Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Hermès presents "HEARTS AND CRAFTS: The People that Make Hermès"

To celebrate this year's annual theme of "Contemporary artisan since 1837", Hermès pays homage to the artisans of the numerous Hermès métiers with the documentary film, HEARTS AND CRAFTS: The People that Make Hermès.

Isabelle Dupuy-Chavanat and Frédéric Laffont have captured the sounds of leather and crystal, the song of silk and metal, the words of the men and women and also their silences. In their cinematic testimonial they have brought together these sparks of life, enthusiasm, pride and passion, as each craftsperson assembles a handbag or a piece of jewellery. Step by step. Meticulously. With passion and respect, in the quest for excellence.

Event Date & Time
14 to 16 December, 8pm

Event Date & Time
17 - 18 December, 4pm

Cineleisure Orchard


Ticketing Details

Film Details

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

White Vengeance (鸿门宴传奇‏ / Hong Men Yan Chuan Qi)

All Part of the Plan

Writer-director Daniel Lee's recent obsession with period action thrillers like Three Kingdoms: Ressurection of the Dragon and 14 Blades have been at best, a mixed bag. Granted they star A-listers like Andy Lau, Sammo Hung and Donnie Yen, the films were lacking in a solid story to complement the set action sequence. Ressurection sure didn't look like your classic Romance of the Three Kingdoms in its treatment, and 14 Blades suffered from burn out in the second half. But before you write Daniel Lee off, here he comes charging with White Vengeance, as if the earlier films were practice runs prior to delivering what is arguably his best film to date.

Granted it did start off in rather disorientating factor, especially if one is not acutely aware of the historical event known as the Feast at Hong Gate between rivals Liu Bang (Leon Lai) and Xiang Yu (Feng Shaofeng), warlords who have been pitted against each other by the last emperor of Qin in order to seek the benefits from bickering amongst the insurgent ranks. Both are serving King Huai of Chu, but in essence both are seeking the highest post of the land, each with very different characteristics and styles that will determine the kind of rulership should either ascend the throne, with Xiang Yu seen as the more ruthless of the duo, and Liu Bang the more compassionate.

But of course this is not a history lesson, and while most of the proceedings at Hong Gate were fairly covered, Daniel Lee's input for artistic license and merit served the film well. The introduction had been jarring no thanks to flashbacks and rapid fire introductions to a multitude of historical and fictitious characters that will serve to confuse the clueless (like myself initially), but do hang in there as soon after you'll start to see past all the bearded men, their ranks and their loyalties in each faction of the rivalry and center upon the characters who matter. It is the buildup to the events at Hong Gate, and the Hong Gate proceedings itself which is truly impressive, that White Vengeance truly shifted into top gear, and never relented in its pacing all the way to a gripping finale full of twists and turns, conflict and schemes.

Like the game of choice in Go / Weiqi, White Vengeance played out like a measured chess game, with each side pondering and second guessing the opponent's move, and plotting its own counter-strategy way in advance. The strengths of the story lay in its effortless balance between brawn and brain, with action left to the likes of Andy On, who played Han Xin, a general who jumped ship and swap loyalties for appreciation, and even Jordan Chan himself to bring along that rebellious streak always out to look for a good fight. But the spotlight was definitely on Anthony Wong as Xiang Yu's counselor Fan Zeng and his rival Zhang Lian, played by the very charismatic Zhang Hanyu, serving on the side of Liu Bang.

Both men inevitably stole the show for their brainy schemes to allow their respective masters to gain a leg up against the opponent, and the shifting advantages made this film very much engaging to sit through, culminating in their initial face to face meeting at the iconic Hong Gate which is filled with treachery, betrayal, and a simultaneous five game of Go that serves as the highlight. And this came pretty early in the film as well, in fact setting the stage for more plotting outside of this one time event, that will serve as the catalyst for an elaborate, extrapolated scheme.

Daniel Lee seemed adamant this time round in balancing action with plot, and has his craftsmen to thank for in setting up gorgeous looking interior sets with CG landscapes, forts and castles that no longer exist, that didn't look as fake as those found in his earlier two films. Cinematography by Tony Cheung was also beautiful, especially with its shadow and light play and balance, allowing the film to stand out as one of the more gorgeous looking films to capture the action on screen, and the quieter moments that Lee's story called for when exploring options, and its characters.

Between the two leads who play the rivals Xiang Yu and Liu Bang, Feng Shaofeng seemed to have a lot more spectrum in showing Xiang Yu's obsessive and ruthless side, as compared to the Leon Lai, whose singular expression served him well in this role of Liu Bang of having his truest innermost thoughts held extremely close to his chest, nuanced in a way that will make you sit up and evaluate just who amongst the lot is the master schemer. And then there's Anthony Wong versus Zhang Hanyu, veterans in their respective film markets playing opposing strategists, chewing up the scenery with their sheer screen presence, although the latter actor did edge out on screen charisma thanks to a longer screen time that allowed audiences to understand a bit more about Zhang Liang, as compared to Wong's portrayal of Fan Zeng who seemed more like an eccentric shaman.

If there's a weak link in the film, it's the unfortunate introduction of Liu Yifei's character Yu Ji, as the lover of Xiang Yu who should also have some sort of romantic dalliance with Liu Bang to further their rivalry, but this was not quite to be since it wasn't fleshed out in detail. It could have brought the hatred between the men to another more personal level but that was not to be, instead the Yu Ji arc can be totally omitted, and not serve to diminish the story any one bit. I suppose Liu Yifei is included as a need to balance the level of testosterone in the film.

But the payload of the film, even if you've been entertained by the bloodbath and battle of wits on screen, came in the final act that truly sealed this as a masterpiece effort from Daniel Lee. It hammers home points about the wielding of power and how man's pursuit of that absolute leads to natural paranoia as seen in so many madmen dictators, that the mantra of trusting no one rings home, giving rise to regrets and remorsefulness in not having done better than to succumb to the trappings that power brings about, with what price ambition. And the tying up of some loose ends, with nuances now magnified, served to unmask true intentions, and that sometimes one can never know the truth about someone, until perhaps it's a little too late.

White Vengeance had surpassed expectations coming on the heels of two rather average at best works from Daniel Lee, but this is the surprise package that is highly recommended for those itching for that one big Asian blockbuster.

White Vengeance opens in cinemas 1 Dec 2011, watch for it!

Monday, November 28, 2011

[DVD] The Sea is All I Know (2011)


It isn't easy dealing with a medical death sentence passed, with a terminal illness diagnosed that not only brings about the sheer horror in a countdown to the day one passes on, but to one's family that this period of suffering will inevitably be extended to. I should know, because personally my family too has come to terms with my dad's condition which has been diagnosed as MSA, and it just pains all of us to witness physical deterioration despite having an active mind, and while we try to keep his spirits up almost all of the time, there's always this looming sense of dread on the horizon that will creep up occasionally, sometimes to my dad himself even when he thinks of morbid thoughts, and we have to rely on one another to keep that out of our minds when it does.

Melissa Leo, better known now for her acclaimed, trash-talking role in The Fighter, plays Sara, a woman whose daughter Angelina (Kelly Hutchinson) is at home to live out the final days of her life, bedridden most of the time and having to suffer immense, periodic pain that it just breaks her heart to see her baby suffering. Sara's estranged husband Sonny (Peter Gerety) also drops in despite the bitter hatred that exists between husband and wife, who so far have Angelina as their relationship bridge and common ground, now threatened to be long gone, and with that destroying slivers of hope for reconciliation. Or so they thought.

Like the Chinese saying about how cruel it is to have aged old parents bury their child, writer-director Jordan Bayne's emotional story deals with the potential of that premise, as the film centers on each of the character's reaction to what's inevitably coming up, and how they deal with the tremendous heaviness in their hearts, going to the extent of renouncing religion even, which the best amongst us might also be tempted to do, and both Melissa Leo and Peter Gerety brought this out in very affecting terms through the use of subtle nuances to showcase why they are just about amongst the best in the business, with the theme of suffering effectively touched upon in this short film.

Bayne delivered a film that is full of quiet dignity in highlighting how a family reacts to a situation that is far beyond their control, and very human in the way the family gets portrayed, from denial to blame pushing and eventual coming to terms in its shocking, tragic yet powerful finale that accentuates the level of grief felt by everyone. Throughout the film Bayne does enough to hook you into the family's plight as you begin to share their emotions felt, especially through Leo and Gerety's fleshing of their characters. It is a beautiful film in terms of aesthetics as well, and I absolutely love how scenes get contrasted in the film, especially with that involving the vast outdoors of the sea versus the constricted, confined room that Angelina has to live in, with her freedom clipped prematurely.

