Sunday, October 30, 2011

[DVD Short] The Three Sisters (三朵花) (2011)

As the adage goes, blood is ultimately thicker than water. Bickering amongst siblings is a given, but you do know at the end of the day that relations will always triumph beneath the caustic jibes and the sarcasm.

A number of things worked for producer-writer-director Leon Cheo's latest short film The Three Sisters, the first being the casting of the titular trio in Liow Shi Suen, Lok Mng Chue and Daisy Yeo where you find a peacemaker, someone who treads the middle ground, caught up in between two of her bickering siblings, each equipped with sharp tongues and always wanting to have the last word. They are having a sisters night out for an evening at the Cantonese Opera, a dying trade in Singapore, and the cast also did their dual roles with aplomb, playing another three sisters, in the same age order, for the stage production, in what would be reel life imitating reel art, and vice versa.

How this will turn out is everyone's guess, since they create a scene from the get go when they get together at the theatre foyer, and annoy themselves and other patrons as the night wore on. Relationship issues are what's most often touched upon in their lives, as well as the lives of the characters on stage, and while it may cover an entire spectrum of emotions from longing, unrequitedness and being stuck in something seemingly loveless, these are touched upon lightly without being overly preachy or nostalgic as the sisters reminisce about the good ol' bygone era of outdoor live entertainment. The Three Sisters also kept the best for last, providing a satisfying sucker punch in its final act to wrap everything up really nicely from the minute a cab arrives to pick the sisters up.

One of the earliest films to be produced here through crowd sourcing, The Three Sisters boasts handsome production values despite a relative shoe-string budget of about S$5K (or at least that was the amount crowd-sourced), and has a simple story to tell that's easy on the themes it wanted to dwell upon. Family themed films may be Leon Cheo's forte, so it'll be worthwhile and interesting to see where he turns his sights to next for his next film project.

A friend had lent me this DVD for viewing, and I'd say if you can get your hands on one, do give it a shot!

The independently produced Region Free DVD presents the film in anamorphic widescreen and in the original Cantonese language track with English subtitles only. Extras packed into this release include Production Stills consisting of 21 stills that plays over 1:14, and 81 Behind the Scenes Stills over 5:02. There is also an inclusion of a Deleted Scene (0:54) shot at Esplanade Bridge, which was left out of the final film probably because it may be deemed too early to brandish Chekov's gun.

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Saturday, October 29, 2011

[DVD] Delhi Belly (2011)

Kuah Simi?

It's loud, it's obnoxious, and it's really very rude. That's what made Delhi Belly so much fun as a crime caper of a film that's unseen coming out from Bollywood, until now. It's a lot more fun watching this the second time round, and if you do watch this film, make sure it's the Hinglish audio option selected, which in itself adds a separate dimension of comedy that comes across as natural since it's accented the way it is, something like Singlish being the actual lingua franca despite what the authorities say and discourage its use.

You can read my review of Delhi Belly here.

The Region Free DVD by Excel Home Entertainment presents the film in a pristine anamorphic widescreen transfer, with audio in its original Hinglish (English + Hindi) Dolby Digital 2.0 or 5.1, and a pure Hindi version in 5.1. Subtitles are available only for the feature film in English and Arabic, with scene selection over 18 Chapters.

The Special Features appears quite scant, broadly categorized into Theatrical Trailers and Music Video and Songs. The Theatrical Trailers and TV Spots are presented in anamorphic widescreen transfers, with First Look (1:09), Trailer (2:16), Aamir Khan Dialogue Promo (1:09), and Dialogue Promo 1, 2 and 3 (0:38 each) with a Play All option.

Music Videos and Songs unfortunately doesn't come with subtitles, and are presented in a letterbox format, with all the actors staying in character as they lip sync to songs heard in the film, complete with film clips and a Play All option. There's Bhaag D.J. Bose, Aandhi Aayi (3:15) which is a contemporary rock number as compared to the use of more traditional Indian musical instruments in Nakkaddwaley Disco, Udhaarwaley Disco (3:02). Other songs include Switty Switty (2:56), Bedardi Raja (3:15) and Delhi Belly Medley (3:09) putting everything together. Ja Chaudail (2:43) is as seen and lifted directly from the film, as is the iconic I Hate You (Like I Love You) (3:00) from the end credits, with Aamir Khan in a cameo hamming it up as Disco Fighter complete with incredibly tight clothes, ridiculous hairdo and continuous thrusting and gyrating of his pelvis. Plenty of fun in this music video compared to the rest!

Friday, October 28, 2011

Are You Ready to Dance with the Dragon?

Following the success of its Lunar New Year movie It's A Great Great World directed by Kelvin Tong, MediaCorp Raintree Pictures is now swinging into motion to have yet another Lunar New Year film slated for the lucrative period in 2012. Teaming up with Kelvin Tong again, who is taking up screenplay responsibilities with Marcus Chin, it's no surprise that this film, which will go into production in November, features a story that has the Lunar New Year of the Dragon and various related motif prominently featured.

The synopsis goes:
Dragon is a mystical creature and revered by the Chinese; as one of the 12 Chinese Zodiac, the Year of the Dragon represents prosperity. Dance Dance Dragon《龙众舞》 tells the story of Mother Loong who desires to have a grandchild. However, none of her three children have plans for any children. Things change for the Loongs on the first day of the 2012 Year of the Dragon when a newborn boy is found on their doorstep!

Budgeted at 1.2 million,Dance Dance Dragon《龙众舞》 (not to be confused with Dance of the Dragon) stars Dennis Chew, Kym Ng and Adrian Pang (the latter two sharing the big screen previously in Wee Li Lin's Gone Shopping), and Malaysian artistes Lai Ming and Melvin Sia. Kat Goh, who served as Assistant Director to a number of Kelvin Tong films such as The Maid, Love Story, Kidnapper and It's A Great Great World, and won accolades recently at the 2009 Silver Screen Awards, Singapore Short Film Category for Best Film (Swimming Lesson) and Best Director, directs her debut feature film. In her press statement, Kat says, "Since young, I have always enjoyed Chinese New Year films as they are festive occasions when the entire family bonds in a cinema. To have Dance Dance Dragon - a Chinese New Year movie - as my debut film therefore comes as an absolute delight for me. I can't wait to bring my parents to the cinema this coming Chinese New Year."

As with almost all Lunar New Year films, expect some wholesome comedy with heart warming moments fit for the entire family. The shoot will commence in November and filmed entirely in Singapore, with distribution by Cathay Keris Film and is slated to screen from mid January 2012. Watch for it!

Photos Courtesy of MediaCorp Raintree Pictures Pte Ltd

Thursday, October 27, 2011

[DVD] Singham (2011)

Cop Swagger

I noticed that the the window between the cinema debut for a Hindi film and its subsequent DVD release is getting shorter, perhaps in a bid to combat piracy, and perhaps it's good news for fans fans of any film if they so desire to rewatch the movie in the comfort of their home and for those little extras packed inside the DVD release. Some may argue that a shorter window may spell disaster at the box office since many can afford to wait, but the collective and communal cinema experience is something yet to be accurately replicated with a home theatre system, well not just yet.

And films like Singham, which is and meant to be a lot of fun, is best viewed with large masses of folks, preferably vocal and rowdy, since there are plenty of opportunities in the film for you to go wild and cheer the hero on as he goes on a stylized rampage to rid his community of the evil that comes in the form of an influential city gangster. You can read my review of the film here, and the second round at home was just as fun as the first, only without the crowd experience.

The Region Free DVD by Reliance Home Video presents the film in an anamorphic widescreen format without blemish, and audio is available in its original Hindi language with options in Dolby Digital 5.1 or Stereo. Subtitles are available throughout the feature film in English and Arabic, with scene selection over 20 Chapters.

As with most DVD releases of Indian movies, there will be a menu option for Songs, and Singham only has three in its entire movie, with the title theme song Singham (3:50), Saathiyaa (3:14) and Maula Muala (2:48), which goes into the point in the film they come on, and then exits back to the menu. There's also the Play All option.

The Special Features turned out to be one massive Making Of broken down into separate sections, with a Play All option, presented in letterbox format in a mix of English and Hindi, and as such no subtitles are available here. Making of Singham "Action" (6:42) showcases the usual behind the scenes look on the choreography of many stylized fights with the help of plenty of wires. Interviews with the star Ajay Devgn, director Rohit Shetty, actress Kajal Aggarwal and supporting cast members such as Prakash Raj, Ashok Sarat, Sonali Kulkarni and Sachin Khedekar are available in all the sections such as Character Sketches (6:47) where they talk about their roles, and share their respective Difficulties in Making of Singham (5:07) especially from the heat experienced in Goa while shooting the film outdoors.

