense of charm, wit, and all round great performance to complement that unique narrative of an unconventional story touching on how relationships with people shape our lives. The film comes highly recommended, so don't let it slip away from the big screen before you got a chance to catch it. Easily one of my favourites of the year, entering my shortlist as one of the best this year has to offer during a time when bigger films still garner a lot more attention and screenings.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Final Destination 5

Not So Flexible After All

Who would have thought that Final Destination could have spawned a franchise that is five films strong now over the last 11 years, each depending on what's essentially a very standard formula where a cast of relatively unknowns get put through the special effects paces, having their characters involved in one introductory tentpole death sequence twice with a premonition and the actual in which they escape from, followed by individual deaths through extremely rigged scenarios of coincidence designed by Death himself.

And please don't judge me when I say this - that I had thoroughly enjoyed each and every one of those sequences from its predecessors and continue enjoying those gory moments up until this film, not that I'm sick or deprived, but you have to salute the filmmakers ingenuity in coming up with these set pieces that get to crawl under your skin, and then some. It's an exercise in building anticipation, where one has to put out the obvious red herrings and little clues, some requiring more elaborate work in distracting your attention, while others being very explicit and quick to shock.

Touted as being shot in 3D, the filmmakers here have left no stone unturned nor missed any opportunities at any time to play up on the 3D gimmick. Right from the get go the opening credits scene consisted of objects being hurled toward you, with references of course to the tools of the trade used and exhibited in the franchise being responsible for some deaths in the series. Then there's the very bloody and in your face death sequences that's completely gory and bloody, it makes one blush when you're secretly rooting for the next death to be more gruesome than the previous one, with its dismemberment, skewering, and death through every means possible from crushes to hooks to falls from height all done toward the screen to maximise its 3D impact - even without watching this in 3D, you'll just about sense and experience the same, so you can save some money there. At times though the visual effects are found a little wanting, to think they can get away with shoddy green screen work, but then again the bulk of the budget probably went to spruce up the 3D moments.

Story wise, as mentioned, it's the formula of a bunch of young adults having cheated death thanks to the premonition of one, and death reclaiming their souls one by one, before someone in the team discovers a certain set pattern. There are some changes to the rules here that wasn't made known before, that one can substitute one's time for another's, that is, kill someone else to take your place in the sequence, and you get to live out your victim's lifespan. Which makes for a good laugh actually when you see how those some get their just desserts for scheming, and the finale here being a big surprise that's best kept under wraps in any review, but which will leave you wanting more and warrant a repeat viewing just so to spot any references (they were many) involving time and space. Fans of the series will probably deem this the mightiest of all its sequels.

Unfortunately the distributor here had opted for a bigger pie at the box office, and pared the film down from R21 to M18, though it's hardly noticeable except for the portion I suspect just before the end credits involving the montage reel, which was included as a sort of Thank You for the Support to fans who have stuck by the series, and now richly rewarded with being able to re-experience the earlier death designs in 3D, which was a little cheesy with its blatant sound effects and letterbox design to allow blood and gore to spill out through the sides for that 3D effect, but still fun nonetheless.

Strictly for its fans, and for those thirsting for a gory film to hit the screens. Anyone looking for strengths of story should look somewhere else. Final Destination 6, anyone?

Thursday, August 25, 2011

It's Back

Its death knell was perhaps sounded too soon, and with a new creative team in place and a postponement of its traditional April screening period to a September one, the 24th Singapore International Film Festival is ready to roll with the launch of a spanking new festival website where you can check out all the films selected for this year's edition, complete with the usual errors that I'll leave you to spot (becoming a feature it seems!)

There are some new sections being tried out for the first time, such as Midnight Madness (though contrary to its theme not all the films are screened late nights), having 3D films in the lineup and a Bertrand Tavernier Retrospective, in addition to others you can discover when you hit the festival website.

Sidebar events are now chock full of activities to excite the film buff, such as the Film Lab with 13 Little Pictures, talks by local filmmakers including A Night with Boo Junfeng.

Red Light Revolution (红灯梦), directed by Sam Voutas, opens the festival with the director and the cast in attendance for a post screening Q&A, and you can read my review of the film here.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

[DVD] Rogue Trader (1999)

I Like Big Money

This was one of those films that was shot in Singapore but didn't get a proper theatrical release here, opting to go straight to video despite having an A-lister in Ewan McGregor helming the leading role, portraying a true to life incident about one of the biggest bank fraud in history taking place right here in the Lion City. Singapore has her fair share of commercial and financial fraud, many of them high profile no thanks to them being committed by employees of large, reputable corporations, and this was one of them, where Nick Leeson got infamously credited for bringing down Barings Bank, one of England's oldest merchant bank at the time.

For all the recent socio-political concerns over the influx of foreign talent to our shores and taking up jobs that locals can probably do themselves, this one, if taken at face value since biographical films always have a tinge of dramatic license being taken, offered the notion that not all Caucasians that make it here are of the cream of the crop variety. In this cinematic Nick Leeson's case, he's but someone low on the rungs of the organization as a clerk, known better for his hardworking attributes rather than his financial acumen. With an opening in the far east here and having chalk up a job well done in Indonesia where he met his future wife Lisa (Anna Friel), he becomes the bank's go to man for this Asia based job in opening up a new options and derivatives trading arm, coming in on expatriate terms with perks on the table, and a job with high expectations.

On hindsight, this film teaches a lot on the nature of having good corporate governance, water tight processes and having the proper checks and balances rigorously executed rather than being just on paper or paid lip service to. In very simple narrative terms, episodes where opportunities to go rogue get presented in very clear terms, from the abuse of a special account used to mask losses, to blatant forgery, this is something of a wake up call when tremendous trust gets placed on star employees, only for that trust to be betrayed, and worse when it is basic greed that overshadowed what actually needed to be done. I can't help but to chuckle at how Nick Leeson can get away with blue murder even, since he's the one man everyone in the corporation goes to when needing huge amounts of profits to generate their multi-million dollar obscene year end bonuses, meaning if Nick Leeson walks, so does the amount of profits his outfit can generate. If only the suits on the board knew.