Rarely does so much emotions get packed into a short film, but Jordan Bayne showed her experience in crafting one that is as layered as it can get, discussing multiple themes and allowing them to resonate effectively with an audience, together with a wonderful cast who gave their collaborative best for the film rather than try to upstage one another. Recommended!

Sunday, November 27, 2011

The Muppets

Rainbow Connection Once More

If you're wondering just where the Muppets had disappeared to since it's been decades since my generation had last seen them on our television sets, then this Muppets film will fit right in and address that question, filling us in on just how everyone had past their time in various solo acts. In this sickening age of remakes and reboots, where studio executives wield much power to dictate just what else in the archives could been raided and updated for the modern age, The Muppets avoided this needles path, with Jason Segel, who also has a starring role, and Nicholas Stoller providing a screenplay that fused so much Muppet sensibilities that we pick up from where we last left off, at whichever point that worked for you. And that is pure brilliance.

For some reason, Segel's Gary has a brother Walter (voiced by Peter Linz) who's a muppet, and while they are the best of brothers, something's not quite right, but that biological explanation found no room, and got junked from the onset. Not that we're not aware of the acute differences, but seriously you won't be bothered with it. Instead it's sufficient to know that these two are such big fans of The Muppets Show while growing up, that Gary's 10th year anniversary celebration with his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) meant a joint trip to Los Angeles, and to visit the studios in which the Muppets Show was shot in.

Walter sneaks around, and discovers a diabolical plot by industrialist Tex Richman (Chris Cooper), a man who cannot laugh (and hence ordering his muppet henchmen to do a diabolical/maniacal laugh on his behalf) and having no qualms at demolishing the entire studio because it's sitting on a valuable oil well beneath. So in order to salvage what was his childhood delight, Walter, Gary and Mary look up Kermit the Frog (now voiced by Steve Whitmire, who sounds a little bit different from the Kermit I grew up with) who now has to gather his far flung muppet friends to stage one more Muppet show (what else!) cum telethon to raise $10 million in order to invoke an escape clause of a contract.

The Muppets is indeed an extended Muppets Show, and that is such such a delight. Given the musical treatment here, with Jason Segel looking quite awkward and Amy Adams being really at home with her role that calls for an evaluation of her relationship with Gary since her beau is adamant in helping both his brother Walter and the extended Muppets family - Fozzie Bear, Animal, Gonzo, Swedish Chef, Scooter, Miss Piggy of course and the likes - with each given a quick story on what they've been up to, and the rest given the token montage treatment, coupled with the zany Travel By Map technique that just is so hilarious it has to be seen to be believed.

In fact, it is precisely this zaniness and craziness that is sorely missed in many recent comedies that had to rely on toilet humour and foul language, that makes The Muppets such a fresh injection of ideas from the days of old, and in some ways instructional to comedic filmmaker wannabes on just how good, clean fun can be achieved. This project to revive the Muppets for the big screen was in good hands from the onset, with director James Bobin having cut his comedic teeth with Da Ali G Show, and The Flight of the Conchords which I rate very highly. Here, the jokes show the kind of wit that was a throwback to the Zucker brothers style, with sight gags and witty dialogue to laugh out loud at, keeping very much as well to the spirit of how it was done in the old Muppet Show days.

Then there's that road down memory lane when we actually get to see The Muppet Show in this, with the filmmakers not opting to cheat a little and show a watered down version. There are songs, and there are songs, where under the supervision of Conchords' Bret McKenzie meant quality, as well as the bringing back of notable oldies that will always have a place in any Muppet movie. Mah Nom Mah Nom, anyone?

Not forgetting too the nice family friendly messages in the film for the young ones, imparting positive values that any parent will give a nod to. Then there's the bevy of stars appearing in this film, most of them cameo appearances and playing exaggerated versions of themselves or characters they have played in their filmography, with the likes of Jack Black, Rashida Jones, Whoopi Goldberg, Zach Galifianakis, Alan Arkin, Ken Jeong, Emily Blunt, Selena Gomez, Neil Patrick Harris and John Krasinski amongst others, some very fleeting, some without dialogue, but all clearly very game to snag an appearance in a beloved series that still continued to make headway and stay relevant up to this day and age, thanks to the lovely treatment by the filmmakers who stayed true to the spirit of the source material without trying to impose anything too reckless or smart alecky.

It's such a fantastic, nostalgic trip brought back to the modern day, that I am not hesitating to put this into the shortlist as one of the best films of this year. This is what we called The Muppet Show! Jim Henson would have been proud of this effort! Highly recommended!

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Already Famous (一泡而红 / Yi Pao Er Hong)

Wish Upon a Star

Unless your head is buried in the sand the last few years in Singapore, chances are you'll have heard of Michelle Chong the actress-host. Now add producer, writer and director to that list, as she had decided to take a sabbatical from television, pour her resources into filmmaking, and frankly wanted to get something out of her system, though I'm not quite sure what it is. One can only guess whether it is to follow the mantra of the film of carpe diem and just do it; pursuing one's dreams, or an ode to a beloved family member (the grandmother in the film's case), or just to exercise demons experienced from being a veteran in the local film and television industry is anyone's guess, but her maiden effort here is pretty much testament of any rookie willing to put on multiple hats to experiment rather than focusing on core strengths.

And Michelle Chong's core strengths in the last few years had been her portrayal of politically incorrect caricatures, complete with accurate gestures, mannerisms and accent, from bimbos to domestic helpers that won her acclaim in the sitcom The Noose. Here she plays a kampung girl from Yong Peng, Malaysia called Lee Kar Kiao, later also known as Zann as she cooked up a name from two of her idols Zoe Tay and Fann Wong, television stars in Singapore, as she aspires to be an actress just like them. She's convinced by her grandmother to pursue that dream, otherwise she'll be stuck in selling television sets (and incessantly watching all the Singapore made dramas), selling pirated DVDs with her brother, or witnessing her mom gamble their family finances away. So she packs her bags and off she goes to Singapore where she encounters a rude awakening that life in the Lion city is not cheap no thanks to costs of living going ever upward, and is filled with many nasty folks, and before one can become famous, one has to suffer the slamming of a lot of doors in one's face, as if a requisite to build up a thick hide prior to fame come aknocking.

The English title does ring a little irony to it, because Michelle Chong is already famous in this part of the region, which accounts for her ability to rope in fellow friends from the industry to partake in turning up in her debut film to play exaggerated versions of themselves, or caricatures that would have found a place in any local sitcom. There's the one and only Singaporean drag queen Kumar looking for skin whitening products, Boris Boo (who in my opinion scored a hat-trick of bad feature films to date) starring as none other than Boris the television director, the catalyst in seeding the thought that Zann had more to offer but dropped her like a sack of potatoes, going to show just how hypocritical and superficial relationships are forged and forgotten in the industry, David Gan in self-deprecating mode in an early scene and reappearing as a judge much later on, lending his famous hair salon premises for a scene as well, prominent lawyer Samuel Seow from Samuel Seow Law Corporation dishing Zann some hard truths, Irene Ang parodying her successful profesional life as a talent agency CEO, fellow actors Bryan Wong and Cynthia Koh as a talent quest's preliminary round judges, The Noose colleague Chua Enlai hamming it up as a bitchy Filipino salesman and Patricia Mok and Benjamin Heng also double-teamed as staff in a modelling studio. And that's a non-exhaustive list!

Yes in some ways the film has characters that are politically incorrect, and Michelle Chong doesn't make any apologies for it. Foreign talent characters feature heavily in the film, especially when the male romantic lead is a Eunos coffeeshop kopi-kia (coffee boy) Ah Seng from Taiwan (Alien Huang from Taiwan), who had come to Singapore in search for his dream romantic companion whom he finds in Zann, since both are birds of the same feature coming from abroad looking to pursue their dream and a better life in Singapore. Come to think of it, everyone in Singapore did not show Zann any form of compassion, with the only acts of kindness coming from Ah Seng, and one wonders if that's a subtext that Michelle needed to pointedly ask just how our society had become with the ever increasing lack of graciousness being widely publicized these days.

Being a first film, there are some areas that had flaws, such as its sound which was pretty inconsistent in some scenes, especially the outdoor ones, and I thought Michelle Chong could have done better than to scrimp on the soundtrack, preferring to overuse the theme song each time any scene kick started Zann's attempt to pursue her goal in life through the episodic meeting of industry folks. We get it already, since the song repeats ad nausem about how she's from Yong Peng, and how she wants to be on television and not selling television sets. It was cute the first time round with its comical sounding lyrics, but making it a theme song each time Zann has to appear, is overkilling a good thing.

