Monday, December 31, 2012

Top 5 Duds of 2012

Ah, the dishonour roll. Half of the worst lot happen to be local fare, and one of them had the distinction of possessing the audacity to pass itself off as a film. Needless to say that there's a fair bit of the horror genre here, because filmmakers may have thought it was easy to make one, but the truth, and results, show that they're grossly mistaken. And here they are:

Nicolas Cage and Nicole Kidman. Sounds like a winner, not. Both were one time, bankable stars where their names alone on the marquee guarantees a box office success, but in recent years they have both fallen from grace given dodgier projects. Putting two wrongs together don't make one right, and Joel Schumacher chalks up yet another dud that was narratively lazy.

Akshay Kumar and Sonakshi Sinha paired together in Rowdy Rathore was a riot, but together in Joker they'd leave you scratching your head whether they had really read the script carefully before signing on the dotted line. It's science fiction, it's fantasy, and the genres you can just about do anything and get away with it, but here, imagination had run wild in the opposite direction, delivering something catered more for children under the age of 2, where they can't understand anything. It's no wonder, and an obvious warning sign, when both stars decided to ditch their promotional obligations for the film.

The Apparition
If the filmmakers were lazy, you'd get movies like this one. Poor story leading to poor characterization leading to insipid directing, and desperate editing to try and make it look good. It's a horror film gone horribly wrong, and that in itself is the true horror brought about by the movie.

Timeless Love
I'm not even sure why the need for two directors here, other than to have the more recognizable name help in its marketing efforts. One of the lead actors did quite the unprofessional job of badmouthing the film quite publicly, and if you sit through this film you'd soon know why. In an effort to cash in on a trend of youth films, or films that reminisce days of youth, Timeless Love wasn't actually timeless, but showed how films like these should be buried in time. It's a victim of trying too hard, and came off as artificial, hokey, and one extremely long commercial for a watch. No prizes though for observing who sponsored the movie.

- Hsien of the Dead
- My Ghost Partner
These two tied for the worst of the year. There's no story, there's no acting, and Hsien of the Dead looked more like an ulterior agenda gone wrong for somene wanting to put "filmmaker" into one's CV. It's a pity that nobody's quite giving Huang Yiliang the backing and training he needs to become a better filmmaker, as his My Ghost Partner had to hobble funds from so many parties, it could win an award for having the longest end credits of thanks and acknowledgements to its investors, hoping that they won't knock on his door soon to ask for their money back. And for Hsien of the Dead, it's a primary school kid's film project gone horribly wrong, that nothing more should be said about it other than to condemn it to the depths of the hell hole imagination it came from. Singapore's first zombie film credit is now snatched away by an undeserving project - I won't even label it a movie now, to do so is to insult the medium and art form.

Top 10 of 2012

The customary Top 10 list of my favourite films of the year, and it's no easy task to pluck the crème de la crème from a pool of 272 theatrical and festival releases watched this year. So here's about 10% of the best, split between the honorary 10 which is more of a mixed bag this time round, and the meritorious 20 that had a crack at the top. A pity that no local film released this year managed to get into either list. In order, my Top 10:

10. Barfi!
One of the pitfalls of an up and coming actor is to accept just about any role that comes his way, and in doing so blotches his filmography with mediocre works that either demoralizes, or burns him out. There's no fair share of such stories from Bollywood, which is what makes Ranbir Kapoor an exciting watch amongst his competitive peers, as he picks and chooses his projects carefully, with each role challenging him from those he had tackled previously. As central character Barfi, he puts aside his speech, and goes into full acting with everything available in his arsenal, to become one of the most memorable characters he had tackled to date. Priyanka Chopra also stepped out of her comfort zone, deglamourizes herself, and together, they form an acting tour-de-force which is what's great about this Indian submission to next year's Oscars.

9. Jiro Dreams of Sushi
It's about that quintessential Japanese cuisine, and more. While you can feast your eyes on the gloriously captured sushis, and imagine just how heavenly the tastes can be, this movie goes beyond the usual documentary showcase of the man, his restaurant and the food he serves. It's about the lifestyle and philosophy behind it, that gave the movie its soul, of the hard work that beckons success, of perseverance and humility.