In some ways you can point your finger around and blame it on those who never saw it coming because of their own flaws, greed, or just plain simple indifference to someone's probable misdoing based only on the strength of their manipulated balance sheet, Hire the wrong person or so called Talent and he'll rob you blind in terms of money, time and effort, and Rogue Trader through its sole objective in almost documenting the culprit's shenanigans of the confident con man, who at one time through a fluke success got heralded as a guru of sorts on the local bourse, If only it was known how one can actually bet big and one day win big, but not all the time, which is almost too good to be true.

Since the crime took place in Singapore, you'd get to see a number of outdoor locations being used especially in and around the city centre area, with a couple of local stars making cameo appearances such as Selena Tan as the eagle eyed auditor, Geald Chew, Ivan Heng as a bartender and Lim Kay Siu as a policeman. Very small roles here compared to the group of actors playing Nick Leeson's posse in his company trading for him on the forex floor, with more screen time opposite Ewan McGregor. Anna Friel's Lisa character was quite a trophy of a role rather than being a strong character, occassionally speaking up against the troubles ailing her husband, but I was quite surprised at her insistence to leave the country especially when they're time is up. There's the obvious romantic subplot here about matrimonial vows which is a little sad on Nick's part, especially if one has read his memoirs and followed the news during his incarceration about the couples inevitable break up.

As a film it wasn't that remarkable in terms of production values, but you can't find a more direct, simple biographical tale about corporate checks and balance that is shot in Singapore. Recommended especially for managers who have to look after balance sheets, whether you're aware of what's really going on, or are having some wool pulled over your eyes by a very smart, rogue employee.

The Region 1 DVD by Miramax Home Entertainment presents the film in an anamorphic widescreen transfer, with audio available in Dolby Digital Stereo. Subtitles are only in English closed caption with scene selection available over 21 chapters. No extra features on this disc other than a Film Recommendations section in text only, introducing film such as Little Voice, Brassed Off, Emma, Velvet Goldmine, Trainspotting and Monument Ave.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sinema Showoff! Mature & Restricted

Sinema Showoff! presents some of the latest films in the local short film scene for free, and this edition being Mature and Restricted with one rated M18 short and three rated R21 shorts fared no less in the usual full house that turn up, having a committed audience responding days after bookings were released, with minimal publicity. Sex sells after all, and no doubt the short film Hush was the draw here having a limited run at Sinema last year, but more on that film later.

Mu Dan (牡丹)

Lincoln Chia's short film blends fantasy and reality, about a religiously righteous mom having caught his son pleasuring himself in front of his computer one night because he forgot to close the door and she having peeped in - leading to a moment of mirth in the immediate scene following this accidental discovery - and frowning upon his choice of a girlfriend, whose blonde wig she dons and leads into an outward manifestation of her innermost desires. Turns into a moody piece in its run to the finale, this is the relatively tamest of the selection being M18 fare compared to the rest of the R21 shorts.


Commissioned by Action for Aids, saying Anniversary is a Royston Tan short is quality enough to want to watch it, as he teams up with writer Alfian Sa'at to tell a tale about a relationship that is put under undue pressure on the first anniversary of being together, all because of a secret that one harbours that threaten to ruin everything sugar and spice and all things nice. Told in a non-linear fashion, Anniversary follows the romance between Wai Kit (Kelvin Ong) and his partner Justin (Shane Mardjuki) who seem to have the most perfect life, if not for the former to find himself guilty of threatening to ruin everything due to one night of indiscretion and risky behaviour.

Being a commissioned piece, you'd come to expect certain scenes that become a call to action, against unsafe sex, and opportunities built in to demystify the screening process through no necessity of being verbatim. Some black humour courtesy of a well meaning friend, but overalll an emotional piece that is hallmark of the director's touch, where you'll probably know he has gone on to assist Health Promotion Board on a short about dementia, which is available for free on a disc you can pick up (at Sinema Old School) and also available on YouTube.

Taken from my earlier review

I thought it was a fairly interesting bit of observation on the youths of today. Many times you would see teenage couples hanging out together, but I found it sometimes peculiar that the guys do seem to not pay any much attention to their girlfriends, as they go about doing their own thing, while the girl just sits around and waits. I always thought that was a complete waste of time though, where both could have utilized their quality time in a more constructive manner. A very strange generation (signs I'm getting old!) and I thought he captured such observations succinctly in his follow up short to Ah Ma.

Here, you have a delinquent couple who decided to play hokey, and hang out at the guy's home. Whether the guy's sleeping in, playing his PSP, or complaining of his hunger, the girl dutifully obeys, though made a comment questioning of her purpose in his presence. Production wise, I thought the actors were quite natural in delivering their lines in a mixture of languages in an authentic manner, and touching fleetingly on the theme of insecurity after they did the deed to earn this short its R21 rating, though it played out at times in a comic fashion.


This short film made waves last year for having its marketing scream the tag of being the most erotic short film in Singapore, so much so that it had irked the lead actress Evelyn Maria Ng enough to disassociate herself with the film, and to skip the gala premiere which was held at Iluma Bugis. Granted that nudity isn't something new to the actress since her role in Kan Lume's Female Games which got a limited run at Sinema after being banned for the public audience at the Singapore International Film Festival. The actress of course is making waves in the news these days for her renouncing of her Singapore citizenship so as to obtain her CPF money to further her studies, but that's for another forum to discuss.

Directed by Jeremiah Oh, Hush tells the story of a traditional Chinese family where the widowed father (Vincent Tee) places a premium on his three young daughters being home early on time for a home cooked dinner with him. Through the narrative we learn of their distintegration, from Alice (Evelyn Maria Ng) and her sexual and moral confusion being the secret lover to the finance (Darren E Scott) of her best friend Serene (Natalie Faye), an dalso habouring sexual fantasies with Serene herself. Then there's a late subplot involving Alice's sisters (played by Janice Yeo and Cassevonrie Chia) with their

To call this film exploitative wouldn't be a stretch, because from the onset we see a sex scene interspersed with Vincent Tee cooking something in a wok, only for production values to be a little cheap since it's obvious he's frying nothing and just going through the motions. But yes, two sweaty bodies humping. And Oh obviously went for the jugular with a bathtub scene between Ng and Faye sans clothes to suggest same sex liaison as well as self gratification, and a three way fantasy scene with full on nudity for Faye and Ng stripping to her birthday suit for the camera, for the purpose of... beats me, save to add some cred to calling itself erotic, which was anything but remotely close.