Clocking in close to two hours, Already Famous could have done with some improvement in its pacing, tightening up on some needless scenes in the first half hour spent in Zann's Malaysian home, and then summarizing some of the scenes involving the many caricatures. We know what's coming, so there's really no need to drag scenes out, or repeating them in different ways, such as showing just how mean her co-workers in Watson's can be. Product placement is also strong in the film, with many brands on display, some subtle and some not so, such as Bubble Tea outlets and cosmetics, although the filmmaker did rein in on the level of blatant praise, unlike the slippery slope some other veteran filmmaker had gone down on. But while it had stopped short in selling out to its sponsors, it did make a concerted effort to recognize those already famous in Singapore, since it always jump at the opportunity to remind us who the cameos are, and what sort of achievements they have already gotten, like a nod in their direction and a big thank you for helping.

While the posters and the trailers may suggest a strong romantic theme, it's actually limited to a few scenes to play on the love story between Ah Seng and Zann, and each time they came together it's more of a discussion of their respective dreams in Singapore, akin to watching a bunch of foreigners in a new land talk about how they want to strike any opportunities that come their way in their adopted land, and once they do, uproot themselves to go elsewhere. For that I salute the film's honesty in portraying things as they are in its subtext, even if those in power choose to ignore this possibility.

Is this Michelle Chong's comical yet cathartic release after so long in the industry she came from, since there's no lack of mean characters from makeup folks right down to dodgy directors? One can only guess. One thing's for sure though, it's that common reminder to life life and daring to dream big, even if ultimately what we have achieved is something that falls a little short of the stars we have been aiming for. But at least we can say we've tried to do so and in that come little or no regrets on its attempt, and Michelle Chong can now safely say that she's tried to helm a feature film all on her own, even if Already Famous did seem to wobble its way as it lost steam towards its finale.

And one more point to make: Those who have not watched Darren Anorofsky's Black Swan will also need to know to steer clear of Already Famous, because this film blatantly revealed everything pertinent about Black Swan right down to its ending. You have been warned.

Friday, November 25, 2011

Desi Boyz (देसी बोयज़)

Strapping Jocks

I would like to pride myself at watching enough Bollywood films to have witnessed the pairing up of most of its stars, but this marks the first I've seen with Akshay Kumar and John Abraham put together as two best buddies whose foreigner status in a foreign land meant the execution of some protectionist strategies when companies are forced to take a cold hard look at their expenses given the downturn of the economy. They get the boot in their respective jobs, with Jerry Patel (Kumar) probably suffering the least impact since he's leaching off his best friend Nick Mathur (Abraham), an investment banker who had seen better days himself.

So when all the doors get slammed in your face, either being too qualified, or under qualified for a job, the duo get thrown a lifeline through the enigmatic head (Sanjay Dutt) of a worldwide franchise of male escort agency called Desi Boyz, who is of the impression that these two men at wits end would be a welcome addition to his stable, since they have chest, biceps and size (if you know what that means). Similar to the Full Monty, but expectedly not as naughty by international standards, their job is to spread happiness amongst the female clientele, with good money at stake if only they would bury their conscience, and be professional about it.

Most of the song and dance routines worked when it called for the duo to be paired up, with both Akshay and John sharing incredible chemistry as their new alter egos Rocco and Hunter, strutting and flaunting their assets, providing everyone a good time, the audience included, with director Rohit Dhawan knowing just the right camera angles to capture the duo at their hunky best. Akshay Kumar plays his role with that mischievous glint in the eye, having to persuade his best friend Nick to join him in just making a living, and the house is brought down during their joint-introduction as the newest, hottest male escorts in town.

In what would be keeping up of appearances, being fearful of their reputations and worrying that ivy league degrees would be going down the drain in his new profession, which is something that would echo loudly in anyone here who is thinking of such a niche provision of pleasure, the first half introduces very fleetingly what would be taking on the bulk of the screen time after the interval. Nick had just proposed to materialistic girlfriend Radhika (Deepika Padukone) who wants the world for her wedding and honeymoon, and is kept in the dark of her boyfriend's financial predicament, while Jerry has to battle the state in order to be the legal guardian of his young nephew Veer (Shraman Jain), failing which Veer would have to go to a foster home.

What worked wonders in the first half are the joint efforts of both stars when they grace the screen and feed off each other's infectious energy, with the narrative moving at a very snappy pace. The bulk of the kinkiness seen in the trailer all belong to the first half of the film, making you contemplate just exactly how much more could the envelope be pushed. Sadly it isn't much, but everything that suggests raunchiness in the film, were confined to the portion before the interval, after which it became a lot more serious with the duo off their separate ways to pursue their respective objectives and goals in life.

Rohit Dhawan, Renuka Kunzru and Milap Zaveri who wrote the screenplay and dialogues knew just what would work, and these got delivered by a very able supporting cast, from Dutt and ranging to a surprise guest whom I will keep under wraps lest it would mar anyone else's viewing experience. But their second half somewhat contradicted the team play at work here, and having the leads focused on their own narrative tracks, turned the film completely over its head. Out the window was everything associated with fun from their male escorting exploits, and what got introduced were very plain narratives such as Nick's fervent pursuit of his lady love Radhika who cannot come to terms with so many paying females leering at her fiance, and Jerry off to school to complete his degree, get a well paying job to boost his adoption chances of Veer, and romancing his ex-classmate turned lecturer Tanya (Chitrangda Singh).

First time director Rohit Dhawan employed the breaking of the fourth wall by the lead characters very liberally, allowing them to engage with audiences directly, then curiously this become nothing more than a footnote in the film as the later stages junked this for a more conventional approach. While Deepika and Akshay had been paired together for a couple of films already such as Chandni Chowk to China and House Full, this film marks her first romantic pairing with John Abraham, and while they look good together on screen, Radhika the character was perhaps the weakest in Deepika's filmography to date. Akshay Kumar got the second half of the film to thank for in including a romantic lead for his character, and throughout you can't help but to feel the competitive vibes between both Akshay and John, and perhaps rightly so whenever you put two hunky guys together in the same film.

As a comedy, Desi Boyz worked in the first half when the stars hammed it up as male escorts, but unfortunately this did not manage to pan out for the entire film when it was decided a change in direction was required. Still, amongst the comedies seen of late from Bollywood, Desi Boyz has that little bit of oomph to tickle one's funny bone especially with its bevy of stars not taking everything too seriously.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Arthur Christmas in 3D

I Did It All By Myself Back in the Old Days

You cannot satisfy all the people all the time, but at least you should try hard to do so. At least that was the mantra that Arthur Christmss (James McAvoy), the clumsy second son of Santa Claus (Jim Broadbent) whose role is to read and reply letters in the North Pole on behalf of his busy dad, only to find himself thrust into the thick of the express delivery of toys business thanks to a glitch in the operations run by Santa and his thousands of specialized elves led by Santa's son Steve (Hugh Laurie) at mission control.

Teaming up with Grandsanta (Bill Nighy) and his aged reindeer, and gift-wrapping elf Bryony (Ashley Jensen), Arthur gets involved in an adventure outside of his comfort zone in order to deliver a misplaced bicycle to the kid who deserves it for being good all year round. And in true Aardman fashion, who had made this film together with Sony Pictures Animation, prepare yourself for plenty of sight gags and witty dialogue, providing plenty of comedy and entertainment that wraps around on the outside of a deep, emotional story about the underdog, and how one has to stand up and be counted rather than being pushed around and told of unattainable goals.

For those who still believe in Santa Claus and still in awe at how much ground he can cover over the course of one night delivering toys to children around the world, well the screenplay by Peter Baynham and Sarah Smith, who also served as the film's directory, would have addressed that very convincingly in the first few minutes of the film, showing just how tight the entire operations are should anyone be insane enough to try something even remotely close. It's extremely clever and forms the basis of Arthur Christmas, with the entire North Pole eco-system geared up toward this one big show on 25th December, and have to play by long held, established Santa Claus rules of not being seen during deliveries, and to deliver every single gift.

There are plenty of moral education lessons to be gleaned from this film, though one of my favourites was in reference to how in some ways technology has made us blunt, complacent and losing sight of the things that truly matter, with Arthur's quest expectedly serving as a reminder to the spirit of how things should be done correctly in the first place, lest we disappoint others through our inactions when we have in our power to right the wrong. Animation remains top notch and so is the voice performance by the A-list cast. There isn't much deliberate 3D exploitative scenes other than those that call for depth of field.

Definitely highly recommended even for the jaded Christmas film fan, and after all, the world Aardman will have automatically provided that stamp of quality in crafting something suitable for the entire family this holiday season.

You can read my review of Arthur Christmas at by clicking on the logo below.


Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn - Part 1

The Blue Lagoon

One cannot deny that Twilight smells of serious money, and following the Harry Potter film franchise had its final book split into two for that extra injection into the coffers. But I had to admit that Breaking Dawn Part 1 isn't as dreadful as the other two films that followed the first film, since they were essentially rehashing a lot of the same themes with Bella (Kristen Stewart) still being indecisive about whether she prefers the vampire or the wolf, and finally made up her mind here in marrying one of them right from the start.

And oh the fuss about what Bella is wearing for her wedding, and how a vampire can consummate a wedding is all but answered in this installment, I think. Inviting friends and family and plenty of other support characters appearing over the course of the three films so far whom you probably care less about, a union between a man and a woman spelt a heartbreak for werewolf Jacob (Taylor Lautner), who disappered for the most part, but not before tearing off his shirt to offer Team Jacob fans a glimpse of his rock hard abs before a half a movie absence. So Edward (Robert Pattinson) and Bella journey to Brazil and to its offshore island to make love, and Stephanie Meyer's imagination with award winning director Bill Condon's vision explains how powerful a vampire's orgasm can be.

In which case Edward decides to stay celibate thereafter knowing his pleasure equates to Bella's physical pain, until they found out that they had never thought to use contraceptives. After all, an undead producing seeds for offspring? One has to get past that plot point, with nary an explantion, in order for Breaking Dawn to work. As a teen movie, at least it got it right to have its main characters abstain from sex until marriage, but seriously family planning was never part of any serious discussion between Edward and Bella, adopting very common attitudes such as "it'll never happen to us". Well, guess what?

Reality quickly sinks in post-honeymoon stage especially when the couple faces a huge problem, in this case the disbelief that Bella can get pregnant (Wolf boy is still a virgin, so no hanky panky here...) and the decision whether or not to keep the baby since it's growing at an accelerated pace, and could be a half human half vampire monster, eating his mom from the inside out. Research shows the baby will be born through the breaking of all critical bones in the human body, so therein lies the existential dilemma - keep the baby and the mom dies, or kill the baby so that mom lives. Plenty of excellent soul searching stuff here by humans, vampires and wolves with the latter determined not to let something unknown threaten their very survival and existence.

Compared to the other earlier films, I grudgingly admit this one boasted better makeup, especially in making Kristen Stewart look really ghastly and unappealing, and kudos to the actress to have had that bit of makeup and prosthetics assist her in dealing with the emotions and mood swings that come with pregnancy. This book was a little bit more mature in its dealing with heavier themes, and Condon found the right balance in introducing those themes without being overbearing or preachy about. For that, credit has to go where credit is deserved, and as an emotional journey, well this one was quite the relief given what audiences had to endure from the earlier films, but that still doesn't make this a romantic masterpiece, lacking in genuine emotion and feeling.

For the fans of Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner split into two different camps, well unfortunately your pretty boys didn't fare as well as the lass this time, turning from friends to foes to friends and back again so very often, you'd start to wonder just exactly who was being wishy-washy. Robert Pattinson seemed to have the least to do here, and became rather pedestrian, while Taylor Lautner's pedigree wolf bloodline sees him relegated to being just a guard dog outside of the Cullins family home in the forest and being told to get out when he snuck into the house without invitation, and who is to know he had actually held the key to short-changing the audience from one big finale battle between the wolf clan and the Cullens.

For completeness sake I will be watching the next concluding episode of the film so as to achieve closure. The dialogue in this one's pretty horrendous, the acting rather bland and has a soundtrack full of pop music and ballads that nobody's actively listening to. The most gruesome scene involves a makeshift operating table and the much talked about child birth, but trust me it was quite aesthetically and tastefully (pardon the pun) done without over-reliance on shock tactics. Adopting the expected, logical cliffhanger knowing what's next in store for Bella, the concluding film won't open until a year from now, and it's a tall order, but I'm really hoping for a fruitful conclusion.

Monday, November 21, 2011



There's nothing quite remarkable about Gus Van Sant's love story involving a girl (Mia Wasikowska) who meets a boy (Henry Hopper) during his funeral gatecrashing rounds, except of course to allow these two young actors a platform to show they too can find a place in a romantic film, with Wasikowska bursting onto the scene thanks to Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, and Hopper riding on his famous last name being the son of the late Dennis Hopper.

Opening this year's Cannes Film Festival Un Certain Regard sidebar, Restless seemed to have exactly that effect on anyone expecting some grand romance between the two teenagers, only for that expectation to come crashing down with a distinct lack of uniqueness in its story, opting to go with the tried and the tested, with a disease forcing its way to destroy what could be something permanently beautiful. Cliches abound, Restless tried really hard to find its own special edge to stand out from its peers in the same genre, and I don't think adding in a ghostly character, a Japanese one for that exotic flavour (played by Ryo Kase) was the right answer.

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


Saturday, November 19, 2011

Bookfest 2011 - Giddens Ko (九把刀) - You Are the Apple of My Eye (那些年,我们一起追的女孩)

Writer-Director Giddens Ko (九把刀) is in Singapore for Bookfest 2011, which had organized a meet the author session for Giddens to talk about his debut film You Are the Apple of My Eye (那些年,我们一起追的女孩), meet his fans, and managed to squeeze in a 40 minutes long autograph session for the hundreds of fans who had come to hear him speak. For those who had missed out, he will be at Pop@Central Bras Basah from 4pm onwards for what would purely be an autograph session.

In today's close to 91 minutes speech, Giddens's topic was of Life Being a Constant Battle (if I may translate directly), which of course covered a whole range of subjects centered around his film, from inspiration, a summarized rundown of his relationship with the real Shen Jiayi and friendship which still extends until today, right down to challenges in turning his film dream into reality. There were plenty of personal anecdotes, and humour thrown around his talk to surprise and tickle even the most fervent fan who had probably listened in or viewed his talks online before, and watching him speak and engaging the audience, you can understand just how his exuberance got rubbed off onto the film as well, which had been breaking box office records in the Chinese speaking region, and primed for a release in Mainland China soon.

You can watch the entire talk by Giddens here. Oh, and it's shaky-cam mode so please have your nausea bag handy...

Part 1 of 10

Part 2 of 10

Part 3 of 10

Part 4 of 10

Part 5 of 10

Part 6 of 10

Part 7 of 10

Part 8 of 10

Part 9 of 10

Part 10 of 10

And for those who stuck around until the end of the session today, Giddens gamely posed for photograph opportunities for his fans:

You can read my review of the film here, a review of the DVD included in the Original Soundtrack, and a review of the DVD included in the Making-Of the film book Somewhere, Sometime, Some Way

Puss In Boots

Reaction to Golden Eggs

Shrek had run its course, having forcefully pushed itself into a fourth film that was really too trying, but I suppose Puss in Boots, introduced in the second film of the franchise, proved to have nine lives, and extended his longevity through a spin off film of his own. After all, there are plenty of cat lovers out there, and his antics in the Shrek movies were undoubtedly the highlights when the Ogre and his pet donkey were getting really tired. Originally intended for straight to video, Puss in Boots proved to have what it takes for a big screen outing, and it didn't disappoint.

Dreamworks Animation may seem to have a stranglehold on making a mickey out of well known fairytales, and this continues in its re-imagining of characters adopted for the Puss in Boots origin story, where we go into his background as an orphaned kitty cat brought up by Imelda (voiced by Constance Marie), only to disappoint his foster mum when he got betrayed by best friend Humpty Alexander Dumpty (Zach Galifianakis), a brilliant inventive and creative mind who had turned to a life of crime, staining the honor that Puss had gained through a heroic deed, banishing him forever as an outlaw and bandit.

The two major story arcs in this film enriched the narrative, one dealing with the past of Puss in Boots, while the other having him reluctantly team up with Humpty once again if only to get close to his new squeeze, the master thief Kitty Softpaws (Salma Hayek), to take on the very grown up and nasty Bonnie and Clyde inspired Jack and Jill (Billy Bob Thorton and Amy Sedaris), who are in possession of the fabled magical beans belonging to the other Jack (and the Beanstalk), where planting them at the correct spot would mean a path to the heavens to gain access to the goose that lays golden eggs, with repercussions of course that comes with a force of nature to be reckoned with.

What worked for Puss in Boots were the strengths of its story arcs, the major set action pieces, the voice cast really providing that level of flair to the many flamboyant characters in the film as well as dramatic, emotional depth to key characters, and who can forget the comedy. There are plenty of sight and verbal gags, and innuendos galore that hardly a moment goes by without something naturally hilarious happening, and does so quite subtly without screaming and forcing their way down your throat. Which I had found the later Shrek films guilty of doing just that.