Those who always marvel at the way Bollywood does its song and dance sequences will find plenty of material in Making of Singham Title Song (5:03) and The Making of Maula Maula (4:38).

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Three Musketeers in 3D

Musketeers Assemble!

There are more than 20 films made on Alexandre Dumas' The Three Musketeers novel, so the challenge here for any filmmaker seeking to make a film adaptation is to come up with something new, but yet staying true to the spirit of what the One For All and All For One epitomizes. Directed by Paul W.S. Anderson, the man responsible for a number of Resident Evil films and other remakes such as Death Race, it's quite obvious he'll film this in 3D given that he took the Resident Evil franchise in that direction with a steampunkish look and feel, but little else.

The Three Musketeers tells the story of four musketeers, with a certain D'Artagnan (Logan Lerman of Percy Jackson fame) looking to join the French King's elite force only to find that they've been disbanded by the evil Cardinal Richelieu (Christoph Waltz) who has the diabolical plan of getting England and France to go to war, and stepping in to usurp the throne. D'Aartagnan soon makes an enemy out of Captain Rochefort (Mads Mikkelsen) and bumping into the trio of Athos (Matthew Macfadyen), Porthos (Ray Stevenson) and Aramis (Luke Evans), the titular musketeers now into semi-retirement, and soon find themselves banding together once again to answer the call of saving the king Louis XIII (Freddie Fox) and his queen Anne (Juno Temple).

That's the gist of the usual tale, where in Paul W.S. Anderson's case had envisioned the musketeers to be sort of an early rendition of secret agents out to do the country's bidding, with a license to kill. The opening character introductory sequence brings us to Venice, Italy, where the trio, together with Milady de Winter (Milla Jovovich) embark on a secret quest to retrieve construction plans of an airship, only for the lady to betray them all, and working as a double agent under Richelieu, and the Duke of Buckingham (Orlando Bloom). The screenplay by Alex Litvak and Andrew Davies broadly follows certain key elements from Dumas' original story, such as the involvement of the Queen's lady in waiting (Gabriella Wilde), the plot to kick-start a war and the many political double-crossing, but took a lot of liberties pertaining to how events unfolded that it is The Three Musketeers in name only, and could have been entitled The Adventures of Milady de Winter for the pivotal role the character plays throughtout the film, and having just about the coolest of all fight scenes. Oh yes I forgot Milla is Mrs Anderson.

Much has been said about the mixed accents spoken through the film, and it's true, if one's a stickler for accent authenticity, one will not find that in this movie, where everyone just about speaks in their own natural accented English. Everyone practically hammed up their roles, with Orlando Bloom turning in a really flamboyant performance as the villainous Duke complete with metrosexual tendencies, while Christoph Waltz, the current Hollywood It guy to play chief villains in films, slept walk his way in his role - you can tell he's already tired from it all - complete with a very bad hairdo. Worst, the heroes aren't that heroic and lacked certain believable charisma given that they are supposed to be One for All, being at times too smart even for themselves, and got overshadowed fairly quickly by the more illustrious cast standing on the side of evil.

Since it's a Paul W.S. Anderson film, expect the usual slow-motion technique being overused in just about every major set action brawl, with green screen environments being obviously used to craft and design unbelievably complex fights that almost always try to be very cool and stylish. It does take the mickey out of a good old straightforward swordfight, especially since guns are the de facto weapon of choice instead. When the battle airships got introduced, you know this is not your father's The Three Musketeers, but very much something that could have existed in a parallel universe instead. I wonder if Alexandre Dumas himself would be entertained by this updated version, that became a lot more comedic in nature as the minutes ticked by, or turned in his grave at the monstrosity this was.

It's good that this 3D version was shot in that format and not playing the cheat sheet by having it done in post production, with some moments obviously exploiting that format and you'll have a number of swords pointing your way more than once. Otherwise it's the usual depth of field you'll get to enjoy, but alas this version is far from being the definitive The Three Musketeers that you've read about, but a very bland action adventure that uses its name and premise only, but lacked any depth to truly live up to the themes it stood for, paying lip service only about camaraderie and love. The open finale is unsatisfying as it leads directly into a potential sequel that will see some difficulties in becoming reality given that this one didn't light up the box office.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011


What Facial Cleanser You Use Ah?

The wait is finally over, with the release of Shah Rukh Khan's most anticipated and the most expensive Indian film to date, RA.One, chock full of visual effects it just looks like any other big budgeted summer blockbuster spectacle that Hollywood can churn out, only with a little bit more heart thanks to its family, or rather its father-son relationship arc, and one really infectious song-dance routine in Chammak Challo, which has become my new ear worm.

Much has been said about the film's visual effects shots, and true enough with the resources and technical craftsmen involved, the special effects looked really good and polished, although at times certain scenes were created just for the sake of putting more stars into the fray, or just to alternate between make believe landscapes to add variety. For instance, there's an early fantasy sequence with Shah Rukh Khan, Priyanka Chopra and Sanjay Dutt involved in a pretty campy set up that doesn't look too out of place from any Final Fantasy film, with martial arts, damsels in distress and awesome weapons. It served as a fun, opening action sequence after some mumbo-jumbo about a new science fiction technology created by the fictitious Barron conglomerate, in which SRK's nerdy Shekhar is a chief games developer having problems with being the hero in the life of his young son Prateek (Armaan Verma).

The story isn't something that's totally unique, given many easily identifiable references from various science fiction films already done in the last five years or so, although in some ways most of these films all share common themes and attributes such as heroism, family relationships and the likes. But there were elements that are too close for comfort with what's already out there, and that takes some shine off being something original. For instance, James Cameron's Terminator 2: Judgment Day was almost like the guiding light for the emotional centre of the story, with an evil being capable of shape shifting making it its mission objective to go after and eliminate the boy, who is being protected by a weaker version of the digital lifeform programmed for good. And of course there's the mom character (Kareena Kapoor as Sonia) who together form a dysfunctional family nucleus, except that she's not packing any serious muscle, trading mean attitude for more feminine moves on the dance floor.

Then with the recent release of Real Steel, the father-son story arc cannot be more pronounced, and incorporating elements from Gamer, you have avatar control built into this universe complete with the necessity to play out a deadly game, now transpired into the real world. Then when RA.One and G.One got introduced by Shekhar, they each come with a HART device that Tony Stark will probably send his lawyers to order a stop to the manufacture of the full bodied console game for a breach of intellectual property. Elements from The Matrix trilogy provided inspiration for sentient programs in the virtual world aspiring and eventually making it to the real world, but without the deep philosophical leanings, and formed the initial look and feel for the villanous RA.One when Tom Wu took on the role in the beginning (rumoured that Jackie Chan rejected this, and hence the running joke in the movie) complete with shades and black trench coat, before Arjun Rampal took over for the second half.

What's unique though is the creation of the names of the digital characters for the film, and having it named after the villain instead, since Shekhar's son Prateek, aka Lucifer as his online handle, made no hesitation in telling his clumsy, nerdy father that villains are cool and heroes are so passe, that in an effort to reconnect with his son, Shekhar readily convinces his development team to create a villainous character the world has yet to see, and incorporating Indian mythology into it, such as RA.One sounding very much like Raavan (with its 10 heads a metaphor for the identities he can readily adopt and use), while the good guy equivalent becomes G.One, or Jeevan, meaning Life, and made in the likeness of its creator.

Which of course is what forms a heavy dramatic aspect of the story in establishing the father-son, or husband-wife arc when G.One takes it upon its programming to protect Prateek and his mom by extension when RA.One enters the real world to hunt him down and to complete their unfinished business in the online arena. This provides for plenty of emotional wrangling since G.One may look like Shekhar, but possesses none of the mannerisms nor the bad curly hair but blessed with flawless synthetic skin (ok, I wonder how much of the budget went into this facial), so much so that it provided opportunity for an extended song routine which had licensed Ben E. King's Stand By Me to hammer it all in. Shah Rukh Khan plays two roles here which is probably reminiscent of Endhiran, the Rajnikanth blockbuster which was billed as the most expensive Indian film until this one came along, both as the creator and the product, although the innocence of G.One was more similar to SRK's portrayal in My Name is Khan.

Comparisons with Endhiran are inevitable, from certain scenes such as major fisticuffs involving the girl telling the robotic being to renounce violence, and an action sequence involving a speeding train which did look more like a summary of Unstoppable instead. Then there's the child like, innocent nature of G.One that makes it quite like Chitti, but I guess to ensure some peace was made before the film was released, this film had the Superstar reprise his now famous role once more in a cameo that overtly acknowledges unabashedly just who is the number one superhero in India. And frankly, Chitti here doesn't do much other than to appear and show who's boss, and the minute he appears, the audience just goes wild, which I'm sure this rapturous response will be replicated elsewhere as well.