It's a fine line drawn between art, having something tastefully done, and that of doing something for the sake of. Unfortunately though expectedly Hush fell into the latter category given the absence of a strong narrative and purposeful visuals, coming off more like a quickie hack job just to float its own boat. It will still raise some eyebrows for what's being depicted on screen, but relatively tame when compared to other R21 films that get to make it to our shores. But curiosity will continue to get the better of the cat, and interest will always be piqued especially with the latest news on the lead actress, now known as Maria Alexandria.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Bad Teacher

Hello Teacher!

Cameron Diaz burst onto the scene with her memorable role as the gangster's moll in The Mask, and from then on it's no turning back as her filmography grew by playing the quintessential ditzy blonde countless of times to perfection. In Bad Teacher comes the opportunity to play a foul mouthed, bad attitude, gold digging man-eater who's constantly on the prowl for man and money to fulfill her desire of... enhancing her boobs. Tis the season to venture out of your comfort zone, like what Jennifer Aniston did with her role in Horrible Bosses, and now it's Cameron Diaz's turn in this film by Jake Kasdan.

So Diaz plays middle school teacher Elizabeth Halsey, who thought she could finally escape a life of mediocrity having hooked up with a rich man, only for that impending marriage to be broken up, and her life come crashing back down to reality again, rejoining the school she can't seem to leave, and then setting up a new goal in life - getting boob implants because of her belief that the bigger the boobs, the richer the man she's able to attract. In between she's the teacher you'd love to have, not only looking good, but possessing just a one track educational plan - screening videos in class everyday so that she can sleep off her hangover. Comedy comes in the form of watching how this teacher is anything but a role model, swearing, embezzling and abusing drugs being her daily routine, in front of and behind her kids in school.

Unfortunately as a friend commented, the trailer for this film was miles better than the movie, and he's correct. Whoever did the trailer for the film inserted all the best bits in a typically logical order, only for the film to reveal that it's episodic in nature and scenes somehow felt they were pieced together quite forcefully, where the flow doesn't feel natural especially when it's supposed to take place in middle school over a period of a school year (for instance it's suddenly a winter break), but the school kids themselves are largely invisible here save for 2 kids for Elizabeth to show how naughty and nice she can be. There's a perplexing overemphasis on Elizbaeth's boob ambition which brings on the laughs of course, but little else, and a number of subplots and characters that come, go and got themselves forgotten.

There's the infatuation with Justin Timberlake's relief Math teacher Scott Delacorte who comes with a pedigree family name and bank account, which sets up the subplot of a three way romantic battle between Elizabeth and the resident teacher she loathes, Amy Squirrel (Lucy Punch), who is hell bent on exposing Elizabeth for the bad teacher she is. Nothing fancy here except rolling your eyes at Amy's exasperated antics, much like Coyote and Road Runner where you'd just know whatever stunt Amy tries to pull, she's never going to get the better of Elizabeth because it's just written in the stars of film plotting. Jason Segel plays gym teacher Russell Gettis whose scenes seemed to have a huge chunk of development dropped from the film, relegating him to back up plan status especially when there's a need for something to insert into the finale.

The scene stealer in the show happened to be Justin Timberlake, who played his immature teacher to perfection, scoring probably one of funniest (and strangest) scenes in the entire film that have to be seen to be believed. He's on a roll in recent times since his outing in The Social Network, and his filmography bursting this year with two more upcoming films (in Singapore) with Friends with Benefits, and In Time. Cameron Diaz tried hard to break out of her ditzy blonde roles with the mean streak inherited from her character Elizabeth, but try as hard as you may, it still isn't wild enough to totally break the typecast Diaz is known for.

Ultimately Bad Teacher isn't bad but it still fell short in delivering where it mattered - the laughs - lacking the distinction it could have gotten if it had found a smoother narrative flow, and not let its trailer set expectations up for a fall.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

Aarakshan (आरक्षण)

No Love Aaj Kal

Prakash Jha had been responsible for hard hitting films that deal with issues involving society and politics, and last year's Raajneeti was one of those ensemble pieces that struck very close to home. This year with Aarakshan he takes on the caste system in India, one in which many would like not to admit exist, but nonetheless taken other forms such as discrimination, charity, and reservation, depending on which side of the equation one is found standing at.

At first it may seem somewhat logical, where in the context of an education system that Aarakshan is set in, that seats get put aside for the less privilege so that they would get help in the form of a leg up in the educational circle. After all, education is always considered as one of the prime levelers and route out of the poverty circle. Alas any system created by man is always subjected to abuse, and through the narrative we get to experience the various viewpoints held by those disadvantaged by society, those with the silver spoon in their mouths, and those found sidelined by the conditions put forth, especially when good intentions get misread, misinterpreted and exploited.

Aarakshan also touches upon corruption gets set into the education system, where grades do not always matter in admission to a well known institution, but also dependent on how well heeled, or greasy, one's network is. It's rather typical and almost expected that those in power tend to influence and sway opportunities for their friends and family, where nepotism and cronyism rear their ugly heads, and I fear the day should it materialize over here. Already we're seeing reports of how one has to volunteer time and sometimes material in a nice way, in other to secure a passage to good schools, where a parent's celebrity status is notwithstanding nor a guarantee of a shoo-in despite hours put in to perform various chores for the school. It's highly competitive true, but somehow this leaves behind a very bad aftertaste where it's no longer ballot or merit, but what you can do on a consistent basis to warrant a place.

Then there's the notion of how tuition centres spring up left, right and centre in order to take advantage, and make a profit from, the entire educational system which is extremely grade dependent, where a single mark would mean to make, or to break. It's always interesting to see how education is treated as a lucrative business, and how this eventually saps all fun out of learning for acquiring knowledge, but to turn it into nothing more than regurgitation for a piece of paper, where teachers find it advantageous and a conflict of interest arising from doing the minimum in school so that students have to seek external help, and lo and behold, the same instructors become available for hire outside of the school system.