Antonio Banderas provides the voice for Puss in Boots, and it's quite convenient that the character gets modelled after Zorro through a series of identifiable elements from costuming, behaviour as well as style, a character that Banderas himself have played twice in live action films. Puss continues to drawn upon established abilities especially that of its iconic hypnotic eyes, which somehow in a self-fulfilling fourth wall prophecy, will have any audience in stitches as well as held in captivating aww/awe. Zach Galifianakis voices the misunderstood character Humpty Dumpty to perfection, providing that balance of villainy and sympathy, while I suspect that the animators would have had a field day with Humpty especially with the plenty of movement gags that he got himself into, and playing upon none too subtle fat jokes on the character, resulting in the character stealing the scene most of the time. Hayek on the other hand did just enough providing her sultriness to the incredibly sexy feline that looked like, erm, Batman in costume.

Hitting the right notes consistently throughout the film, here's a pussy cat that's both a lover and a fighter and a film that can appeal to both young and the not too young at heart alike. The producers of Shrek and Kungfu Panda may have found itself another character that has enough legs to carry off yet another franchise on its own, but please don't let it merge or include characters from Shrek too soon, as this kitty deserves a rogues gallery and supportive allies of its own. Recommended!

Friday, November 18, 2011

Legendary Amazons (楊門女將之軍令如山 / Yang Men Nu Jiang Zhi Jun Ling Ru Shan)

That Million Dollar Role

I'm not sure how the word Amazons got into the English title, if not to allude to the fact that the women character folks here have tremendous fighting capabilities befitting of the legendary female warriors namesake in Greek mythology. But this is no swords and sandals film since it chronicles the story from halfway round the world in China, celebrating the fabled female Yang army generals in the Song dynasty about their loyalty to the country, and how they defended China time and again against its invaders decked in pretty armour, weapons culled from every martial arts epic, and wearing capes that serve absolutely no purpose.

If there's a question I can ask director Frankie Chan, it will be whether he's genuinely proud of this effort. He's a veteran, and there's no denying that he's done a handful of entertaining films I've grown up with. There's no lack of funding in making this film, from the numerous costumes, weaponry, and sheer logistics in staging large scaled battles, coupled with special effects that looked really slipshod, but this one really took the cake in the disrespect shown toward production values on the whole, and with that insulted the technical craftsmanship of those who work hard in the industry, having their craft sullied by quick hacks who couldn't care less about quality so long as they get a semblance of something done. It's as if the producers had paid Cecilia Cheung millions from their budget, then realized their folly as they ran out of funds to ensure quality in their delivery such that corners had to be cut, and cut in the most disgraceful manner.

Battle scenes were so obviously switched from outdoor shoots to interior sound stages with badly done green screen effects, and the action choreography itself was lacking in ideas that it started to be unintentionally funny, from obvious speeding up of frames to compensate for the actresses lack of martial arts background, to horses definitely on a slow trot rather than being ridden at top speed to escape pursuing enemies. I could have sworn the cast were just going through the motion during production, with little care being taken to ensure some form of proper stance adopted to make them credible warriors. Believability is something never considered at all by anyone in the film, and the wire work utilized here is nothing short of embarrassing the craftsman who had perfected the art of executing such moves seamlessly and without much fanfare. At best, it looked like Chinese Opera (no offense intended), with many twirls and gentle combat passing off as intense life or death battles

Boasting a cast of veterans such as Ritchie Jen, Kathy Chow, Cheng Peipei and Cecilia Cheung herself amongst other relative unknowns to make up the numbers of 10 or more of the widowers from the Yang family who had to step up and be counted when the sole male bloodline is called upon to lead grossly outnumbered troops against the enemy. We learn who they all are, right down to their maiden names and weapons of choice, but frankly you would only remember the many poor wirework and effects trying to pass the characters off as formidable warriors. What you would get is the sorry feeling for any self-respecting performer having to put up with sub-standard support that calls for the actresses to be at their best to avoid laughing at themselves, keeping a straight face to deliver cringeworthy lines and juvenile action pieces.

Which is a pity, because there was so much potential hidden in the film that went unrealized, if only they had paid a lot more attention to what story they want to tell rather than to take on every caricature, and added depth to the romantic story contained within, which came complete with some lesbian undertones as well. But I digress. In summary it's summer blockbuster material with a very simple plot of good versus evil, with the former being outnumbered and hampered from victory no thanks to corrupt officials, and the reliance of their strategies and wits to defeat both the enemy from within and the larger invasion forces. If done right that is. Big action pieces were assembled haphazardly, with the ones that took the cake involving Raiders of the Lost Ark type giant rolling balls on fire, and the constructing of human bridges so ridiculous it has to be seen to be believed. Characters came and went according to their conveniences when doing battle, that the initial strategy of flanking and outflanking the enemy, and the employment of military deceit, turned out to be nothing but one complete, incoherent mess.

The filmmakers could have just gotten away with it if not for the very amateurish martial arts on display, since in my opinion good kungfu trounces the need of a proper plot, though not always. What's legendary in this film, was clearly the blatant slip shoddiness of its filmmaking, grossly insulting all paying audiences by conning their hard earned dollar to deliver something even if made in the 1970s, will be frowned upon for its lack of artistic merit and integrity. The subtitle in Mandarin refers to how military orders are like moutains, unmovable and expected to be followed to the letter, and would have served as a pretty awesome crux to the entire movie, but in reality these scenes became jokes, and the only unmovable experience was the innate need to see just how bad this film will go and stoop to.

Films such as Legendary Amazons can be made with Mainland funding, but please either have a little quality control or stop meddling with a veteran filmmaker's vision (I have an inkling Frankie Chan could have suffered interference from those who hold the purse strings), and restrict its distribution to a home market that is perhaps a lot more forgiving than markets abroad, where competition in quality is keener, and any average films put side by side will make them look like masterpieces. Avoid at all cost, unless you have plenty of time to burn, in which I would recommend you'd get more kick out of watching paint dry. The Yang Family Warriors this is not, but more like The Yang Family Circus Clown Troupe.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Happy Feet Two

The Next Generation

Happy Feet took home the Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film of the Year 2007, but that film had everything - song, dance, comedy, drama, romance and of course the feel good factor. One would have thought that success meant a fast-track into getting a sequel out, but it actually took some 5 years before it actually did. George Miller assume the entire directorial responsibility this time round, with the story co-written by Warren Coleman, Paul Livingston and George Miller somewhat making this a little bit darker in tone, with much less comedy, with more of a dark, brooding overtone that hammers home its environmental message.

Gone are the colours and the more light hearted moments thanks to the Robin Williams voiced hippy penguin Ramon, who now takes a backseat to just trying his best to romance fellow penguin Carmen (Sofia Vergara), and in comes a terribly overt evangelistic feel with the presence of a new character The Mighty Sven (Hank Azaria), whom the penguins all worship for its flight ability, charisma and glib tongue. It cannot be more pronounced of the intent to show how these characters turn out to be nothing but false prophets, what with his miraculous ability of flight for a penguin, the rote religious preaches and sermons he gives, and not to forget the promise to deliver the emperor penguins from their current environmental plight, starting with the vast plans to provide fish for his new flock.

New characters also got introduced to expand the scale of the story now to involve the smallest of life forms with two Krills, Will (Brad Pitt) and Bill (Matt Damon), the former adamant in striking out on his own and to evolve from a non-conformist environment where they swim around and be sitting ducks to larger prey, while the latter is the voice of rational thought, and comfort, joining Will only because he has but one friend. And on the other end of the size spectrum, we have the Leopard Seals with nasty, combative attitudes, whom you'd identify as key to the plot in the third act once Mumble (Elijah Wood) starts to tap his happy feet.

Mumble is now all grown up and has a family of his own, with wife Gloria (voiced by the late Brittany Murphy in the earlier film, with singer Pink now taking over) and kid Erik (Ava Acres), a shy little one who neither can sing like his mom or dance like his dad, and becomes the prodigal son taking after his dad, well ok, the co-protagonist of this sequel. Why there's a need to have baby penguins boil down to the simple reason that they're cute, and will draw in the crowds. Much of the plot centres around how Mumble tries to connect with his young son, and finds it terribly tough to do so, but adversity no thanks to the threat faced by the entire Emperor Penguin community left stranded due to shifting ice, provides the opportunity especially when Erik can witness just how innovative and heroic his dad can actually be, compared to his idol Sven. Every boy needs a hero, and it works when one is close by.

Like the Ice Age franchise which is still going on strong, the message about saving our environment, and with that the species which are dependent on the preservation of their natural habitat, can't get any more pronounced in this installment, especially with carefully crafted sound design and visuals to warn just how fragile this balance is, through the multiple shots of icy landscapes breaking up at every opportunity. With kids and their parents expected to make a beeline for this film, the target audience's all set in taking home these none too subtle reminders. There's a stoic seriousness in the story, though balanced by both Brad Pitt and Matt Damon's Krill characters being nothing other than comedic fodder with their rapid fire dialogue exchange, and Pitt's Will being one of the most delusional animated characters for some time to come.