8. Headhunters / Hodejegerne
I really enjoyed the genre shifts in the film, that made Headhunters such a delight, and pleasure to watch. It may go off in one track, before spinning onto another, and just when you thought it would wrap, in comes another surprise from the blind side. The Nordic countries are slowly but surely showing the world how to make suspense thrillers, and this one ranks up there as filmmaking to be emulated.

7. Seeking a Friend for the End of the World
There's no fair share of disaster and end of the world type movies to capitalize on the year 2012 prophesied by some to be The End, but in this film comes a quirky, yet touching tale, about two souls connecting as they journey to help each other fulfill their unfinished business before the big one hits. The banter, the light comedy, and the utterly moving final act, is what makes this film an instant classic. The minute The Hollies' The Air That I Breathe come on, the floodgates will open, trust me. I'm beginning to appreciate Steve Carell's dramatic roles more than his comedic ones, and this is yet another fine example why this is so.

6. Love in the Buff / 春嬌與志明
Some may find it curious I choose to rate this higher than the other Edmund Pang release Vulgaria / 低俗喜劇, but I guess it's about a continuation and a sequel done right. We've grown to love the Jimmy and Cherie, the characters the filmmaker had created in the first film, and we get to hang out with them a lot more this time even if they spend a lot of time apart. It's about that absence that makes the heart grow fonder, and this follow up film is just proof of that mantra. Who knows, with luck, this could be the Asian answer to Richard Linklater's Before Sunrise/Before Sunset series.

5. Wreck-It Ralph
Disney has probably found the successor to the Toy Story series, by taking a similar approach and formula but this time with bits, bytes and electrons. What if the computer game characters were to come to life on their own, in their world, when humans weren't around to play them, and voila, Wreck-It Ralph becomes that spiritual companion, with that sense of adventure, feel good message, and classic rivalry between leading characters who soon realize they got more in common than just bickering. This is a clear winner, and let's hope there'll be more of the same in the pipeline, to build on that universe already created.

4. The Raid: Redemption / Dredd
OK so I'm cheating a little bit here with 2 films in the same spot, but both are what I call spiritual companions to each other. One, a film about cops raiding a fortified building to get to a drug dealer, using everything in their arsenal and ultimately relying on their martial arts, while the other is about erm, cops raiding a fortified building to get to a drug dealer, pumping plenty of lead along the way. It's modern life in one, and science fiction in the other, but make no mistake, both are ultra-violent. Take your pick!

3. When Wolf Falls in Love with Sheep / 南方小羊牧场
The first "wolf" film in my list, this is a fine example of the type of whimsical, comedic and dramatic stories that's coming out of Taiwan in recent years, where young casts with idol looks promptly deliver the ups and downs of relationships, set in a uniquely Taiwanese modern day premise. Philosophical to a point too, if you bother to peer beneath the saccharine sweet veneer.

2. Wolf Children / おおかみこどもの雨と雪
The second wolf film is an animated one, under the direction of Mamoru Hosoda, the man who brought us fine movies like The Girl Who Leapt Through Time, and Summer Wars. I have to admit I wasn't too sure about this when it was announced, but was completely blown away by its heartwarming, emotional core, and wonderful animation, where even if you were to take away the science fictional elements, it still makes for a powerful family drama. Probably the only film in this list that had me on the verge of a tear.

1. Ruby Sparks
If there's a film that's original, imaginative, and of fantasy in 2012, then Ruby Sparks is it. It's funny, yet dwells upon the deep dark recesses of Man in his temptations to hurt, in how we're capable of developing something beautiful, yet equally culpable in destroying things on a whim. A dark comedy blended with an unlikely romance, this film takes the crown for being truly unique in a year where comic book heroes and their sequels continue to plough their way to the box office.

and the remaining 20 in alphabetical order:

The Billionaire / วัยรุ่นพันล้าน
The Bullet Vanishes / 消失的子弹
The Cabin in the Woods
The Collector / 收烂数
End of Watch
English Vinglish
Life of Pi
The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Red Lights
Robo-G / ロボジー
Vulgaria / 低俗喜劇

[Online] The Painted Ladies

Shown at Sinema Old School in May, producer Brenda Er had made this documentary available online at vimeo so that those who had missed out, can have an avenue to view her film. After all, this was made with the intention to educate, reach out, and hopefully inspire women who had suffered some form of abuse, to stand up and speak out. And even more of a challenge, is to forgive those who had done them wrong.