As always with Prakash Jha assembled an ensemble cast to discuss all these issues in his 164 minute film, where we have Big B Amitabh Bachchan playing Professor Prabhakar Anand, the principal of a famous college who is an idealist, with a good heart toward those who are underprivileged, opening his home for free tuition to needy students. Saif Ali Khan and Deepika Padukone reunite from Love Aaj Kal to play lovers again, this time the former as Deepak Kumar, the Professor's protege coming from a lower societal standing, and the latter as the Professor's daughter Poorbi, who is also wooed by Sushant Seth (Prateik Babbar) from the privileged class.

Aarakshan cannot be more schizophrenic though with its tale of two halves, the first which tackles all the caste based issues and in depth discussion of the reservation system in education, where Sushant finds himself ousted from a place in the school because of reservation, and an entire tirade takes place between Sushant and Deepak, who also despised it since his view is that there's no need for charity to be given, and prefers a system of merit instead. Things blow out of proportion especially when the entry of a scheming vice principal Mithilesh Singh (Manoj Bajpai) being the villain you'd love to hate, a shady, dubious character who's the puppet of the education minister and his posse hell bent on ousting and destroying Prabhakar Anand, and found a way to do so through the squabbling Sushant and Deepak.

The second half is where things get a little bit more personal with the Professor trying to get back at those behind his ousting, and the dealing with more micro issues rather than the broad based ones inserted into the first half. In a way we see how fire got to fight with fire, with a fight back with the community against greedy capitalism, and with something I think most can identify with, where our charity gets taken advantage of by those whom we offer help to. This segment allowed plenty of Amitabh Bachchan to show why he's one of the greatest actors of his generation, where the likes of Saif Ali Khan, Prateik Babbar and even Deepika Padukone getting left in his shadow. It became a little bit predictable and melodramatic toward the finale, at times convenient as well with the last minute introduction of a deus ex machina type character to set everything back on an even keel.

While 3 Idiots touched on the education system as well from the students perspective laced with a generous dose of comedy, Aarakshan is the more serious in tone counterpart taking a cold hard look at the system from the educator's point of view with a critique on societal prejudices. It may not be perfect, but it addresses what it set out to and left the door wide open to provoke a response. Recommended!

The New Daughter

New Kid on the Block

It's been a long time since Kevin Costner had graced the screens here, so much so that this 2009 film was given one of the honours of being amongst a slate of movies for the inaugural Screen Singapore preview lineup for the public. After all, interest would likely have piqued since it's a horror thriller, as well as Costner himself being cast as Pa Kent in the upcoming Man of Steel movie, demonstrating his career is not that quite written off yet. Still, The New Daughter served up something quite average as far as haunted houses and possessed children went, although having its atmospherics something to boast about.

Directed by Luiso Berdejo, who's better known as one of the writers for the successful REC franchise (the 4th film is rumoured to be in pre-production with the 3rd film due for a release later this year), The New Daughter may have benefitted more from a less chunky title, as the story, based upon the short story by John Connolly, deals with family more than that of an individual family member. Costner plays John James, a writer who's recently divorced from his cheating wife, and uproots his family of teenage daughter Louisa (Ivana Baquero) and son Sam (Gattlin Griffith) from their friends and the city, to settle in a quaint little town, taking up residence at a house in the middle of nowhere.

No thanks to a shady real estate agent, what he thought would be the start of a new idyllic life with his children, turned out to be quite the nightmare, especially when he learns of the plight of the sellers of the house. But that's not before finding a strange mount near his backyard where his daughter takes a fondness to in hanging out on, only for suggestive violations to be played out in bits and pieces, also told through metaphors about how an ant colony operates. For the most parts we see how Louisa turns from slightly rebellious teen to full blown defiance, often resorting to cruel, evil acts against those who stand in her way, be it the bully in class (who deserves it by the way), or a schoolteacher (Samantha Mathis) whom she deems is taking some attention and affection away from her father.

Whatever the case is, this makes for the usual tricks in the bag when dealing with what I would deem as a monster movie, complete with doors left ajar, dismembered animals and bodies, and shadowy figures that will reveal themselves in due course. Narratively Luiso Berdejo managed to keep up the suspense throughout, even though the characters seem to be unable to break out of the formulaic cycle where father is in denial until it's too late, and the youngest child in the house almost always being the victim for seeing things he's not supposed to, or by default being the punching bag and fearful of telling on someone. While Costner has the film revolving around him as the only recognizable star, Ivana Baquero is the other cast member to watch, although her character here happened to be not as menacing as Isabelle Fuhrman's Esther in Orphan as comparisons between the two are obvious.

The final act was promising as things kick into high gear with the very sketchy tie in to some ritual and ancient beliefs about mount-walkers, followed by an almost half hour worth of action that fell onto the running theme of a father's love and promise made to a child no matter what the consequences are, and in all honesty all seemed well to lift this beyond mediocre, only for the final scene to tank its promising potential right down to the bottom of the barrel. You can attribute it to the director's inexperience, or the story being just too hasty and zealous in wanting to keep things open ended, that made it quite the farce and an insult to the viewer, coupled with its blatant attempt in trying to be forcefully emotional.

The New Daughter would have benefited from a more intelligent ending that didn't expose its shortcomings so starkly. Be warned especially when films like these don't get a proper wide theatrical release overseas but do here, where we give it a lot more respect than being relegated to its straight to DVD potential. Had promise, but failed to deliver where and when it mattered.

SuckSeed: Huay Khan Thep (SuckSeed ห่วยขั้นเทพ)

Success Suckers

The Thai production house GTH was probably synonymous with the horror genre, until last year's romantic drama and surprise hit Hello Stranger made one sit up and take notice that they too are capable of churning out hits outside of their established genre. SuckSeed just proved once again that they are as comfortable as the Japanese in taking the zero to hero formula and coming up with an awesome coming of age tale of a group of students trying to make it to the finals of their high school rock band contest, and comes complete with the requisite love story, comedic antics and plenty of rock music to make up the soundtrack.