Some may frown at the religious overtones the narrative tended to dwell onto in the mid-section, and the many song and dance sequences and medleys that really padded up the film to a 100 minutes that felt longer than its runtime, but Happy Feet Two still had enough reserves in its tank to make it a wholesome family entertainer, though a lot more serious in treatment than its predecessor.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

[Soundtrack DVD] Making of You Are the Apple of My Eye (那些年,我们一起追的女孩) (2011)

The Awesome Ensemble

No, this is not a repeated entry, in case you're having that sense of deja vu from an earlier review also about the Making-Of DVD of what's arguably one of the best feature films of 2011, You Are The Apple of My Eye (那些年,我们一起追的女孩), by writer-director Giddens (九把刀), who will be in town later this weekend for Bookfest 2011.

It's either you're contributing to its box office success in Singapore through multiple viewings, or are/have been picking up memorabilia such as the source material in Giddens' original novel (in both Traditional or Simplified Chinese formats with different covers), or the Making-Of book which came with the DVD as earlier reviewed, or have picked up the Original Soundtrack published by Sony Music, which also comes packaged with a second DVD disc containing almost an hour's worth of behind the scenes material, wrapping up with two versions of its theatrical trailer (the romantic love version and the hot blooded youth version), clocking in a combined 60:54 minutes.

Naturally the snippets from the earlier Making-Of DVD came from this almost hour long one packaged with the Original Soundtrack, which began with the cast members talking about the most romantic moment in their lives. There are plenty to be gleaned from this Making-Of production since it contains extensive interviews with cast members, and especially Giddens himself, who shared the reason why this film was actually made, was in order to shoot what was the final 10 minutes of the wedding scene to relive the actual moment in 2005, which served as a catalyst in having this film project finally lifting off, having rejected countless of offers by others who had wanted to adapt it for the big screen.

And you just got to admire the guy for his courage in attempting to direct a feature film of this magnitude without much prior experience, and for bearing his heart and soul in a film for all and sundry to see (which in effect provided the film its sincerity and genuineness without coming off as contrived, and making it believably real with identifiable moments for anyone who had gone through high school days), reliving through the production process some of the painful episodes in his relentless courtship for the apple of his eye then, although there were always going to be highlights from the more uplifting moments of friendship and camaraderie, and of course having a hand at picking Michelle Chen for the lead female role, having a pseudo "goddess" portrayed and having the spirit of the character captured wonderfully by the actress.

Like any behind the scenes production, there's the standard interview segments where the cast talk about their roles and about certain key scenes in the film, reminiscing some of the more interesting aspects of the production process and what went on the set, from birthday celebrations to various shenanigans. But the most informative moments come from the interview with producer Cai Zhiping who got featured prominently in the first 30 minutes, and from Giddens himself who shared the idea, inspiration and his feelings behind scenes, while bracing himself for the sting from the past.

Presented in the letterbox format in Mandarin without subtitles, I suppose one has to wait until the actual DVD release together with non-Mandarin speakers curious enough to know more about its production to have something subtitled. Here's hoping that the release will come with plenty of bells and whistles, and a lot more insights that have yet to be seen.

You can read my review of the film here.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Tonight We Dine In Hell!

You may think this is a 300 opportunist no thanks to its trailer, but director Tarsem Singh had a lot more visual tricks up his sleeves. Immortals takes on Greek mythology in a different fashion under his vision, with strikingly younger looking Olympus gods having to undertake a non-interference code of conduct by Zeus (Luke Evans) as the villainous humans led by King Hyperion (Mickey Rourke) seeks out a magical bow and from then threaten to unleash hell on earth through freeing the Titans, one time Olympus gods themselves having lost the heavenly war and banished to eternal damnation on earth

It's typical swords, sandals and sorcery in Immortals, with the hero Theseus (Henry Cavill, the next Superman) prancing around shirtless to show off his ripped upper torso, going on a quest to obtain the magical bow himself, and ultimately finding courage and leadership abilities within him to lead the forces of good up against evil. But the highlight here are the action sequences, and Tarsem really brought about a level of gore and violence that will send even the most jaded action junkie blushing at the way these sequences got crafted and shot. The slow motion in which the Olympus gods fight will definitely be the talk of the town, slowed only to highlight the speed at which they dispatch opponents, and two key scenes stand out that made it worthwhile to sit through everything else.

But all these are done at the expense of a proper plot, which is a pity, sacrificed to get out of the way of the action, and there only to serve as glue and filler in between the gladiatorial styled battles that audiences are probably clamouring for in a film like this one. Whatever you know about Greek mythology will get thrown out of the window here given the re-imagining of roles, starting with the gods looking very much younger than the usual older persona that get put on screen, and the audacity to have just about anyone fall victim to mortality. That will keep proceedings fairly fresh rather than to have, say, Zeus conquering everything just because he can. But some will of course prefer such established rules to have stayed put.

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


Sunday, November 13, 2011

[DVD] Making of You Are the Apple of My Eye (那些年,我们一起追的女孩) (2011)

Those Were The Schooldays

You are the Apple of My Eye has been breaking box office records in Taiwan and Hong Kong recently, and this weekend we should see healthy box office numbers coming out of its opening weekend as well, where it finally made it to its general release after a lengthy period period of some 3 weeks, with what I notice as excellent and positive word of mouth going around. I know of friends who have gone to the cinema multiple times to take in the film again, perhaps seeing shades of themselves or people they know in the characters portrayed on screen, and some like me who have taken to the purchase of memorabilia from the original novel, to the soundtrack, and the Making-Of the film book Somewhere, Sometime, Some Way written by Giddens (九把刀) himself.

And within that detailed book which chronicles the entire production process and journey, laden with plenty of colour photographs, is the Making-Of DVD, running almost 32 minutes, presented in a letterbox format with language available only in Mandarin (Taiwanese accented of course), and subtitles in Traditional Chinese only. There's no opening credits, or credits of any sort, starting abruptly and examining a number of scenes in the film, with care taken to prevent any potential spoilers through pixellation, such as words printed on a lantern, or the identity of the groom in the show.

Still, it's a look into some major scenes in the movie, with the director Giddens providing some insights as he gets interviewed to say something about the scene they are about to film, as well as behind the scenes look in the production process that highlights the camaraderie amongst the cast members, with easter eggs thrown in such as the cameo appearances of his real friends who serve as inspiration and reference for the film. You may also have seen the coda at the end of the movie, and that moment is also contained in this Making-Of video, past the 26th minute mark. Definitely a must watch for fans, albeit only for about half an hour, since it's a great audio-visual companion to the text and photographs captured in the book.

You can read my review of the film here, and it has my well wishes to snag all the awards it's nominated for at the upcoming Golden Horse Awards on 26 Nov 2011, where it's in the running for Best Leading Actress (Michelle Chen), Best New Director (Giddens), Best New Performer (Ko Chen-Tung) and Best Original Film Song (Na Xie Nian). Still think it was robbed of a nomination in Best Film and Best Adapted Screenplay though.

[DVD] Goal! III: Taking on the World (2009)

Watching From The Stands

When Goal debuted in 2005, it was that much awaited film about football that finally got made, and made properly, featuring some really nice visual effects that blended fictional players with the real world counterparts, and sanctioned by the sporting industry in general to allow the filmmakers unprecedented access to facilities and footage, not to mention changing the course of history at times through the manipulation of games and matches to swing it in favour of the characters. It's stuff of what fantasy football is made of as it comes to the big screen in gorgeous fashion.

Goal 1 tracked the rise of upcoming Mexican player Santiago Munez, who got lifted from the streets of the central american Mexico City into the English Premiership, signing for Newcastle United and being introduced to just about every struggle and shenanigan that comes associated with on pitch, and off pitch activities. Making his mark, he got earmarked for regional European competition as he got transfered to Real Madrid in Goal 2, where his exposure to the likes of the Galacticos made him quite the big headed player especially off the field, with his footballing skills raking him riches beyond his wildest dreams, and at the same time his character and morals fly toward bankruptcy.

Both films were fairly successful and appealed to footballing fans, making it to the big screen and a third film was mooted that tied and lead it logically to the third film to be on the sport's greatest stage, the World Cup. Alas here comes the problem from a narrative standpoint. Santiago Munez can only turn out for Mexico, and we all know, with all due respect, how far the national team can go when up against powerhouses from Europe and South America. No writer can alter the course of the character's history by making him turn out for Spain, or England, so that's that. And even then, what else is there to say about the Santiago character that hasn't already been covered in the first two films?