So familiarity aside, RA.One still contains some nifty action spruced up by visual effects, although it's average at best for its story given that major ring of familiarity to it, padded like any other Masala offering with cheeky moments, slapstick, and all round promoter of good family values no matter how jarring those well meaning messages may come across. It's not the blockbuster I would have expected in its lack of sophistication in story telling, but no doubt it will ride on the strength of its marketing blitz and SRK's star status to ensure that fans still turn up in droves for this superhero's opening weekend.

P.S. would love to have watched this in 3D, but alas the print wasn't ready and will only be screened from Friday this week at select timings, and in truth now that I learnt it was a post-production conversion, that interest has now diminished, and none of the shots in the film was truly done with 3D in mind, nor to exploit what 3D can do.

Monday, October 24, 2011

In Time

Keep Walking

This was one of my highly anticipated films of the year given that Andrew Niccol's was responsible for writing and directing it, with his debut feature Gattaca remaining one of my firm favourites amongst the science fiction genre. Here, Niccol's created a whole new scientific world where the gene responsible for aging has been identified, and will be turned off automatically at age 25. However as a trade off, a timer that counts down is introduced as a population control measure, where time in terms of seconds to centuries get earned through an honest living, or obtained through unscrupulous means by way of crime. And one can gift another a slice of one's own life through almost telepathic ways, making it a commodity much like currency, and with any form of financial system equivalent, the rich get richer, while the poor gets stuck in the rut.

New environments and landscapes got created for this futuristic world with the slums being the residence and work area of the have nots, where going from point to point meant doubling up since time spent on non-economic activity is best kept to a minimum, given rocket inflation and the unfortunate need of having to live hand to mouth. Justin Timberlake continues his successful acting gig this year with a rather well placed Will Salas, a poor man gifted a century's worth of time, although wanted for murder and having to rage against the system for what it did to his mom, played by Olivia Wilde. Soon he teams up with Amanda Seyfried's poor little rich girl Sylvia in what would be a classic throwback to Bonnie and Clyde, with the duo involved in robbing from banks, and redistributing wealth in time currency amongst the poorest of folks with interest free loans

Blessed with a great premise that you would see have been covered in a number of short films out there, In Time somehow lacked that clear direction of where it wants to head to. It chases its own tail going around, didn't quite live up to its billing of how precious every moment, of an audience's time, actually is. Ultimately it really looked like an origin piece for something derivative from it, be it a television series which in all likelihood can work given a new universe created with countless possibilities that can use the 20-odd episode television to explore with new characters living in the confines of the environment, or an MMORPG where one can take control of one's online fate through avatars created and going about with similar challenges to stay alive.

You can read my review of In Time at by clicking on the logo below.


Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake (競雄女俠 - 秋瑾 / Jianhu Nuxia - Qiu Jin)

MCPs Beware!

It's the centennial year of China's overthrow of its centuries long imperial rule spanning a number of dynasties, and it's no surprise for films coming out of the Chinese territories to be putting out more patriotic, biographical fare of its martyrs and heroes, some more well known like Dr Sun Yat-sen in Jackie Chan's 1911, while others perhaps not so with Qiu Jin, the titular woman knight, known for her progressive thinking and feminism, although my interest was stoked with her character's appearance to kickstart Jackie Chan's film. So having it released post 1911, may be a shrewd move given the trailer for the film had been played for months already before finally being released.

Director Herman Yau may seem like the director to go to if not to latch onto any popularity wave as far as film franchises and genres go. With his The Legend is Born: Ip Man, he took on the character outside of the Wilson Yip-Donnie Yen universe and gave it his own spin with Dennis To in the lead, and had a claim to some legitimacy with the casting and roping in of Ip Man's direct descendent Ip Chun as technical reference as well. It's been a long way since his earlier days of achieving cult status with his iconic Category III films like The Eight Immortals Restaurant and Ebola Syndrome, to being at the helm of a film celebrating the life and times of a Chinese heroine when interest has turned toward biographical stories of historical characters.

Actress Huang Yi, better known for her role in Overheard 2 and the campy Treasure Inn, plays the title character who is born into privilege, but having am inquisitive streak and mind of her own, challenging customs and traditions at a young age. Skilled in both the written word and in martial arts, she's an intellect with an independent mind, but is still constraint by societal rules, which at the time under Manchu Qing rule, had in place rather regressive norms such as bound feet and lack of education for women, in order to keep them docile and submissive due to a physical handicap passing off as beauty. Needless to say her shock jock tactics such as dressing in man's clothes do not gain approval from her government official husband (Kevin Cheng) who sees it as a lost of face amongst his peers, and determined to find her true calling, pack up and left for Japan, where she meets similar minded peers including Xu Xilin (Dennis To) where the seeds of revolution got incepted and cultivated.

Credit has to go to the scriptwriters to produce a well researched into biographical story, having Qiu Jin's multi-faceted life, roles and talent all incorporated into the character, without feeling repetitive. And in doing so you'll marvel at and admire her talent for poetry, martial arts (though for entertainment sake she fights like she can take on Wong Fei-Hong and Ip Mam together) and her rousing speeches on revolution, although with the latter it's more of a fight against an oppressive regime that condones the lack of female rights. And not only that, her uphill battle involves changing mindsets even amongst the educated women themselves, who have already ingrained what the skewed norm is. If anything her involvement in revolution came from the need to overthrow existing mindsets and provide the level of freedom and equality for her gender in China. And surprisingly Huang Yi manged to pull the character off, as she hadn't really had any role quite in the same league, or noteworthy of a challenge to begin with.

This is one film that was absolutely better than the promotional trailer made it out to be, which was quite the bore as it played out just about every aspect of the film and was a tad overlong, so thank goodness the film was way better delivered. We begin at the tail end of Qiu Jin's revolutionary life with the assault of her Dayong school, a front to train civil servants but in fact used as a training ground for revolutionaries, and slowly from flashbacks we get glimpses into milestones of her life, shifting backward and forward through transitions that worked at times, while others quite clumsily executed, though nothing more than to grab your attention to its technicality with limited impact to the plot of course.

The other gripe I had was with its martial arts. Granted the kung fu set action pieces would draw crowds but I've just about had a limit with wire-work stunts executed in physics-defying fashion. It's a historical biography, and the fight choreography could have been more subtly executed rather than to break the laws dictated by science. You can have superhuman throws in fantastical, mythical stories, but for something like this, realism would be much appreciated since so much effort had gone into creating a credible tale only for this niggling aspect to shave off some brownie points.

But on the whole, Herman Yau had assembled a credible piece of work that can serve as a launchpad for anyone remotely interested in researching Qiu Jin, with Anthony Wong and Lam Suet playing Manchu officials on a divided fence with one adamant to get rid of her soon to please the courts, while the other appreciating the fact the execution of a talented individual he admires, is nothing but a loss to society and country even. The final moments of her life is moving and poignant to say the least, a reminder in the world we live in that one's progressive thoughts and actions often puts one ahead of the pack, but all alone, and it takes tremendous gumption to literally make personal sacrifices and fight for what one believes in for the greater good, especially when up against powers that be who enjoy the status quo for obvious benefits. Highly recommended for that sneak peek into a Chinese heroine's life through film.

The Help

Oh My How Hypocritical

So one of my simplest reasons to watch this film is to see Emma Stone in a role that didn't require her hair to be dyed red, so that it's a glimpse into how she might look like in next year's summer blockbuster The Amazing Spider-man as Gwen Stacy, and coincidentally the last actress who took on that role in Sam Raimi's Spiderman trilogy, is Bryce Dallas Howard who's also in The Help as the antagonist whom everyone would love to hate for her highly hypocritical, bitchy and demeaning ways, being in a position of power and never letting anyone forget that, what more also as the instigator and immoral compass of the housewives in her community, organizing fund raisers for overseas but neglecting what's happening on the home front.

But frivolous reasons aside, The Help is one of the many films that's set in the 60s that deals with themes like prejudice and racism involving segregation amongst the Whites and the African Americans in Jackson, Mississippi, but having the very same themes also being relevant in society today even here in Singapore especially, with recent talk and focus on the issue of domestic help and our attitudes toward household maids that many employ for various reasons, who assist in looking after the children and the elderly, as well as to keep home while the rest of the adults are neck deep in economic pursuits. While racism is generally kept under control here, there are niggling incidents that pop up every now and then, so clearly we're not off the hook and there will always be individuals who choose intolerance.