And it's not easy, which Brenda herself had admitted in a Facebook post that she too had recently, near the time of release of the film, turned forgiver. Given the circumstances in timing, she had opted to become the fifth subject in the documentary, turning the spotlight instead on the four other women who had boldly come forward to make their stories, confessions, frustrations and hope, heard for anyone willing to give them their time of the day.

With the Painted Lady butterfly as a very apt motif, opening the film - aside from the bookending scenes involving endless roads on the expressway to perhaps signify the long, continuous journey called Life - with the metamorphosis of a caterpillar larva into a butterfly, obviously in line with the subject each of the interviewees will be sharing on their deep hurt, their personal life changing experiences, and the aftermath of taking affirmative action. The four women were deliberately selected from different ethnic groups to perhaps demonstrate that these issues can happen to just about anyone, and how one's response in doing what's right, may meet with challenges even from the closest of loved ones.

In some ways this documentary is similar to Women Who Love Women, or even Pink Paddlers, with female directors dealing with subjects focused on addressing women related issues, and using film as a medium for instruction, inspiration, or sharing. Having to listen to what the subjects had gone through, from sexual abuse when young, to abandonment, single parenthood and engaging in various vices in vicious circles, it's inspiring to listen to how they'd decide to take life by the horns, and turn theirs around for the better despite the odds that society has leveled on them.

Technically there isn't anything fancy in the delivery of this documentary, preferring the very perfunctory approach so as not to distract attention away from the content. It's static camera and talking heads styled interviews, with editing that weaves the narrative through each interviewee in round robin fashion to keep the discussion grouped into themes of Forgiveness, Love and Worthiness, rather than taking the easier way, and probably more boring fashion, of presenting each interviewee's story one after another.

For those interested, you can view the entire documentary, made available by Producer Brenda Er on Vimeo:

Related Links
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Sunday, December 30, 2012

Taxi! Taxi! (德士当家 / De Shi Dang Jia)

Ah Boy, Don't Steal My Rice Bowl Leh!

The Internet plays a big role in Kelvin Sng's feature directorial debut, since it is the blogging platform that Dr Cai Mingjie initially took to write his daily experiences as a taxi driver in the form of a blog, having been laid off from his A-Star researcher job and failed in multiple job applications. Described as probably the most educated taxi driver in Singapore then, Taxi! Taxi! is loosely based on his published book, and having watched this, the film only adapts the premise of his professional career, and included some very slight anecdotes, before spinning something on its own, closer toward television melodrama.

We all have our own favourite taxi-driver stories and experiences, from memorable conversations with talkative drivers, to those who drive like Formula 1 racers. What Taxi! Taxi! did clearly to avoid, is to top those individual moments, and stories you'd hear from friends and family, attempting instead to weave some social commentary into the narrative, given that it's a local formula that works at the box office. But unfortunately for its bevy of writers, it stayed very politically correct, with deference to OB markers, that it suffered from the cut-and-thrust of engagement through film, and even its comedy stayed relatively safe. I guess it had the PG rating in mind, and somehow had its wings clipped.

Things like retrenchment and losing of jobs to foreigners, are hot topic subjects that could have benefited more than from its caricatures (speaking in accented English), with Caucasians singing praises about governance here, and the locals, epitomized by Gurmit Singh's Professor Chua, inspired from Dr. Cai's story, getting the short end of the stick for being sandwiched in between reality, and expectations from friends, family, and loved ones. Educational policies also came to the forefront thanks to the rather uncouth Ah Tau (Mark Lee) and son Jia Jia (Chua Jin Sen aka Dr Jia Jia) with their struggles to get the latter brushed up on his English language skills, together with Prof Chua's unique encouragement to have his own kid (Royston Ong) improve his scores in order to score (pardon the pun) a visit to his research lab.

The narrative was effective, yet predictable, as you'd know where the characters were headed for, and how things would develop. Despite its title, its taxi-ing moments were limited to Prof Chua learning the ropes from the experienced Ah Tau, complete with their initial differences and Ah Tau's run of bad luck, coupled with a few funny scenes especially between passengers and drivers. What this story chose to explore was instead two father-son relationships, where both Chua and Tau find it necessary for various reasons to tell white lies to their loved ones, the former because he's embarrassed, the latter to hide the truth of his wife's elopement from his young son. Between the two families, despite the extended relationships with Chua and wife (Jazreel Low) and mother-in-law (Lai Ming, too typecast for local screens already), this side of the story turned out to be quite the bore and rote, compared to the charm and chemistry between Ah Tau and Jia Jia, the former who is also going after his tenant Regina (Gan Mei Yan) to be his potential new wife.