So with an obviously smaller budget, the attention moved from Santiago, which is a pity given Kuno Becker's screen charisma as a footballer, and onto his Real Madrid teammates (seen for the first time here, not featured in Part 2) Charlie Braithwaite (Leo Gregory) and Liam Adams (JJ Feild), both Englishmen - seriously, Real Madrid having two Englishmen in their ranks, and both strikers at that? - and since they're into the close of the season, have finally been told of their inclusion into Sven Goran Eriksson's squad. Then the other suspension of belief comes in the form of the three players all finding time to travel to Romania for Charlie's part time film career, where he meets up with the gorgeous actress Sophia Rossi (Kasia Smutniak) who naturally hooks up with him. And on and off you'll find the footballers, during the World Cup season, scooting off for some wining and dining, not that they can't, but I thought would be under more controlled circumstances since the weight of the country's expectations are on their shoulders. Still, I am in no better position to know what goes on behind the scenes for World Cup preparations, although the filmmakers did keep the paparazzi always close by for continuous photography opportunities each time the footballers step out of their comfort zones.

With Santiago so easily written out of the way in the World Cup by scribes Mike Jefferies and Piers Ashworth, the footballing focus falls onto Liam and Charlie's stint with the English team, whether they will make it to the starting eleven in Germany, or be relegated to the bench. Budget constraints automatically implied they started where they should, with stock footage of the actual English games taking precedence, with the likes of Rooney and Captain Beckham playing central roles. Which is a pity, because what made Goal fun, was the blend of fictional and real characters on the same pitch interacting as if it's for real, and this one had extremely limited pitch action, and when the characters do come on, it's as if they're playing on their own without much support from their real life counterparts, much less a whiff of recognition. And not to mention the very rough and raw visual effects when compared to what the first two films had done in this blending aspect.

So the rest of the film got stuffed with the dealing of the more emotional front of Liam, who through his agent Nick (Nick Moran) found his one time squeeze June (Anya Lahiri) and a daughter he never knew he had, and the romance between Charlie and Sophia. And in an effort to expand the film into the realm of the fans, follows a group of Englishmen going on the road into Germany to get themselves up close with the World Cup action, played more for slight comedy. If one were to take a step back, it's not a bad thing to have this film take on a much broader view on the sport in general rather than to follow Santiago Munez solely, but from the get go it felt like being thrown at the deep end of a pool with no returning characters (save for Munez's bit parts here and there) thereby alienating this film tremendously from its predecessors.

It's always a pity when you witness how films that embark on a franchise get to lose their way because of the lack of finances or making a follow up without a strong storyline. Granted that having to make the film in the same vein as the first two, and now gearing toward the largest stage of the sport will be something of a daunting task, but to pare it down to the bare minimum, what had made it fun for football fans to turn up in the cinemas for some fantasy football action, is what tanked this from a theatrical release, to a very quiet DVD release instead.

From the commentary and the interviews included you will still appreciate the constraints the filmmakers have to work around, and their belief in having made something that still worked, but with all due respect, if this was just another football film unassociated with Goal, it may have gotten a better response than to tag it after two films that had solid production values. It's likely Goal will call it a day now, but it's not all woe for football fans just yet, because if you're itching for some football on film, I will urge you to check out the very excellent The Damned United starring Michael Sheen.

The Region 2 DVD is part of a collection of the Goal! film trilogy by Buena Vista Home Entertainment, presenting the film in an anamorphic widescreen digital format, with audio in English Dolby Digital 5.1. Subtitles are available in English, with scene selection over 12 chapters.

There are only two major extra features in the disc, the first being the Commentary by Director Andrew Morahan and Producer Mike Jefferies, and the next being a whopping 89 minute worth of Interviews with a play all option that you can listen in on the following talking about their roles, Goal 3, football and the World Cup in general: Cast members Leo Gregory, JJ Feild, Kuno Becker, Nick Moran, Kasia Smutniak, Anya Lahiri, Jack McBride & Mike Elliot, Christopher Fairbank & Craig Heaney, producer Mike Jefferies, director Andrew Morahan and Production Designer Russell De Rozario.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

The Rum Diary

Hello Ladies

It seems like Johnny Depp can't get enough of the works of Hunter S. Thompson, who had been credited for and popularized the style of Gonzo journalism which makes no qualms about being objective, and tells a story with the reporter put into a first-person narrative. Thompson's novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas had been adopted for the big screen and had starred Depp, and now Depp turns producer in bringing yet another Thompson novel for the cinema, which is not hard to tell why the character of Paul Kemp had appealed to him.

Inspired by Thompson's real stint which found him in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1960 to write for a newspaper that's facing the worst of times, the story deals with a series of events from the minute Kemp lands in the country and throughout his stay, getting in touch with the various characters from within the newsroom, such as editor Edward Lotterman (Richard Jenkins), photographer Sala (Michael Rispoli) and Moburg (Giovanni Ribisi) the perpetual drunk still on the newspaper's payroll, to activities outside in the pristine beaches of San Juan, with shady businessman Sanderson (Aaron Eckhart) and his gorgeous girlfriend Chenault (Amber Heard), which Kemp takes a liking for.

For starters, his editor dislikes Kemp's drinking problem, a problem that seems to perpetuate itself amongst all of Kemp's newsroom friends, since the editor is of the advice that the drink will ruin one's career, starting Kemp off with the horoscopes section of the paper. For Kemp, being in the island is but an escape while waiting to write that great American novel he aspires to, but distraction comes in the form of Chenault, and especially when Sanderson ropes Kemp in on a shady deal that requires extreme discretion because it's frankly, thinking out of the box in order to make an obscene amount of money through unscrupulous tactics.

The deal is for Kemp to be in the grouping, made up of corrupt politicians, ex military men and brokers, and to churn out articles in their favour to boost the real estate chances that they had set their sights on, and being in the loop of things exposed a lot of shenanigans behind the scenes that Kemp is clearly uncomfortable with, if not for opportunities to be close to Chenault. And in between he had to content with the lack of water, trying hard to stay sober, and dealing with the plenty of rum and drugs that come their way.

And speaking of which the vices here happen to serve as the highlights of this rather deadpan film, if not for the moments of drunkenness and perpetual high no thanks from the overt consumption of recreational drugs that lift the narrative and its characters into the heights of fun-filled insanity. In some ways, like Kemp, the narrative fumbles and sprawls its way through like a tourist taking pictures of everything just because he can and not because he finds beauty in the subjects, and so The Rum Diary has the same effect of trying to cover everything, yet almost always abandoning things halfway and finding no real meaning other than to have everyone in a drunken state of anxiousness during its climax.

It's a good story nonetheless, with cast members really chewing up their roles in extremely carefree fashion, but Bruce Robinson, out of the game for some time, clearly found it a struggle to try and piece things together tightly and deliver something that's truly engaging. Strictly for Johnny Depp fans.

Kaiji 2 / カイジ 2

Ready For the Big League?

Kaiji 2 brings Tatsuya Fujiwara back to the titular role of the gambler who had seen better days post the finale in the earlier Kaiji film, but as the saying goes, old habits die hard and two years later he's still found in the doldrums of society, stuck in a dead end underground job. The first film dealt with the different strata of society, and here the changes made will bring about a clash of societal systems once again, with Kaiji being entrusted with cash from his underground peers to make it big in society to earn enough to redeem all their freedom, and Seiya Ichizo (Yusuke Iseya) ascending to the echelons of Teiai, taking over Yukio Tonegawa (Teruyuki Kagawa) who was beaten by Kaiji in the first film, hence setting up a potential rivalry between the representatives of class.

Like all follow up films, Kaiji 2 plunges head long into the action without that much of an introduction to who the returning characters are, but for those new to the series, fret not as it won't really matter that much with this stand alone story arc. Kaiji's daunting task is to make a fortune of 200 million in 20 days in order to buy the freedom of his peers who had hinged their hopes on him, and gambling games with his modest capital couldn't exactly make that much in so few days. Meeting up with his ex-rival Yukio who is still adamant in getting even with Kaiji, Kaiji gets an invitation to go into an illegal casino operated by Seiya, where the top draw is the ultimate Pachinko machine called The Swamp, with a top payout of 1 billion sitting pretty for those who can defeat it. But of course as with all casinos, the odds are hugely stacked against the gullible few, but to the obsevant few, there's something quite rigged about this machine.