Granted that racism back then was more pronounced especially during that era put on film, the story's based on an international bestseller written by Kathryn Stockett, and over here we're bound to identify with the issues highlighted especially in the horror stories you'd hear with regards to the treatment of domestic help, with abuse cases that make you sit up and wonder why we are capable of such inhumane acts. And the worst of all involves being hypocritical, putting on a false front for society, while clearly behaving like the devil when behind closed doors. The bottom line is, we're all humans and we share similar hopes and dreams whatever our skin colour, language and where we're from, in desiring a comfortable life filled with love, with a roof over our heads, food and community, friends and family we can turn to in times of need.

Which is why this film has themes and a poignant, thought provoking narrative that screams relevance, especially for those closeted intolerant few who must watch this, and reflect. Emma Stone stars as Eugenia "Skeeter" Phelan, an aspiring journalist who has returned home only to find out that the group of peers she had grown up with, are leading a lifestyle of superficial leisure, saying a lot of things, but meaning nothing. And for all their cliquish behaviour in cruelly treating one of their own as a social outcast (Jessica Chastain from The Tree of Life), for an ulterior reason only Hilly (Bryce Dallas Howard) knows, what more their household maids who have to slog with the chores, be that surrogate mother to their kids, be at their beck and call, and being given attitude, stick, and threats of the sack?

Given the tension all round during the time, it's no wonder that Skeeter's plans to want to highlight The Help's predicament and provide them with a voice, no doubt also serving as a ticket for her journalistic ambitions to embark on a career in New York, all met with stone walled silence, until Aibileen Clark (Viola Davis) decided that enough is enough, and begin opening up to Skeeter as research material, becoming her insights and perspective on how the African American help get treated in White households. And besides Aibileen's point of view, her friend Minny Jackson (Octavia Spencer) also chipped in, and both represent the broad spectrum of heartfelt accounts both good and bad, though largely negative, with the tacit understanding with Skeeter that they are not to be referred to directly.

It's one of those powerful films that takes the ugly side of humanity and presents it to us face on, to confront how cruel some of us can be, and what the strong amongst us must do to act and help those who are weak or bullied. Director Tate Taylor, who also wrote the screenplay, focuses on the tales crafted around the households both Aibileen and Minny serve, from being treated like dirt to forming firm friendships with some of the people they know and serve, such as Celia Foote (Jessica Chastain), as a reminder on how we should never judge a book by its cover, being obviously relevant when one gets handed one's fate for being of a certain skin colour. You may think that this may be a heavy film with all its seriousness, but trust me there is enough light hearted, even heart warming moments scattered throughout, though counter-balanced with moments of fear that will make you worry for the characters since mob mentality can lead to anything.

Emma Stone normally plays kooky characters of late, so this was perfect opportunity for her to shine in more serious drama which she does adequately. But she got upstaged by both Viola Davis and Octavia Spencer, the former who brought a certain quiet dignity to her role which just calls for respect, and the latter being the comic relief as a really straight-talker, and whose story was probably the most touching in the film, with one of the funniest, running gag in the later half. Bryce Dallas Howard also owned her role as the antagonist Hilly in the film, and if you'd think she's only capable of goody two shoes roles, think again as she can convincingly play back-stabbers, with Sissy Spacek in a supporting role as Hilly's mom.

The Help reminds us of how one has to have Fear and Courage to addresses changes in community or the larger society we serve in, without which we would all be poorer for it. It may be almost 2 1/2 hours long, but it's every minute worth it just watching how an uphill battle was fought, and baby steps being taken each time to overcome obstacles placed in the characters' way. It's guaranteed that you'll laugh and you'll cry in the film thanks to its material, and it's firmly one of the contenders to be amongst my favourite films of this year. Highly recommended!


Look Ma No Hands

"Been working, so hard, I'm punching my card. Eight Hours for what?"

No music no life, and for some, it's no dance no life. My memory of Footloose back in the 80s when I first saw it as a young boy, was Kevin Bacon, and the nifty dance moves that he did not perform. So do we need another remake to correct that, through the casting of a proper dancer in the lead role? In many ways this film by Craig Brewer is unnecessary, being nothing other than a platform to launch or further the acting careers of the multi-talented lead cast, and to satisfy his inner geek of coming up with his own vision of one of his favourite films, but in reality I'd rather stick to the Kevin Bacon version please, even if it meant having a stunt dance double twirl around the screen. It's almost as good as the original, almost, but lacking a little bit of its own soul since it's a superficial copy at best.

There's no major change to the structure of the story, set in a small town where loud music and public dancing are banned, following a tragedy involving the accident and deaths of a few high school kids after a dance party fueled by alcohol, and the knee jerk reaction to this is to outright ban such activity, obtaining the stamp of approval by the town's pastor Rev. Shaw Moore (Dennis Quaid) to impose a tight rein on morals, enforced by the cop with an attitude Herb (Jayson Warner Smith). But as we know all too well, what you ban never really stays away, as all you do is to force it underground, which the young and the rebellious would take to like fish to water.

As a teenage/young adult film, themes like challenging the status quo, or authoritative figures, is never quite far off, and usually it takes an outsider to come into a closed community to shake things up a little, and wake people up from their slumber of complacency. This change agent and catalyst comes in the form of Ren MacCormack (Kenny Wormald) who following the death of his mom and the unknown whereabouts of his dad, made the trek from Boston to his relatives in Bomont, looking very must the angst-filled young man coming with plenty of family and emotional baggage and looking for any outlet he can to release pent up frustration, from a souped up Beetle, to of course, loud music and dance. Being told he can't do any of it means a set up for a rage against the system.

But before that comes the romantic aspects in the form of the village bicycle, so ironically the preacher's daughter herself Ariel Moore (Julianne Hough) who parties like there's no tomorrow, and with a token red neck, race car boyfriend Chuck Cranston (Patrick John Flueger) in tow who doesn't like that Ren can dance into the heart of his woman. So begins the love triangle, and the usual plotting about having a best friend (Miles Teller) who can't dance but can do so after a training montage.

In essence you'll know just what to expect since the story's basically the same, about not judging a book by his cover, where the townfolks slowly realize that Ren's pretty much the harmless guy despite his macho exterior. I mean, the guy dances, and dances well, and Kenny Wormald has the advantage of being a professionally trained dancer to pull this role off convincingly, though it would be a stretch if one considers this film to be his calling card ala what Saturday Night Fever did for John Travolta. Having Juliianne Hough play that romantic interest also seemed like a logical choice given her career thus far, and undoubtedly these two look great together whenever they heat up the dance floor, be it improvised numbers, or conforming to the steps of a line dance.

Unfortunately that's about the best parts of the film, although the dances with their stylish choreography somewhat pales in comparison in just about any big budgeted Bollywood film item number. There are some nice attempts at enriching the plot, but these remains just attempts as a number of scenes just fly by for the sake of, such as the drug incident at the library and the aftermath with the school principal, or the very fleeting non-discussion between separation of church and state, which will work as timely reminders for the religious over-zealous folks around us, that it's almost always counter-productive if one gets pushy in wanting everyone to adopt one's moral compass. Unnecessary distraction in the form of Ren's car having its hood appear and disappear also inferred scenes got shifted around because of indecision, and a rote finale involving some fisticuffs could be seen coming a mile away, with an expected outcome.

It's a good thing nobody had the insane idea of reworking the theme song for Footloose, but given the country version covered by Blake Sheldon, I'd still say, like the film, to give me the original please, with Kenny Loggins. Strictly meant for those who haven't seen the original or the fanbase of Kenny Wormald and Julianne Hough, otherwise go dig up the original.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Killer Elite

Top of His Game

Jason Statham, Clive Owen and Robert De Niro all sharing the same screen would make that big fan in me whoop for joy, with the trio wielding guns, sporting shades and being heavily mustached or bearded looking much like any typical action film from India, and you'd know just how entertaining the films from the continent are. But Killer Elite is all seriousness, with a little controversy brewing by the side when novelist Ranulph Fiennes had claimed that the events in his book, and the film, is based on a true story.

But whether you buy that or not, this film will have you figuring whether such clandestine operations and outfit can exist in the first place, and view reported deaths with a more critical eye, especially if they involve those of high profile, or special/secret forces. Here, mercenaries are available for hire to the highest bidder, doing their bit to rid the world in the 80s of its unwanted criminals, dictators and factions within countries. This is a world where nothing is always what it seems, with shadowy objectives and intents by parties all round from individuals, the groups they operate within, and even from the highest levels of government. The opening had Statham's Danny and De Niro's Hunter chilling in what would be a bar, only to serve as the big bang introduction to the first set action piece, where Danny decides to call his life of killing quits after seeing how the innocent get tangled into their job, and getting injured during this hesitation.