Directed by first time helmer Chayanop Boonprakob, SuckSeed tells the story of good friends Ped (Jirayu Laongmanee) and Koong (Pachara Chirathivat), opposites in character with the former being the shy boy nursing an infatuation toward fellow classmate Ern (Nattasha Nauljam), and the latter being the daring buddy with the slightest of attention spans, having to dabble in plenty of hobbies but never settling for any, until his envy of his twin brother Kay's success with his band Arena made him want to start his own, besides the notion of assuming that being in a band will mean being an automatic chick magnet. Roping in basketballer turned drummer Ex (Thawat Pornrattanaprasert), the trio obviously don't have the talent necessary to entertain nor perform, but that doesn't mean that they're giving up in true blue zero to eventual hero formula, willing to even parody themselves by calling their band SuckSeed, where first you have to suck, before success will come. After all, once you hit rock bottom, the only way is up, no?

And this is the surprise package that delivered where it mattered, be it the musical numbers, thanks to real life Thai bands and/or their frontman making cameo appearances (one of my favourite Thai songs came on as the first, how cool is that?), the more dramatic moments or the comedy where the actors, mostly first timers as well, will put some veterans to shame with their exuberance. While the story was written by a host of writers, it didn't fall prey to the too many cooks spoiling the broth syndrome, where the end product would turn out to be rather scattered and piece meal. Rather, SuckSeed proved to the contrary, with the ensemble cast playing (pardon the pun) their hearts out in their roles.

One may think of it as being quite generic at times, with subplots like unrequited love, teenage romance, sibling rivalry and the likes that pepper movies featuring teenage characters, but the delivery of its charismatic leads here more than make up for it, especially between Jirayu Laongmanee and Pachara Chirathivat as best buddies, and that between the former and Nattasha Nauljam in their romantic angle. Chayanop Boonprakob also utilizes different techniques to keep things varied and interesting, where animation also came into play more than once to spice things up in style especially in its manga inspired moments when dealing with introducing of band members, or even the rebirth of SuckSeed in phoenix style where it rose out of its ashes after two members got burnt by their failure to snag the girls they fancy, and decide to pour their energies into making their band a success. Or not.

Like Japan's Beck this year which also had the formation of a band as its premise and the focus on the relationships between band members, SuckSeed is the Thai equivalent, and powers its way into one of my favourites this year. It's a complete film as much as emotions go in its roller coaster ride, where friendship, romance, comedy and rock all fuse together in synergy to bring forth a crowd pleaser. Highly recommended and an inspiration to those who suck - I Need You! Want You! Love You!

Friday, August 19, 2011

Overheard 2 (竊聽風雲 2 / Sit Yan Fung Wan 2)

Recession Coming, You Know?

This is a film by any other name would have smelled as sweet. Written and directed by Alan Mak and Felix Chong, Overheard 2 may seem like a sequel or follow up film of sorts given the number in its title, but except for a storyline that consists of eavesdropping devices, and the bringing back of lead actors in Lau Ching Wan, Louis Koo and Daniel Wu, this film deals with completely different characters and a premise that doesn't fit anywhere into the original film. It could have been called some other name and would work just as well, though I am curious if the filmmakers will make yet another film and package them all together in a nifty box set of crime thrillers that deal with the espionage of information.

That said, one cannot help but to compare elements from this film with its predecessor, no matter how different they can be. For starters, we rarely, if ever, get all three leading men sharing the same frame, let alone the same scene, together, unlike the first film where everyone was on the same side of the law, and employing techniques to solve cases together as a team. Whatever chemistry that worked back then got broken up here, with each character aligned to different loyalties such that they get pit against one another; gone is the teamwork and in comes individual objectives and intent with Lau Ching Wan playing Manson, a hot shot but shady broker, and Louis Koo as Jack Ho, a cop with the Security Bureau with that unwavering moral sense of justice.

It's an elaborate plot of revenge being exacted out by the mysterious lone ranger Joe (Daniel Wu), who begins the film already having planted plenty of surveillance devices in the offices, vehicles and phones of a group of high profile businessmen and their stockbroker, collectively being known as the enigmatic Landlord Club, responsible for how the Hang Seng stock index performs, influential and lined with deep pockets to manipulate markets without being caught. Those not familiar with trading terms or how the stock market works shouldn't see this as reason enough not to watch the film, as the transactions boiled down to being very simple buy and sell ones complete with the obvious insider trading, where money gets multiplied obscenely thanks to unscrupulous transactions following the mantra of doing, but not getting caught, complete with a protocol on who takes the fall if so.

But Alan Mak and Felix Chong's story got bogged down unnecessarily by the personal demons of Manson and Jack no thanks to the presence of their wives, bit characters played by Huang Yi and Michelle Ye respectively to provide some balance to the testosterone on screen. Huang Yi's lawyer and wife character to Manson may have had the most potential between the two, but unfortunately got relegated to one brilliant scene only, spending the others under bedcovers that serve as a conduit for a critical narrative flashback to happen, and to provide Manson with a reason to quit what he's doing and to escape from their reality. Michelle Ye's character as Jack's wife is even more wasted, being nothing more than as fodder for Louis Koo to show off some dramatic acting chops, which he does with conviction having honed his screen presence in so many films this year it's hard to keep track.

It's a little bit of a slow down and a bloat in the story, rather than to pare it down and keeping it as nippy as how stock markets behave during a bear or bull run. But the slew of veteran actors in Overheard 2 makes it more than worthwhile to sit through this, from Kenneth Tsang, Samuel Kwok, Woo Fung and others gracing the screen as Landlord Club members being a shadow of their more gung ho selves in the past. Chiao Chiao completes the picture as an Alzheimer's patient provides reason enough for Joe to go ballistic in his painstakingly complex plotting involving a number of random variables especially in counting upon the graces of reluctant allies being none the wiser. Action sequences are kept simple, from a nicely shot pursuit of a blue Ferrari to a man hunt down the busy streets of Hong Kong and a motorcycle chase that stands out amongst the lot.