Between the two comedians in Gurmit Singh and Mark Lee, who are sharing the same big screen after One Leg Kicking in 2001, Mark Lee was the more comfortable one in front of the camera, being the more seasoned feature film actor, playing for the umpteenth time the role of a good natured Ah Beng. It could probably be an interesting prospect had the comedians switched roles to play against type. But even these two veterans got upstaged by Dr Jiajia, the internet star, in his very natural and earnest Singlish rattle, coupled with his "Kee Chiew" catchphrase which will gain traction, and earn the little boy a lot more fans. He is an expected draw toward the film, and his role, specifically written for him, does not disappoint. I guess with a little honing and polishing, he could ace more roles, and probably join the ranks of the rare child actor in Singapore.

Product placement isn't as intrusive or blatant as other local films, given that taxi cabs and petrol kiosks are hotbeds for sponsors anyway. In-vehicle conversations are a thing of a norm in most films, but I suppose a smaller budget here made the filmmakers resort to CG-ed taxi rides, compared to having rig a cab with cameras and shooting as it went around, with actors conversing, driving and not missing their comedic cue and timing a bit of a tall order. It could have really hammed this portion up a bit more, keeping with its kitsch looking poster, rather than leaving these portions sorely exposed.

I still recall Kelvin Sng's short film Kichiro which had its climax set at a rooftop, and it's pretty much the same case here with rooftops bookending his debut feature. After having cut his teeth through a number of short and mid-length films such as The Gang and Fairytales, it's heartening to see confidence from studios in backing another local director making his leap into the feature. Sng's not resting on his laurels just yet, with another film primed for 2013, but for now, Taxi! Taxi! is that audience friendly mainstream movie that makes for a safe, entertaining calling card nonetheless.

Saturday, December 29, 2012


Money, Power, Women

Nobody plays a rich man these days in Hollywood with more suave than Richard Gere, and Arbitrage plays like a one man Margin Call, where there's the corporate wheelings and dealings, whether legal, illegal, or covered up, with profits and sole survivorship the highest of priority, but having one man which Wall Street heralds as an oracle, call the shots, versus the interaction of the board and its employees in the J.C. Chandor film. It's a tale of dirty little secrets here, with ourselves as witnesses to how the rich has the resources to get things done their way, even wriggling against a closing tide to try and shake off a manslaughter charge.

Gere plays Robert Miller, the head of an investment company which has been the darling of Wall Street for its stellar track record, and is on the verge of concluding a merger from another film. Everything's fine and dandy for Robert, as we see he has the impending deal which will make everyone a lot of money, a lovely family with wife Ellen (Susan Sarandon), son Peter (Austin Lysy) and daughter Brooke (Brit Marling) who also serve as executives in his company, and pretty much living it up with all the trappings that money can buy. But we soon learn he's pretty much of a hypocrite in life with a different set of moral values as expected, parting company with his family soon to celebrate his birthday with his artist mistress Julie (Laetitia Casta), who is getting a tad too demanding on this tycoon's time.

And when bad things happen, they happen one after another in quick succesion. Soon Robert finds himself having to fend off various upsets in his life. When gallivanting with his mistress, he gets into a car accident, escaping with bruised ribs and a cut on his forehead, but for Julie to meet her demise. Investigations led by Detective Michael Bryer (Tim Roth) seem to suggest he's close to nailing Robert, if not for the rich man's bevy of connections with people whom he can count on, from legal counsel readily available, to those whom he can be certain be relied upon to bail him out and keep their mouths shut. The spectre of doom also extended to his creative accounting in hiding losses from a bad investment, and an audit team sniffing around prior to conclusion of his merger deal. Then there's Brooke poking her nose around questionable cooks which puts her in a spot whether to reveal her findings or otherwise, and Robert's matrimony being put on the line as well.