Fast forward to a year into his retirement, he gets forced back into the game given a Sheik in Oman had imprisoned Hunter, and for the latter's freedom, Danny has to fish out ex members of Britain's elite Special Air Service involved with killing the Sheik's three sons, and therefore paving the way for his fourth to assume his place as the rightful heir without being gunned down. The challenge laid down is to elicit confessions of their involvement, and making their deaths look like accidents and cannot be linked back to either him nor his son. Sounds like a tall order, but with money at stake and a higher, more important priority to rescue his mentor, Danny assembles his usual crew, and spends the first hour like any heist movie, planning for and executing those plans in great detail.

Which of course led to action sequence after action sequence, but not in the traditional way of a simple shoot them up. Meticulous planning goes into each hit, as well as Clive Owen's Spike, an ex-SAS man himself out to protect his own, and working under the auspices of a clandestine group known as The Feather Men, breathing down hard in trying to unearth who's behind the killings of the people he knew, as well as the true mastermind who ordered the hits. There are two parts to the story, and each were intriguing in its own way, with the first focused on the mission Danny and team had on hand, and the later half on the repercussions when the long arm of Spike and his team managed to close in and run fences around Danny and his team.

Statham versus Owen in at least two fisticuffs were the highlights of the film, and despite a little flaw in shooting the action up close, they were the most intense battles of the lot in the film, which had car chases to close quartered combat. The screenplay by Matt Sherring moves the story at breakneck speed, and rookie feature film director Gary McKendry helms the film like an experienced old hand in keeping the techniques here very old school, since it's set at the crack of the 80s decade. For the action junkie, you may not get the big action spectacles you were probably looking for, but more measured ones because of the conditions set forth by the Sheik. However, if you're up for some thinking man's espionage with shifting and undefined loyalties, spy versus spy type thrillers, like James Bond but minus the corny lines, women and gadgets, then this one is right for you since it pretty much can be rooted in reality, and as a consequence now you may look upon reported deaths with that skeptical eye.

What worked is of course the presence of the three main leads, whether alone like in the case of Statham, who plays the ringleader amongst his group of merry men who go out to do his dirty surveillance and infiltration work, and that of Owen in a similar role but in the opposite camp, or paired opposite each other for that exchange of wisecracks and sizing up of ability. Statham carries the entire film almost on his own given the significant screen time he has as the lead despite shared billing with his co-stars, and it took a while before Owen enters the picture to stamp his own flair into the film. Robert De Niro however had the shortest screen time amongst the trio, but his charisma more than makes up for it, chewing up the screen each time he appears. Yvonne Strahovski plays the lone female token in the film as Danny's main squeeze, though her story arc is quite negligible only to offer Danny a reason to quit his risky life of kill or be killed, and for some token romantic scenes to toss up the series of testosterone filled dialogue or action.

Easily one of the best thrillers set in the Middle East in recent years, with its 80s setting involving oil, power and mercenary brokers, there's this uncanny repetition of history, should this be real as claimed, in what's happening in the Middle East now. Real life is often stranger than fiction, and it surely showed how the bigger fish in the pond can take advantage in the setting of its agenda, at the expense of those at the lower rungs who just have to follow orders. Highly recommended!

Life Without Principle (奪命金 / Dyut Meng Gam)

Thank You For Banking With Us

Five million dollars, accounted for but not under your name, and untraceable back to you. What will you do? That sets up the basic premise of the latest film by Johnnie To, Hong Kong's maestro of crime thrillers, which had its premiere recently at the Venice Film Festival, bringing together the usual stellar cast of Lau Ching Wan and Ritchie Jen, sharing top billing with Denise Ho in what would be a marked departure from the guns and bullets element, to something that touches a raw nerve with everyone in this day and age of economic woe, and questionable tactics introduced by financial systems worldwide.

Phonetically, the word "Principle" is often confused with "Principal" though in this case it worked brilliantly in introducing themes and elements for the film. It questions one's values in battling the innate temptation of man and our inherent greed especially when one is dead sure to get away with misconduct (then again, by whose measure), and while some may subscribe to the mantra of greed being good, it also highlights the common aggressive techniques used by unscrupulous bankers backed by a loose system of checks and balances, that many have fallen victim to very sexy, paper profit margins without adequately addressing and fully understanding the risks involved. Yes with high risks bring very high returns, but one also stands to lose once principal and capital investment when buyers get blinded and blind-sided, with greed ensuring swift collapse like a house built with a deck of cards.

Written by Cheung Ka Kit, Yau Nai Hoi and Yip Tin Shing, Life Without Principle aims itself squarely at financial markets and the corrupt ecosystem at play, and spends a significant first arc in combining often heard and experienced elements into the story. Denise Ho plays Teresa, a banking relationship officer measured by her sales figures, which means the more she pushes for the sales of riskier products, the better her commission and profitability to the bank. We understand her pressure and predicament, but one's values of caution gets thrown out the window when one's job is on the line, made worse by a pushy manager. Late nights and cold calls (getting the treatment any of us will usually dish out) become the norm, and having two key customers in Lo Hoi Pang's shady money-lender, an extremely savvy investor but of course, and in So Hang Shuen's heartland elderly woman who has little knowledge of finance other than to put her money in the bank, provided that opportunity for broad contrast in customers who know how to work the bank, and those who the bank knows how to work.

You'll even come to the belief that banks everywhere provides meagre, negligible savings interest rate only to entice you to its complicated, though sexier financial instruments that scream high returns, but comes with the fine print the thickness of a phone directory and print that only an ant could read. But that won't translate well on film, so a similar element in taped conversations and going through the motion, which many of us are susceptible to, get played out instead. You can't help but to shake your head at what's put on screen as a third person witnessing how things develop, although how many of us can say we won't get tempted when actually put in the same hot seat with the promise of money being made thrown at us, that will come with a signature and a trust that the bank, a business entity that exists to make profits from anyone, anything and anywhere, has your interest at heart?

The other major arc is equally brilliant with To retaining the gangster element in his stories, with Lau Ching Wan starring as a non too bright gangster muscle, loyal to a fault and always there for his sworn brothers. His honest nature makes him the unofficial trusted treasurer of this boss, in a time where even gangsters have problems with recruiting and retaining men, who will walk off at the first signs of trouble. So much for loyalty these days, with the attitudes of the strawberry generation being felt even to the underworld.

Fans of Lau Ching Wan will undoubtedly see some shades of a popular character he played for in one of the blockbuster television series of its day involving the financial markets, especially in a build up to an ironic twist, but he also added some performing layers to his character and somehow his simpleton endears. His role here serves to highlight how even gangster have to change with the times of economic uncertainty, where knives and guns get traded off for computers and market savvy, making money through the push of a button rather than the heydays of fighting for territory and seeking one's riches through the traditional revenue pipelines of prostitution, gambling and drugs. It took quite a while to get to where it was supposed to, but as the adage goes it's never about the destination but the journey, where Lau mesmerizes with his performance in a one man tour de force, and a slew of Milkyway regulars, with the conspicuously absence of Lam Suet, surely made this arc the best of the lot, from Eddie Cheung, Felix Wong, Law Wing Cheong, and a whole lot of others springing up to lend support.

And the last arc may serve as a filler since it's the most spread out of the three, but no less satisfying, and I thought it was easily identifiable here since it speaks directly at our pursuit of economic aspiration and the incredible long hours at work we put. Ritchie Jen's Cheung the cop whose wife Connie (Myolie Wu) desires that swanky new condominium that they can barely afford its mortgage. Living within or beyond one's means is a decision the couple has to take, although in Cheung's case, he seems to be more at home spending time at work, rather than to address his deteriorating personal life, until an incident, as always, puts things back into proper perspective.

While the narrative is presented in a non-linear fashion, the narrative is incredibly easy to follow, with each significant moment setting the pace for those that follow, or to provide the audience with the sense of "if only he/she knew", which in fact is exactly what our attitudes are in life when we sit down to analyze seemingly disparate issues, and how close they each come toward one another than we could have had imagined. Here the Greek economic crisis, something so macro and relatively far away, shows how closely inter-connected we all are in today's global village, where concerns and decisions made thousands of miles away can impact the individual man in profound ways.

Life Without Principle is a carefully crafted film that can work anywhere, but I'm glad Johnnie To got to it first, and provided one thought-provoking and gripping film that is wonderfully contemporary. Certainly one of the best films of the year, and is highly recommended. I'll probably dip into the DVD as well for its original Cantonese language track when the time comes, to view this just as it was intended.