Still, Alex Mak and Felix Chong, for all their films made together with Andrew Lau, managed to continue stamping their mark in the industry and in the genre, keeping things rather cerebral, and I for one am glad they had returned to their modern day roots from their recent blip in going medieval with The Lost Bladesman. I have to admit though I still prefer the first Overheard, although this one rewards the patient viewer.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Conan the Barbarian

Poised to Strike

By Crom, Conan the Barbarian actually showed how the recent sword and sorcery films, from Prince of Persia to Clash of the Titans, could have been a lot more fun if things were kept a little simpler, and not have taken itself too seriously, where bloating the film with big name stars do not necessarily spell success. Created by Robert E. Howard, this version of Conan may feel like it's being updated for the modern audience, and in some ways presents the Cimmerian Barbarian in a physique that's a lot more nimbler and leaner.

Jason Mormoa plays the titular character, and while Arnold Schwarzenegger may have been Conan's defacto poster boy for his two films made in the 80s, complete with little dialogue (since he can't speak fluent English then) and plenty of bulk muscle flexing, Mormoa's version happens to be a little more charismatic compared to Schwarzenegger's wooden acting, better looking and being able to execute a lot more niftier moves, being the sole survivor of his tribe hell bent in looking for the murderers of his villagers', and father Corin (Ron Perlman). Admittedly this Conan is a little less beefy, but more than made up for it in his arrogance, directness and being that ultimate alpha male chauvinist blessed with superb ability in his DNA and tough training.

Being an origin film that possesses potential to kickstart a new franchise, this one charts Conan's birth in battle, and goes to show how the young warrior got brought up in a barbaric value system, where becoming a fighter is a great honour, only for his training to be interrupted by the evil Khalar Zym (Stephen Lang) and his sorceress daughter Marique (Rose McGowan) as they seek out the missing component of a magical death mask, so that they can summon a dead companion and then rule the world, as always and typical. The battle between good and evil cannot be more pronounced than that, with Conan's quest for vengeance standing in their way, and we get introduced to a number of allies that is reminscent of the old cartoon series Conan the Adventurer.

Significant screen time got devoted to the first act when Conan was a child (Leo Howard) and introduced us to the barbarian code, in addition to the myths behind the sword, which was covered in the Schwarzenegger movie, and painting a picture that this Conan will grow up to be quite the bad ass for his natural ability honed into violence dished without remorse. A big jump in time to fast forward to the adult days where he's already quite the adventurer with Artus (Nonso Anozie) the pirate, before the narrative takes the very rote and very routine course of Conan chancing upon quite conveniently with characters from his past, and so begins a joining the dots from one villain to the next. In between he gets to tangle with some romance courtesy of Tamara (Rachel Nichols) the novitiate of a monastery, also conveniently being the chosen one whose lineage to activate the death mask, making her the target that Khalar Zym and Marique seeks. It's an extremely simple storyline and a singular objective of revenge.

Director Marcus Nispel opted to make this film a lot more violent than what we've seen before in the films by John Millius and Robert Fleischer. There are 1001 ways characters die in the film, where horses get hacked down in battle, to elaborate torture scenes that will make you squirm when Conan decides to interrogate his enemies, to fancy death methods inflicted by forces on either side, from dismemberment, beheading and even being thrown against a stone, or repeatedly smacked headlong against a stone floor. It's no holds barred and takes a strong stomach to sit through it all, at times involving CG-ed enemies that come as fancy as sandman type warriors, or an imprisoned mythical creature with mean tentacles tossing, squeezing and chomping off its prey to add to casualty numbers.

But in true blue Singapore standards, we get the M18 rated version that is totally fine with the gratuitous violence on screen, but to save us from witnessing Conan turn from warrior to lover, his sex scene with Tamara gets the unceremonious snip from the censors scissors, despite a promising start with plenty of gratuitous nudity from the "wenches" (yes that's what they're called in the credits). It's probably blasphemous to show a more tender side to Conan, so we don't get that at all, preserving our memory of a brutal warrior who dispatches his enemies without remorse in Punisher: War Zone attitude and style.

Ultimately it's a fun romp, if only you put aside a lacklustre finale and a story that has glaring loopholes and continuity issues involving time and distance that characters can travel, or the usual rote elements such as the grand villain monologue and arrogance. Still, Jason Mormoa embodies the spirit of Conan with a little bit of a metrosexual tendency - check out his fancy battle armour that he adorns in different fight scenes besides the usual cloak and skimpy tunic, and hopefully this film does decent box office business to justify at least another film to expand on what's been established here. Recommended, and better than expected, reminiscent of the good old 80s with countless of swords and sorcery films that never cease to amaze and thrill.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Gantz: Perfect Answer

Return of the Orb

Like Hollywood, Japan has its fair share of films adapted from the manga / graphic novel medium, and the first Gantz film showed what I had missed out. While being self-contained to a certain extent with the final scene leaving the door wide open for a follow up film, Gantz The Perfect Answer served up the concluding companion episode that's relatively different in tone and treatment, with the first film being that special effects extravaganza of a science fiction mystery that took its time to explain the rules of engagement to the audience, and this one being more measured in pace to explore and deepen the relationships between characters.

So for those who had come to expect an all out fight fest between the Gantz warriors and what was the myriad of alien lifeforms introduced in the previous film, this one had limited set action pieces to thrill you, with a consistent enemy solely being the shape shifting "Men in Black" aliens, extremely difficult to get rid of and who can forge weapons out of thin air. But that didn't mean the action got dumbed down, on the contrary they just become bigger scaled, and complex, especially the subway sequence involving different teams up against persistent enemies, weaving into and out of a speeding subway train using a whole host of weapons and strategies rolled into one.

The other action sequences didn't offer anything not seen before since it involved the usual hunter-prey type chases, although a three way street swordfight upped the ante before the all out whack fest as the finale that called too much attention to itself due to the fact that common sense logic gave way to wanting to achieve cool framing. There will be moments in the film that will make you wonder about continuity and inconsistencies especially to the ground rules drawn up, and the effects, outcomes and aftermath of weapon inflicted damages, but I can probably explain it away with Gantz getting weaker as the story goes along, and with that introduce the inconsistencies spotted, and the unpredictability of entire scenarios since for the first time, the "real world" people get put in direct line of fire.