Written and directed by Nicholas Jarecki, Arbitrage seemed to suggest that when there's money, there's going to be a way. And face it, nobody climbs to the top without breaking some egos, stepping on toes, and being street smart about survival of the fittest. With more resources, one becomes an automatic target especially if need to be made an example of, and to nick the public officials recognition in bringing down the perennial fat cats of the industry, making it a coup of sorts in the legal fraternity. It has morality put on display as we see how various individuals subscribe to varying degrees of grey, where decisions get made on what reaps maximum benefit to oneself, whether to repay a debt, or to put up with shenanigans just because.

Richard Gere hasn't been on the big screen for some time, but what a role to make a comeback in. He excelled in playing a man who has it all, and also showed the desperation at being on the cusp of losing them all should he fail to navigate his chessboard of opportunities and threats properly. Besides seeing how his character wriggled his way through the mounting problems, what I really enjoyed were moments involving straight business, where deals get conducted face to face with primary stakeholders, whether in their office, or over a meal in a restaurant, cutting through all the nonsense, and going with the mantra that people buy from people, period. Undoubtedly the star of the show, he single-handedly carried the film with his charisma from start to finish.

Production values are excellent for its relatively modest budget, and Arbitrage has the strength of its story to thank in being simple, yet engaging enough. There would be some who would root for Robert to get caught, tripping up on his smugness and arrogance, while there will be others who will root for his survival, because if in the same shoes, we'd be faced with similar moral decisions and would like to hope for the best given our own instincts kicking in. In any case, this makes compulsory viewing, especially if one is a fan of Gere, or a believer that money makes the world go round. An excellent character study, and a definite recommendation.

Parental Guidance

Here Comes the Grandparents

It's a Christmas movie, and what's a Christmas movie without the usual family comedy? This time it's three generations coming together, with the grandparents almost always undoing the upbringing principles that their children have instilled in their grandkids, making it a clash of values, and that all round fuzziness when issues get resolved amicably for that one good hurrah, with plenty of comedy along the way.

Billy Crystal last headlined a film in 2002 with Analyze That, and now a decade later this is a much anticipated comeback, with time added on his side to play a grandparent no less. His Artie Decker just got retrenched from his baseball announcer's job for being that dinosaur that he is, contrary to his club's forward looking ambition, and before the day got any worse, wife Diane (Bette Midler) decides to accept the reluctant invitation of their daughter Alice (Marisa Tomei) to babysit the children so that both she and husband Phil (Tom Everett Scott) can spend some time away.

That's basically the gist of the show and you'd come to expect plenty of the usual getting-to-know-yous, with Diane trying her best to make Artie and herself the best grandparents ever for Harper (Bailee Madison), Turner (Joshua Rush) and Barker (Kyle Harrison Breitkopf), discovering that the other set of grandparents had more mindshare given time spent with the kids, and have multitudes of photos on the mantle. So the objective is set, but connecting with kids, brought up in a very new-age manner, becomes a tall order for those with traditional, old-school methods. Making things a lot more challenging are the kids' respective issues - Harper being a high-strung, performance based violinist whose audition for an elite school is coming up, Turner stammers and is the school bullies' fodder, while Barker is that pesky little wildcard of a kid with an imaginary friend.

Given that it's something for the year end season and firmly with the intention of being family friendly, this is something which you would hark back to the good ol 80s and 90s comedies when making a comedy doesn't involve swearing, sex or gratuitous nudity. Although there is always room for a relatively mild poop joke or two. Most of it centered around the grandparents finding their way with the kids of today's generation, and trying very hard to bridge that gap, and of course well intention advice that you can bet will have a contrary effect.

But the story gets all heartwarming as you would expect it to, when its inherent message is about family and togetherness, with experience never a bad thing when therein lies knowledge in dealing with deficiencies and overcoming them. What's more, there seems to also be a message for parents to let their children be children, because after all, childhood only comes once, and the more "adult" stuff, can wait. I'm not sure if writers Lisa Addario or Joe Syracuse are baseball fans, but baseballs plays out very prominently in this film, both serving as elements in character backgrounds, and having a number of scenes set on a pitch.

Billy Crystal still shows that he has that comic timing in him, while Bette Midler just had to have a musical number put in somewhere in the film to exercise her vocal chords. There don't behave like the Fockers, but have their own charm as the grandparents. Marisa Tomei had a little extended screen time here being the mother who finds it difficult to let go, and also for the filmmakers to provide her a larger role than originally called for, to exercise that additional bigger name in the ensemble cast.