Singapore Writers Festival 2011: Screenwriter Event - The Chaser

Featuring: Lee Shinho
Venue: The Moving Image Gallery, Singapore Art Museum @ 8Q

This was a nice break in routine with an opportunity to moderate a screenwriter's session with Lee Shinho, co-writer of the Korean crime thriller The Chaser in a post screening discussion and Q&A. I thought it was a very fruitful discussion and interaction with the audience of about 70, with insights learnt about how the story came about, censorship issues and why the police in such genre films are usually made fun of.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Paranormal Activity 3

Devil Alert

With so many found footage supernatural horror films out in the open already, you would wonder just how many would be enough before the genre becomes stale. Easily one of the most successful in terms of box office numbers and sheer ingenuity, Paranormal Activity seemed to have so far built on the strengths of its predecessor film, and with each installment throws the gauntlet down to the next creative team to see how much more they can add to its universe. This time round directors Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman, responsible for the documentary Catfish, brings out the usual arsenal of scares to great effect, bringing us back some 18 years prior to the events seen in Parts 1 and 2, to shed some light on its origins, yet keeping the door wide open for any creative team to either fill in the blanks between this film and Part 1, or to venture forward from Part 2.

And credit goes to writer Christopher B. Landon, who brings to the franchise plenty of room to do just that, and in some ways being very generous in crafting a tale that has the legs to provide for any follow up film, if this installment does well, to continue where it left off and bridge the story toward Part 1, or to go even further back, but not too far since this one is set in the 80s, just about the time where VHS beat Betamax in being the video recording format of choice, and any further would mean stretching the limits of having artifacts for audiences like us to rummage through with glee.

Landon had introduced the sisters Katie (Katie Featherston) and Kristi (Sprague Grayden) whom we have come acquainted with, and opens the film just before the original film, where a box of VHS tapes got found, and so we begin a trip back to the past, introducing us to the time when the sisters were kids (Chloe Cserngey as the younger Katie and Jessica Brown as younger Kristi), their mom Julie (Lauren Bittner) and her live in boyfriend Dennis (Christopher Nicholas Smith) who conveniently for the sake of the story, is much of a documentarian himself and by nature of his job, has a video editing suite in one of the rooms in the house. Everything's fine and dandy at home, until two and then three video cameras get put around the house, and we start to witness Kristi's communication with a certain Toby, who remains unseen. Yes, the haunting has begun.

You may wonder just how much more quality material could be included, and Joost and Schulman showed us just how. While Part 1 had utilized what was primarily a one video camera recording in the bedroom, and Part 2 being more sophisticated with multiple CCTV cameras deployed around the house, Part 3 strikes a balance between the two, with up to three cameras deployed in the bedrooms of the adult couple and the kids, followed by a pan-camera between the hall and the kitchen/dining space. And besides having the hauntings experienced only by the direct family members, Landon's story has it expanded to include the babysitter and Dennis' buddy (Dustin Ingram) in very dramatic, intense episodes that bring the creeps head on.

While a bigger budget provided for a lot more that can be done in terms of special effects sprucing up the creepy moments on screen, from levitation, flying furniture and the likes, undoubtedly this film aces it when required to build anticipation, with silent moments growing almost deafening, and sound design at its best when tasked to maximize scare impact, although steering from becoming too cheap with many falling reliant on loud noises to compensate for its desperate lack of finesse in conjuring up scary images. You know something's coming by way of the running clock on the video sped up and then slowing down, and the directors are experts at teasing with shadowy figures lurking sporadically in the background if you care to look a little bit closer. It's goosebumps galore, with technical diligence and brilliance combined to keep scenes flowing in continuous long takes, hardly taking a breather especially when the supernatural elements begin.

Whatever happened to Hunter will remain unsolved for now. But if this will prove to be as successful as its predecessors this upcoming Halloween period, I suppose the answer won't be too far behind us. This is highly recommended, and while the first two films would have made you quite chummy with the key characters, Part 3 can be viewed as a standalone episode, or viewed first to keep the time chronology in order. If you're up for a proper spook fest, Paranormal Activity 3 will show why it still remains at the top of its game and its peers, and for budding filmmakers who want a crack at the horror genre, this will be something as a reference point and lessons to be learnt in keeping up the suspense and delivering when it matters.


Number Off!

It's tricky. On one hand the filmmakers can claim this has no bearing on one of the most infamous supernatural stories of Pulau Tekong, an island where the Singapore Armed Forces recruits can spend up to four months in Basic Military Training, given that the film kept its promotional descriptions generic, but the references, and the inferences, from a gestation period of many years since writer-director Gilbert Chan had mooted "Charlie Company", cannot be more pronounced especially to those in country who have heard of it, and the film might just be able to wing it outside of our territory. After all this Gorylah Pictures and Clover Films production also gets co-produced by collaborators across the Causeway, and the Malaysian National Service camps were used for on-location shoots to double up for the old British styled ones in the 80s.

So if you put the Tekong references and inspiration aside, which could have been made quite an identifier to draw in local audiences despite being done a number of times for television, one cannot escape how a lot of liberties have been taken with regards to grounding it with a certain reality, especially when it comes to army protocols. I mean, if you want to set it against something, it has to be common-sensically watertight rather than to become such a big loophole an entire battalion of soldiers could march right through. One would think the writers of the film took the easy way out to allow convenience to happen in their stories, rather than to research properly into how an army functions.

For instance, guard duties that cover the exterior of the fenced camp compound and into the wild jungles, which played a key element in the haunting of this film, with recruits having the ability to come and go from the camp as they please, visiting a food outlet to beg one of the two human girls seen in the film (played by Stella Chung, for 2 scenes worth only) to provide them information. Or how in a road march involving recruits, there will always, always, be a front and a rear guide, usually made up of the platoon commander leading his troopers and the platoon sergeant at the rear rounding up the laggards. Here, while there is a commander who appears mostly to bark commands and ridicule the sergeant for his superstitious nature, he is largely absent for the exercise, relying on the sergeant, who's also being held responsible for the entire troop's performance as we would witness later on. The order of battle, and exercise regiment, is clearly disregarded.

Story-wise, 23:59 opens with what was seen in the trailers with the recruits huddled together to listen in to ghost stories as told by one of their peers, recounting the happenings of what had gone on in their predecessors' stint, as well as the haunting in the training island they are in. These were neither scary nor funny, as would in real life, but allowed an avenue to throw in things like an ouija board, and a nasty, evil looking medium. Flashbacks were used to death in the first third of the film which goes back in time to show and tell the gruesome deaths that had occurred, including how Jeremy (Henry Hii) has this estranged relationship with his conman dad who exploited his son and his supposed third eye (which can see spirits) into becoming a kid medium for money. Constant flashing back and forth brought in many peripheral characters, but serving little purpose to the plot, padding it up with unnecessary fat rather than substance.

Not only that, in what would serve as a mystery point where Tan (Tedd Chan), the recruit constantly bullied by his peers, goes missing, it happened in such a haphazard manner in the narrative, that brought out a lot of question marks. Question marks if addressed would make for a top notch psychological-mystery-thriller-horror but with what went through in 23:59, it became a gaping loophole. Tan couldn't have just disappeared when Jeremy, the fittest, big brother of a platoon mate was with him throughout his march, even offering and helping to carry Tan's field pack, in what would be ridiculed by the bully in the squad, Dragon (Lawrence Koh), in a way very pointed at the recent ruckus about maids helping this generation of soldiers. I suspect scenes in between that would have contributed to a proper buildup and suspense got edited out for reasons unexplained, which gave rise to a choppy rhythm with scenes spliced together carelessly, making it all seem inexplicable and illogical, even by horror film standards. Or if the intent was to deliberately create a gap that will be revisited in the big reveal, well, that didn't happen, leaving it all wide open.

Characterization was weak, relying on stereotypes that seemed to have borrowed a leaf from Michael Chiang's Army Daze, with an Ah Beng, Hokkien expletives spewing soldier in Dragon, the sissy or presumed sissy and "sabo-king" in Tan, the perfect recruit soldier in Jeremy, the fat kid Lim (Tommy Kua) who as formula dictates, is the joker of the group, and let's not forget Chester (Josh Lai) the silent type who turned out to be more than meets the eye. And the make up of this platoon couldn't be a greater departure in how the local army organizes its recruit training, ensuring a mix of races rather than, well, for film logistics reasons of having everyone speak the same language.

But if you were to deem story and technical elements not as important for a horror film, but the quality and quantity of scares, here's where 23:59 fell short too.