And with the introduction setting Kei Kurono (Kazunari Ninomiya) achieving close to 100 points would already have done away with any montage sequence to show him and the Gantz squad dispatching countless of aliens along the 5 month duration set in the film, in lieu of wanting to explore the more human emotions and relationships between Kei and his best girl pal Tae (Yuriko Yoshitaka), and that between Masaru Kato (Kenichi Matsuyama) and his brother Ayumu (Kensuke Chisaka) who is yearning for the day he gets back home, which Kei is trying his best to assist in clocking his first 100 and trading those points for a resurrection. Then there's the love story between Kei and Tae that forms the centrestage of the plot here, like any typical love story where the guy stands up and protects his loved one from adversity, only to find the odds unfairly stacked against him because of the nature of the set up and game formed by Gantz.

On a deeper level, this film touches on how humans tend to fight without knowing intrinsically what they are fighting for, other than for the promise of something that obviously won't be delivered upon one's demise, or purely for selfish, personal gain that can easily turn allies into foes, and what it means to be selfless. The finale while dragged out, is bound to leave one nodding in appreciation just how it goes back to its science fiction roots in order to complete the film, and in some ways cutting close to the Matrix on levels dealing with the formation of realities, though here done with a little bit more finesse with bittersweetness.

As an expansion to the two film mythos, some familiar faces get to come back for a second round having form a formidable team with Kei Kurono, while new faces are being added such as the model Eriko Ayukawa (Ayumi Ito) who goes about in a hypnotic trance to help Gantz, and cop Masamitsu Shigeta (Takayuki Yamada) who is hell bent on finding out the truth behind Gantz and the whereabouts of the urban legend but always finding himself one step behind. The other Gantz members who get featured in this installment, though some briefly, suggests how one gets trapped in a loop or are at the beck and call of Gantz, and raises questions specifically on the kind of freedom granted by the black orb, which puts on that perfect philosophical and science fiction mash up spin.

For those who have forgotten the details from the first film since it has been months, fret not as this installment begins with a quick, broad recap of the pertinent points, then launching itself proper into the scheme of things that will call for patience in the initial act before its first action sequence kicks in, and kicks into high gear all the way to the finale. Definitely recommended for fans of the first film, and for the curious, do pick up the DVD of Gantz first before heading to the cinemas to complete the tale.

Gantz: Perfect Answer opens 18 August!

Saturday, August 13, 2011

Fist of Dragon (龙拳 / Long Chuen)

Leg of Dog

Fiona Xie has been out of the entertainment circle for years already, so it's a good indication to anyone how dated this film is actually, being held in cold storage if not for the obvious reason that its story is fundamentally flawed. The trailer makes it look like it's another Bruce Lee knockoff, with a Chinese man being sent to help his restaurant running relative fend off the neighbourhood thugs, only that such an association brings forth severe blasphemy because this barely could have stood up against a single frame from The Way of the Dragon.

A regional co-production, rookie director-actor-co-producer Michael Chuah perhaps was a wee bit ambitious in trying to be a jack of all trades, and turned out to be a master of none. The direction's pretty blase for an action film, and technically with the credits all being single names, some nicknames even, may suggest that the crew could be a little embarrassed to be associated with this effort. As an actor, Chuah doesn't cut it and his inexperience shows through the constant, wooden one-dimensional look, that of a deer caught in the headlights, which may not be a bad thing since his character Li (note: Any self-respecting martial arts film these days should avoid Li/Lee as character names, and Dragon in the title, seriously) leaves China for the first time to an unnamed Asian city, ala a country bumpkin type. And the worst insult to an actor is that one lacks charisma and as a leading man, isn't blessed in the looks department. I didn't say that, but just echoing what the two girls sitting beside me blurted out in the darkness of the cinema hall.

The story's a waste of time, if only to become an excuse to string together some action sequences for Chuah to show off his fisticuffs, which in many scenes here tried too hard in emulating Donnie Yen's Ip Man, right down to the specific moves used, and we're not even talking about Wing Chun here. To summarize the clunky narrative, it's about a band of gangsters whose members have shifting loyalties at the drop of a hat, made up of sons and daughters of a bunch of simpleton villagers who can't cooperate, thus leaving the door wide open for exploitation and bullying by the thugs. Throw in some inexplicable moments involving secret liquid drugs, throwaway zombies (yes, really) that become forgotten as soon as its purpose is served in one single scene, and plenty of bad acting all around complete with needless supporting characters speaking in a myriad of accented Mandarin, and you get Fist of Dragon. A punch/slap in the face that is.

As an action film however this film does have its moments that you have to give it credit for, although as it goes along it becomes a showpiece for Chuah's fighting skills mostly, and almost quite exaggerated as he becomes a one man army up against hordes of weapon wielding thugs, that becomes repetitive. The final sequence in a warehouse was nicely crafted though involving burning ropes and slight variation in technique, though some wire work was obvious, together with an overuse of powder, and unnecessarily loud battle sound effects that never goes out of fashion with rookie filmmakers.

While Thailand has Tony Jaa and JeeJa Yanin to boast about, and Indonesia has Iko Uwais from Merantau, Michael Chuah somehow lacks that charisma, stature, and physique to be that bona fide action hero. While his moves are hard hitting though at times I was looking out for some editing tricks, one element that stuck like a sore thumb throughout is his disadvantage in reach. Put two martial artists side by side, and I won't put my money on the one who needs to reach out far beyond to throw a punch. But the main villain here (not that poser who can't fight) decked in black jacket, now that is probably the sole reason for anyone to watch the film, as he executes killer moves with venom, coupled with a menacing look that reminded me of Dan Chupong as Crow Ghost in the Ong Bak sequels. Thumbs up for this actor-stuntman-Wushu coach Pui Fook Chien aka Jey Tong, and I hope he goes far as far as action films around the region is concerned.

Fist of Dragon scores for effort only, but the delivery was no better than a schoolboy's first dabble in the film medium. Try harder is all I can say, as this sticks to the bottom of the barrel as one of the worst films this year that's best avoided, unless you're up for some horror comedy.