Kotaro Sakazaki (Katsuhisa Namase) had extensively spent time casing the machine and the casino operations, and the narrative plays out almost like a heist operation, with Kaiji, Kotaro and their fellow teammate Yumi Ishida (Yuriko Yoshitaka), the daughter of a man Kaiji meets in the earlier film, coming together to challenge for the pot of gold. But true to the spirit of things, this film plays an excellent sleight of hand with betrayals, swinging loyalties with friends becoming foes and vice versa, twists and turns all the way to the finale, as everyone comes head to head at the casino's centre of attraction, unleashing strategies and counter-schemes to go one up against the opponent, resulting in gripping edge of your seat stuff as you unwittingly become one of the many spectators gathered around to cheer a player who seem to have the potential to beat the casino's odds. Like its predecessor, there are enough surprises at every corner that if you think you have it all figured out, in comes another challenging obstacle for Kaiji to overcome.

But entertainment values aside, which Kaiji 2 has by the bucket loads, this film also further explores the darker themes introduced in the first film, and in some ways are ever more applicable in today's context, with the rich overwhelmingly owning much of the wealth available, leaving the have nots with nothing but hope to break out of the poverty cycle, or the cycle that condemns one to eternal hard work. The rich and powerful gets personified through Seiya Ichizo, ever eager to be in your face toward those who are from the working class, constantly ridiculing and belittling Kaiji, representing the working class that most of us will probably fall into. It's a tussle between those in power and the underdogs, and as an effective reflective moment in its climax, has Seiya ponder about how lonely it is at the top especially if one has to push one's way up the societal and career ladder at the expense of others, versus those who are successful because of cooperation, collaboration and friendship.

While the first film had three different games, they are effectively simple ones at that too (rock, paper, scissors with a twist) for any casual viewer to understand the risks and odds involved, and keeps your mind constantly engaged when players execute their strategies. Kaiji2 unfortunately only had one major one albeit broken up into stages, with the rest being small little side games such as the E-card from part 1 and something of a resemblance to the Prisoner's Dilemma. Here Kaiji and his allies are pit against one major game, and true to Japanese form, it's the Pachinko machine. I had been in Japan before and was curious enough to step into the ubiquitous Pachinko parlour, only to be daunted by the instructions and various gameplay available under the same roof. However non-Pacihnko players like myself will still be able to appreciate Kaiji's strategies since Pachinko frankly is a game beyond a player's control other than to shoot the balls into the game environment like how a Pinball machine operates, with the rest left to gravity, precision engineering, and a lot of luck.

Tatsuya Fujiwara continues in his comfortable role as the happy-go-lucky and brilliant gambler blessed with the necessary technical skills and keen observation powers in order to beat the odds, and he looks a lot more comfortable in this role, with the added dramatic and emotional weight coming from the presence of Yuriko Yoshitaka's Yumi Ishida character which ties into the first film beautifully. Kenichi Matsuyama is absent of course, so I suppose it served as a welcome to put the focus entirely on Kaiji rather than for Matsuyama's presence to become a distraction (especially for marketers) in the film. Teruyuki Kagawa is one of the modern Japanese actors I admire, and his role here provided gravitas to the film especially with an expanded screentime, while Kotaro Sakazaki and Yusuke Iseya are welcome cast inclusions to this alternate reality world with the pronounced rich-poor income gap.

Kaiji 2 may not have the bandwidth of various games that challenge different aspects of the protagonist, nor have hit the dizzying heights of emotional flip flops set up by its predecessor, but still hedged the right bets at keeping to its common themes and expanding on them, which became what truly mattered. And that's what makes Kaiji 2 a recommended watch, and better yet when you string both 1 and 2 into a wider anthology.

Kaiji 2 opens in Singapore on 17 Nov 2011.

[Stage Introduction] Kaiji 2 / カイジ 2 - Tatsuya Fujiwara

It isn't everyday that a Japanese star makes his way to Singapore for a film promotional event, but I suppose an international premiere of Kaiji 2 outside of Japan would be incentive enough for Tatsuya Fujiwara to spend a couple of days here to meet and greet his fans. Here's the stage introduction prior to the gala screening of Kaiji 2 at The Cathay held on 11 Nov 2011 at 2145hrs, following a flurry of activities with an afternoon press conference and an evening mall appearance:

Thursday, November 10, 2011


Rocking Your World

The draw for me toward Rockstar is A.R. Rahman, the musical maestro responsible for countless of Hindi film classics, and of late piquing Hollywood's attention as well, being a recent frequent collaborator on Danny Boyle's films. For a film being named Rockstar, and with the promos banging on Rahman's music, one can expect plenty of rock tunes created just for the protagonist with even Rahman himself stating the soundtrack would be heavy on the guitars. But despite Ranbir Kapoor spotting various looks as seen in the trailer, the title served to be a misnomer as to the kind of film this is. Sure it has a rock star element to it, but Imtiaz Ali's film gets pared down toward the inevitable sappy romance genre that somehow didn't manage to blast itself away from formulaic cliches.

Ranbir Kapoor has now become a little bit more selective in the roles he chooses to play, and you can see why his Rockstar Janardan, or Jordan, character appealed to the actor. There's the challenge here in portraying two sides of the same coin, starting off as Janardan the student with aspirations of becoming a musician, lugging his guitar everywhere he goes and sharing the joy of his music to just about anyone he sees, never mind if they reciprocate that love, and especially not the authorities for his busking all over the place. Attempts in talent contests always ended up in ridicule, until a friend provided him some honest advice along the lines of how successful musicians excelled in their craft - experience, and more specifically, pain.

And Janardan can be a little bit dim-witted and misguided too in his attempt to achieve fame and glory - that ultimate recognition would be to have thousands salute you when you raise your middle finger instead of getting thrown in jail - though an added incentive to be successful would be to stand on his own two feet outside of bullying family members and to get himself out of a cushy job in the family business he has no interest in participating. Taking on that advice of experiencing pain, he goes all out to woo the hottest girl in college, Heer Kaul (Nargis Fakhri), the unattainable, serial heart breaker with an attitude as bad as how good she looks. But fortunately for Janardhan his awkward courtship routine tore down the icy cold walls Heer puts up, and in private they share tremendous moments of friendship and bonding through the many shenanigans they find themselves in, culminating in his visiting Kashmir to see her getting married to a rich man (Moufid Aziz) and whisked off and migrated to Prague.

Some may argue that Pain as a catalyst is something quite far-fetched, but trust me I know, it's the emotion enough to want to break down walls and cross boundaries, experimenting without fear. Janaardhan becomes Jordan the rock musician, with his creativity fueled by the breaking of his heart, of loss, longing and just about every negative emotion that comes along, thanks to his new found muse Heer. Music becomes an art through which he can express his feelings, and soon the music production houses come knocking, with Jordan's indiscretion with Heer becomes fuel for gossip and with that comes publicity, turning him into an overnight sensation through his bad rocker demeanour, growing worse day by day each time he cannot attain Heer.

And here's where Imtiaz Ali hit all the right notes in the first half through a rather unconventional presentation of the story traversing timelines and having scenes that do not directly link up, deliberately keeping gaps between scenes. It built upon the tussle between the artist and his muse, one sensible while the other constantly throwing caution to the wind, since we are all well aware of the thin line of adultery the couple is treading upon, with each secret meetup building in intensity, fighting urges and resisting temptation, witnessing the creation of pent up potential. Imtiaz Ali had crafted a wonderful first half before the interval, with comedy, drama, romance, music and even a cliffhanger in the first scene to allow the narrative to come back to later on. But all efforts in setting everything up, seemed to have primed itself for a hard fall, as post-interval the story seemed to have lost direction once it had the two lovers push the boundaries of their emotions, lapsing into the cliches that plague many romantic movies.

Stuck with a narrative that didn't want to go anywhere except focusing on the taboo romance between Jordan and Heer that went on in such great lengths it will rival that seen in Twilight, thank goodness for A.R. Rahman's music that took over since Jordan becomes an established performer (Sadda Haq being the best of the lot by the way), with the narrative given a massive boost from the songs. One cannot fault Ranbir Kapoor as he took on possibly the most challenging role to date playing a meek young man transformed into a hardened rocker hell bent on getting his romantic life the way he envisioned, such that you'll really feel this transformation and the pain, though self-inflicted, he has to endure. As a newcomer, model Nargis Fakhri is extremely believable as the face that men will go to war for, and let's see if Rockstar will open more doors for her in Bollywood. Look out too for the bit role by the late Shammi Kapoor, though one may prefer an extended role, but the scene which he and his grand-nephew Ranbir shared in the passing of advice, is nothing but priceless and what Rockstar would be remembered for.

Rockstar is like a comet, akin to the longevity of many rock acts these days, starting off very brightly, but knowingly and inevitably trailing off as it went along, unable to capture and sustain its initial payload, and faded off with nary a whimper. A rocker this is not, but rather an infatuated puppy in disguise. Such wasted potential, so set expectations low even though the first half of the film careens it stratospherically for you.
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