Director Gilbert Chan had cut his teeth so far in co-directing feature comedies, be it the dark one in S11 with Joshua Chiang, or Love Matters with Jack Neo. 23:59 serves as his first feature and the inexperience somehow shows in the inability to hold tension, create anticipation or build suspense. The by-the-book technique of jump scares may be cheap, but it takes skill to get it right in making the hearts of any audience skip a beat. Here the supposedly scary scenes were let down in part by two areas, one the sound effects or deliberate lack thereof since mood can be evoked by eerie silence (or tried to in this case), and the lack of proper, effective makeup - it's something if the ghoul on screen makes you cringe and shut your eyes, but another if you end up laughing since the first spirit you see, has a face that looked like a bloody venus fly trap.

It could have gone gory, or creepy, but it was neither. Throughout the film. Nor did it provide any psychological thrills. It's like watching people go around being afraid of their own shadow, or fear itself, while the most frequent trick in the book that was over-utilized, was that hand moving toward the shoulder shot. The quintessential elements of moving image and expert use of sound required to make a horror film tick, were all largely absent, and was akin to a premature ejaculation - where it's all anti-climatical midway even as you appreciate the filmmakers are trying their darnedest best to stroke things up for a big explosion that's just round the corner, only for their lack of skill and ability to hold it tense destroying their effort.

Were there some bright spots in the film? Yes, one. Mark Lee in what would be a more serious role with comedy not being at the intentional forefront, worked wonders as the platoon sergeant who had experienced inexplicable incidents under his watch and is adamant not to have to endure another which would mean no chance at promotion. His army lingo is spot on without feeling forced, and provided for some chuckles in what would otherwise be a bore given dead panned acting by cast of relative unknowns.

2359 was unfortunately incoherent as it tried way too hard to deviate from the rich Pulau Tekong supernatural mythos, where a collection of some of the best were seen in animated stills during its opening credits, and its lack of creativity to come up with something original, became something quite horrendous in both story and execution. It's half-baked and had enough material only for a less than 80 minute run time, making you groan at its ineffectiveness at every disastrous attempt to scare you. A walk in the actual Tekong jungles for those fortunate (like myself) to have done it before, would be more terrifying.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

[DVD] Mail Order (2011)

What goes around, comes around, and this full circle may take weeks, months or even years before you realize its significance when you start to take stock. Mail Order is a short film written and directed by Eric Shapiro, based upon the short story by Jack Ketchum about a man with an obsession with snuff films, and how this detrimental addiction will eventually take a toll on himself if only because of something that he had done a few months back during a drug induced sexual escapade with a now ex-girlfriend, whom he thought he had seen in his latest mail ordered video, and tried to track her down since what he had seen, brought back certain memories.

As with most short films, the narrative has enough gaps for you to fill in the blanks and links, with the story being told in quite the non-linear fashion, jumping backwards and flashing forwards, with quick cut editing that was designed to disorientate, to induce a similar feel that the characters experience, especially in their induced high, or deep grogginess. Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned, especially true when the protagonist Howard (Lee Schall) started to try and enact his favourite scene with his then girlfriend Greta (Cerris Morgan-Moyer), which led to a breakup, but not before causing some deep set resentment to provide the crescendo of a finale in the closing minutes of the film.

It's easy to lapse and focus onto the sexier elements of the film especially since there are many opportunities to dabble with blood, sex and gore given Howard's penchant for snuff videos, but Shapiro made it clear that this wasn't and shouldn't be the crux or appeal of Mail Order. Sure we get to see anonymous people in Pig Head masks waving their sharp blades around and proceeding to cut up their victim, but most of the violence is implied, with the editing ensuring you get the picture, but never the explicit view one comes to expect to see, no thanks to the multitude of torture porn films in mainstream cinema that shoves everything in your face and down your throats. Here, subtlety is key, and is king, to allow your imagination to run wild.

Rather, the focus here is on the characters, especially with Howard, where time is spent dwelling on certain intricacies such as his averseness to modern day technology, in not owning a computer, a cell phone and the likes, and lo and behold, he's a stock trader, which I speculate in today's context isn't too successful given the way markets move in today's world, but with Howard not really worrying given the inheritance his father left behind. Shapiro's script allows for such backstories to be linked into the film, through dialogue if you pay attention, which brings a lot more substance to the table despite being a short, without the feeling of having everything crammed to fit into the expected time constraint.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Tomorrow's Joe (あしたのジョー / Ashita no Jô)

Punching Bag

From Ali to Cinderella Man, Million Dollar Baby to The Fighter, Hollywood has never been short of boxing films in the recent contemporary years, with stories based on biographies mostly capturing the attention of viewers who yearn to comprehend the appeal behind this gladiatorial sport. Japan too has its fair share of films such as Box screened here last year, and now Tomorrow's Joe, adapted from the evergreen, popular manga Ashita no Jo created by Ikki Kajiwara and Tetsuya Chiba, spanning the 60s to the 70s and extending its popularity through anime as well.

Directed by Fumihiko Sori, Tomorrow's Joe is that blast from the past thanks to the wonderfully crafted misc-en-scene in every scene, bringing us back to the struggling 60s and early 70s of post-war Japan. This in itself is admirable by the filmmakers to painstakingly create the look, and feel even, of the era, rather than to opt for the easy way out to adapt and update it for the look of today, and not that it can't be done, but you can bet that the magical charm that existed throughtout the film in part due to nostalgia, will be totally lost.

But for a boxing film, the action counts more than accuracy pertaining to the signs of the times, and thankfully this film did everything right in choreographing action that can be seen clearly by the naked eye, and not have to resort to quick edits or cutaways to mask the actors' obvious lack of professional boxing ability. You can see each punch and block, done at normal speed and when slowed down to a crawl to achieve maximum impact, coupled with powerful sound design that puts you either at ringside, or over the shoulder of the fighter, or adopting the first person perspective. It is this variation of angles that constantly engages and allow in part to see and feel the damage caused by each blow. The fights were also deliberately stylized in design, with swooping camera movements weaving about the boxing ring, and the background crowd almost disappearing to allow your attention to be focused on the fighters.

The titular Joe Yabuki is played by Tomohisa Yamashita, with the protagonist being a juvenile drifter who found himself involved in street brawls more often than not. His most recent brawl made Dampei Tange (Teruyuki Kagawa) sit up and take notice of this raw diamond who has all the right moves, except for the polishing and training to be a pedigree bantamweight fighter. But Joe gets thrown into prison soon after, and it is there that he met his best friend Nishi (Katsuya), while becoming a fierce rival to Toru Rikiishi (Yuseke Iseya), a top fighter spending time in prison. Danpei becomes Joe's trainer teaching and imparting the basics of boxing through notes, and the narrative basically takes us through most of the first part of the manga series, save for a few minor subplots dropped that wouldn't be consequential in the film, choosing to focus strictly on the rivalry between Joe and Rikiishi.

Tomohisa Yamashita plays Joe to manga perfection, and kudos too to the art director for getting the characters all look similar to their original source material. He's almost no fat, complete with floppy fringe, with Tomohisa portraying Joe with a carefree attitude. Yusuke Iseya as his rival Rikiishi also has a body in the film to die for, and seriously one knows the kind of work that goes on behind the scenes during film preparation to achieve a body like that. Yusuke endows his character with a streak of arrogance, hell bent on taking Joe on in the ring and defeating him in the open in the same weight class, and these two are like the quintessential hero and villain pair, where one needs the other in other to justify their own existence. But perhaps the one whom you will sit up and take notice, is Teruyuki Kagawa as Danpei, whose makeup is top notch to allow the character actor to disappear behind a bald pate and broken, buck teeth.

If there is a message in this film, it is the usual never back down from adversity, and that the underdog must know and exercise perseverance and determination even if the odds are stacked against them. Joe represents that never say die attitude that's encouraged to be adopted, even when being knocked down it's almost a given to find within one's reserves, something to continue upon to stand up and fight with defiance in what you deem true and right. The story ties this in closely with Joe's distaste for Rikiishi's manager Yoko Shiraki (Karina) in a subplot dealing with her embarrassment of her background and roots, and constantly finding opportunities to get rid of a community of slum dwellers to make way for a swanky new sports community with the existing residents not being part of that plan. Given the OccupyWallStreet movement, this rise of the working class against the elite who have resources, cannot be more pronounced.

Tomorrow's Joe follows the broad outline of its manga episodes quite accurately, but in doing so doesn't offer anything new to its fan base other than to see their beloved hero represented and played out in the flesh. For non-fans, its rather generic tale of zero turned hero is thematically done to death, and doesn't offer anything compelling, with the rivalry being there without diving into depth to explore what drives these men to do what they do obsessively, especially in Rikiishi's case of having to drop his weight drastically to compete in the same class, when there is absolutely no need to given his career title-shot.