Thursday, August 11, 2011


The Mission You Have To Accept

The film begins in sweeping slow motion, centered around a harsh cemented premises with a bunch of boys undergoing the shaving of their hair ala military fashion, with the camera centered on one boy possessing this crazed looking eyes, before cutting to Canada where twins Jeanne and Simon Marwan (Melissa Desormeaux-Poulin and Maxim Gaudette respectively) arrive at a notary’s office to accept the will of their recently deceased mother Nawal (Lubna Azabal), where they are left with letters to deliver to a father and brother that they do not know. In the meantime, they are to bury their mother in a certain strange way until their quest has been completed, with the notary Jean Lebel (Remy Girard), Nawal’s boss the last few years, ensuring that her last will and testament is completed the way it was intended.

Incendies, based upon the play Scorched written by Wajdi Mouawad and adapted for the screen by director Denis Villeneuve, was this year’s Best Foreign Language Film nominee from Canada, and there’s every reason why it was a nomination well deserved. Set against a mystery to be unraveled so slowly, bringing together seemingly disparate events together in shocking fashion by the time we’re through, the narrative is split into two different timelines, with the current one being the twins’ journey to an unnamed Middle Eastern country in search for clues to their unknown father and brother, while with each milestone achieved of sorts, we get to see a flashback to the time of their mother, brought up in a harsh environment involving the staining of family honour, as well as religious zealots and militants who set her off in a tale of an avenging angel, and sacrifice.

And the story sprawls in many directions, though with Villeneuve always having an assured hand in not having this fall into melodramatic terms nor have any wasted scenes, highlighting issues that still exist to this very day involving hatred, revenge and forgiveness, but not before laying down a number of surprises that will shake you to the core especially when the mysterious equation finally gets solved – you may get a hint of what’s to come, but this got handled so expertly without being verbatim, that it accentuates and compounds the myriad of complex emotions felt by all the characters involved.

With sweeping cinematography that’s achingly beautiful to gaze at, one of the best scenes involve the brutal, cold blooded mass murder where militants spray countless of rounds into a packed bus, culminating in that shot of a burning bus shrouded in thick black smoke against an endless sandy environment, with Nawal finally snapping into making a decision to take matters into her own hands from then on. Between the two stories, perhaps it is Nawal’s painful journey that makes this compelling viewing, from having her lover forcefully and terminally separated from her by family during her teens, then her volunteering and sacrifice leading to imprisonment and ill treatment within as punishment. What she did as part of reconciliation is in part a masterstroke in inflicting inexplicable pain in return to her perpetrator, is what made this film a winner, although it will stun you into silence well after the end credits roll from the devastation the narrative left in its wake.

The other half of the narrative deals with Jeanne and Simon’s journey to dig through unwritten laws, and reluctance of tightly knit communities that prefer to keep the status quo and not dwell and reopen wounds inflicted from their collective shameful past, some in denial, while others happy to have seen a more favourable outcome from Nawal’s hardships. It is this piecing together of the mystery like an investigative drama that makes Incendies unique, and what more, Radiohead also features in the soundtrack – strange but true, and very powerful if you ask me.

Comparing the ratings between this film at M18 and Womb at R21 reveals what the censors allow and not allow when dealing with more mature themes, likely centered around the intention of its more controversial scenes. It’s anyone’s guess why was was given the highest rating possible, and the other one rung lower, given that both actually didn’t have anything explicit, except perhaps one was used as an unintentional weapon of torture and destruction in the psychological sense, while the other was a love story gotten out of control!

Still, for its strong story and excellent production values, Incendies becomes that must watch film in 2011, especially during this season of noisy summer action blockbusters that absolutely don’t resonate as much as this film. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

The Fortune Buddies (勁抽福祿壽)

Real BFF Do This Together

Fortune Buddies star the trio of Louis Yuen, Wong Cho Lam and Johnson Lee as down and out friends Fook, Luk and Sau respectively, in a comedy that contain the usual self-deprecating jokes played on the main cast as well as the cameos (Michael Tse of Laughing Gor bearing the brunt of most slapstick), but surprisingly is stinging and barbed in its veiled criticism about Hong Kong society, that I think hey, something similar could also be made here that is equally critical of our own. After all, it'll be something to laugh at ourselves, especially when we step back and realize that our ugly behaviour can make for some good comedy.

What I had enjoyed about Fortune Buddies isn't its rather absurd storyline, but the various disparate scenes crafted and then glued together to form a narrative of sorts that reflects some quirky societal ills, issues and the state of affairs, played for laughs naturally since this is a comedy after all. For instance, there's the crazy spiralling property prices that Hong Kongers have to deal with, and an apartment is something Luk has to provide for his girlfriend (Fiona Sit) as a condition laid out by her dad (Eric Tsang) before he can marry her, but this spells a tall (pardon the pun) for Luk as he can't hold down a regular job given the relative high unemployment rate.

Even more no holds barred statements got made more than once about how societal has degraded and people falling into idiocy, that mirrors ironically how badly crafted films can find box office success easily as compared to more serious fare. But I digress, though it was tempting to reflect upon how this was somewhat a self fulfilling prophecy especially when film financing doesn't come easy these days, and films as these still continue to get funding to be made.

The film heavily relies on the leading trio to bring about the laughs as they lampoon various situations and dress up, in drag even, to elicit a chuckle from the audience. Each character they play come with baggage and an objective to achieve before the film ends, such as Fook needing to gain some self-respect from his estranged gangster chief wife, Sau trying to tackle his dream girl (Samantha Ko), and Luk needing plenty of cash to finally get parental consent for his girl to marry him. These monetary and self-respecting requirements all get worked into an Ip Man 2 parallel spoof, where the trio encounters kung fu masters, and getting into the fighting ring with some Caucasian wrestlers.

As always, a number of jokes seemed to have lost their flavour and punchlines given the unnatural translation from Cantonese to Mandarin, which is a pity because it made the entire film look quite dull. Take for instance Johnson Lee's mimicry of the four heavenly kings, where in the Cantonese trailer you'd appreciate the very accurate attempts both in mannerisms and voice quality, but in the Chinese dubbed film, made it look extremely artificial. I'd say it's about time Hong Kong films are given back some respect in being allowed to screen in their original language track here.
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