Still there will be those who will enjoy the simplistic, direct approach in telling the story using a rote formula, and find amusement in the way Joe is actually a one-trick pony with his counter-crosses and penchant for deliberately letting his guard down to lull opponents into complacency. The story doesn't end here just yet with the second half of the mythos being a larger challenge for Joe, but it's anyone's guess whether that sequel and follow up film will be made. For what it's worth with its typicalness, Tomorrow's Joe is still recommended viewing for fans of any of the actors, or of the genre.

Sunday, October 16, 2011

[DVD] The Chaser (추격자 / Chugyeogja) (2008)

An Uphill Climb

The Chaser has not lost its intensity with a second viewing, and as always with a repeated viewing you tend to pick up additional observations that you may have missed the first time round. Rewatching this also served as homework, if in case you're wondering why, I'll be moderating a session with The Chaser's co-writer Lee Shinho in a screenwriter event sidebar of the Singapore Writers Festival this year happening from 22nd to 30th October. If you're game to watch the film and engage Lee Shinho in a post-screening discussion and Q&A, then do visit the Festival website to obtain details on getting a Festival pass and other ticketed events.

You can read my review of The Chaser here

The Region 3 DVD by Innoform Media presents the film in a pristine anamorphic widescreen transfer, with audio in its original Korean soundtrack in Dolby Digital Stereo. Subtitles are available in English and Mandarin and available through the Extras as well, which are presented in letterbox or full screen 4x3.

Extras include the Teaser Trailer (1:33), the Main Trailer (2:27) and 2 TV Spots (0:47). For those in a hurry (the only reason I can think of for this feature to exist), you can play the Highlights feature which contains key clips from the first half of the film condensed into approximately 23 minutes. The Interview (10:11) segment contains separate talking head interviews with Kim Yun-seok, Ha Jung-woo and Seo Yeong-hie who play the three main leads, talking about their respective characters and challenges during filming.

The Making Of (19:40) gives you the ringside seat as if you're one of the cast participating in the shoot. There's a detailed construction of the scene where the characters of Joong-ho and Young-min first meet with their minor car accident leading to the foot chase in and around the district. While that scene took up precious minutes, the making of was anything but simple and short, with repeated takes to achieve various angles, which allows you to appreciate the sheer effort involved to make a scene come alive. Other scenes given similar treatment include a fight scene at the police station between the two leads, a mass digging operations at Young-min's previous workplace, Joong-ho's escape from the police van following a crash into a tree and his unsuccessful hailing of a cab, and the last involves Joong-ho walking in the rain.

And rounding things up is a Photo Gallery with 22 film stills.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Tatsumi Wins at SITGES!

Oh Yes!

Congratulations Tatsumi for winning Best Animated Film at SITGES, picking up the ANIMA'T – Gertie Award!

You can check out the entire list of winners here:

My review of Tatsumi can be found here, and if you do not know, Tatsumi is Singapore's official entry for Best Foreign Language Film for next season's Academy Awards.

Mural (画壁 / Hua Bi)

House of Women

There was plenty of hype for Mural in Singapore as far back as June this year, where we had writer-director-producer Gordon Chan and his key cast members gracing ScreenSingapore where only a trailer, yes a trailer, got played. And frankly that was probably the high point of that opening evening given the very sub-par opening film, and the stars decked out in nines no doubt raised the temperatures a little during the opening party. From what I remembered from the visuals, there was the promise of a special effects spectacle complete with martial arts choreography that seemed like a shout back to the days of the Zu Mountain, but this quasi-sequel/follow up film to Painted Skin in reality gave out only a whimper rather than a roar.

I would not dispute however the intent and the potential of Mural the story, where stripped away of its glossy exterior and distracting beautiful casts, is at its essence a thick love story exploring the various facets of affection, which is so applicable today that this could be remade on the cheap having it set in the modern day. The affairs of the hearts of characters here are convoluted, but I suppose that's how it works in real life too, since there are times when it is unrequited, or serendipitous, developed over time or being that proverbial love at first sight. Then there are those moments when love develops out of pity, or out of convenience, fear, experimentation, or even having mixed feelings misconstrued as the emotion itself. At its core this is what having stared at Mural when the dust settled, is about.

But it's packaged as a spiritual action thriller that had an overly long setup, which ran in an illogical way even if you want to push it as such. Scholar Zhu Xiaolian (Deng Chao) and his manservant Houxia (Baobeier) are chasing bandit Meng Longtan (Collin Chou), and they end up in a monastery run by a monk (Eric Tsang). While resting, Xiaolian chances upon a large mural on the wall depicting many ladies, in to his surprise one of the girls Mudan (Liu Yang) appeared, and together they stumble back to her spiritual world, never given a name because it's unconfirmed whether heaven or hell, or a harem even that wouldn't be out of place in films like Sex and Zen 3D - though here more Zen than Sex since it's a Chinese film, a land inhabited by only women save for one owl-protector (Andy On, and the owl was copied from Clash of the Titans 1981 version). To any man, yours truly included, that place itself is Paradise.

But the chunky opening has Mudan trying to smuggle Xiaolian around the building to avoid being detected by the Queen ruler (Yan Ni), and with Xiaolian being the busybody roaming around, he's soon discovered and had to escape, but not before gaining the attention of the Queen's second in command Shaoyao (Sun Li) who also falls for the man, and interacting with Mudan's friend Cuizhu (Xie Nan), which sets all of their hearts aflutter before going back to the real world, knowing that his appearance and escape will cause trouble and punishment for Mudan. So he journeys back with Houxia and Longtan, and they soon get propositioned by the Queen to choose any woman they fancy for marriage, and it comes with an exchange policy if one is unsatisfied, and polygamy is not frowned upon too. So you get my point why I say this is paradise, since there's hardly an ugly lady around, who all have special abilities, and yearning, just yearning, for the presence of any man. I'm betting some dollars that some sleazy Cat III movie will be made using this premise.

It took a long while for establishing scenes to find their footing and to do proper introductions, before you come to a compromise that the characters are in some form of perfect landscape ruled by an iron fist, where they are not allowed to love or reproduced, mentioned in passing that they drink from some magical fountain to impregnate themselves, and to accept the fact that they are fairies, not ghosts. Then the film develops into the usual ruler-is-evil flick with a rescue mission in tow when Xiaolian decides to probe around paradise to find the woman he put into trouble, and rescue her. This leads to more special effects opportunities involving giant turtles, flying beasts and such, while also allowing plenty of wire kung fu to happen during battles, where most of the best parts are already contained in the trailer.

Gordon Chan and his team of storytellers seemed to have lost it during the opening and first act, then stumbled around and finally found their ground with the narrative, only to lose it all with the final few scenes that couldn't decide how best to seek closure, even ending with a coda that added to the ridiculousness. Chan allowed the film to go all over the place, which accounted for its run time of over two hours, with plenty of wasteful scenes that could have been excised, or focus could have been put on its key characters. Instead you emerge with a feeling that some shots were in just to show off the special effects. Even Mark Lee Ping Bin's cinematography cannot save the day since the story gave way toward the end, which was a pity because it had found a gem to latch onto with regards to the more philosophical approach which was somewhat like The Wachowski's Matrix films involving the Architect and the Oracle being involved in some kind of grand plan and bet, but Mural failed to capitalize on that.

Instead we get constantly reminded on the types of men that exist in this world with regards to romance, like an instructional booklet for women anywhere – there are some who are promiscuous as seen as the Longtan character, those who are the one woman type in Xiaolian, and those who are subservient, you know, in today's context the ones carrying their girlfriends handbags around. The three male characters here predictably falls into each of the characters above just so we know which are the kinds of guys we should aspire to be like, or from the opposite sex, which of the three are their flavour of the day. Andy On's presence only adds some much needed muscle for battles in its limited action scenes, since only him and Collin Chou are the bona fide action stars dutifully wasted in the film, whose true focus is on relationships that could have been done without the swords and sorcery. The actresses in the film, collectively, are some of the best flower vases in Chinese cinema, looking jaw-dropping and stunningly incredible in their costumes, and their call to order was how they each could act cool, coy, cute or shed tears on a whim.

Eventually Mural is that roller coaster ride you have been warned about, with highs when the narrative gets to what it wants to say, and lows when it suddenly decides to tangent off into something qutie implausible or ridiculous, fantasy film limits notwithstanding. And at the end there's no exhilaration when you step off, only that feeling of dread and a pitiful loss of potential when it had so much bubbling underneath in what it wanted to say, but couldn't decide on a climax, and further tanked itself with its coda. Like a lover who desperately wants your attention and does everything he/she can for that, only to be resoundingly rejected for trying too hard. I won't go as far as to say this is one of the worst this year, but it just barely stayed above that mark.
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