Parental Guidance played it safe, and kept itself in its namesake ratings territory, suitable for all ages and probably fun for entire families to watch it together, without any fun moment that will embarrass.

Won't Back Down

Morale Booster

Won't Back Down may sound like an apt title for an action film filled with bloodlust, but it's more civil, although it is about picking a fight and doing battle against establishment that had not benefited nor served the average man, or in this case, woman on the street, and those that it represents, protects, or serves. The USA centric storyline will require a little reading up on the background of the Parent Trigger Law passed in California, which allows parents to enforce overhauls in public school administration, and basically have a say in how things are run. This story is inspired by that, written by Brin Hill and director Daniel Barnz, to become a true underdog struggle.

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis headline the movie, playing the two interest groups that are affected broadly by change that's impending for the Adams Elementary school, where the former plays a single mom Jamie Fitzpatrick whose daughter Malia (Emily Alyn Lind) is enrolled in the school but being dyslexic, learns almost nothing but still got passed through the levels because frankly, nobody cares. Davis plays one of the many teachers in the school, but as Nona Alberts, she probably is the only teacher who cares about the proper education of her students, but is getting little support and attention. Add to that, she also has a son Cody (Dante Brown) who's a little bit slow to learn. Put two and two together, and joining forces, they would take on the administration, unions, and fellow teachers to try and convince everyone there's a better place they can elevate everyone's position to.

The film may seem to have an axe to grind with educational bureaucracy, since many characters on the other side are portrayed as emotionless, wanting to keep the status quo because rocking the boat doesn't serve their purpose (probably expanding their scope of work). The usual fat and lazy labels are easily applied to every bureaucrat, even making them take on the usual hiding behind the cloak of anonymity, or throwing arguments out the window because of technicalities, and the list goes on. Tasked to taking a stand publicly and individually, is probably in the fantasy fiction arena, but undoubtedly proving to be quite delicious an experience when things had to come to an explosive, though expected, conclusion.

And for those who are anti-establishment, you'd probably attest to the myriad of games and dirty tricks those in power will play, in order to squash ideas and ideals that are not to their advantage. Things like character assassination, coercion, threats made on livelihoods and jobs, and enticement with benefits to the leaders to give up the good fight and abandon the rest fighting for the same ideals. And if one is up against positions of power, then expect one's history to be scrutinized, and blotches made a mountain of. It will reveal character then, if one can stomach the good fight for something one believes in, or throw in the towel to back away, disappointing many in the process, especially those who had responded and heeded the call to assist.

Being a film, one will expect the usual Checkov's gun being cocked early and unleashed when required, providing meat into a subplot to show how deep the establishment's reach can get, especially when one is under threat. And the film is naturally never without a romantic angle, provided by another teacher at Adams Elementary (played by Oscar Isaac) who finds the time to romance the very busy Jamie Fitzpatrick, having to juggle a number of jobs, odd hours, attention paid to her daughter as well as to fight the good fight against social injustice. At times though, the pace and narrative needed tightening, as elements and scenes got introduced for the sake of adding some further depth to a character, without real necessity to do so, such as Nona's deeply buried history concerning her kid.

If looked from a bigger picture angle, Won't Back Down applies beyond the US school system context, and is often reflective of experiences of those fighting for causes they believe in, going up against a behemoth called the system, organization, or establishment that has resources and clout. It's a pure underdog story that could be enjoyed, even though it's about the dirty politics that get played out behind the scenes.

Friday, December 28, 2012



If I had watched this film no less than 5 years ago, I'd probably wouldn't think too much about Michael Haneke's Palme d'Or winning Amour, which made him one of an elite group of filmmakers who had won the top prize at the Cannes Film Festival at least twice (and within a span of three years too). But I suppose having to live through some of life's experiences, both pleasant and those that are not, would have opened up one's horizons, connect and identify with the many elements about terminal illness and suffering, love and the quality of life, being affected in more ways that I would have normally allowed.

As in most of the Austrian filmmaker's movies, this film centers around the characters of Georges (Jean-Louis Trintignant) and Anne (Emmanuelle Riva), an elderly couple whom we see are enjoying the twilight of their lives, and their companionship with each other, since daughter Eva (Isabelle Huppert) is away overseas most of the time. Unfortunately Anne suffers a stroke and more, rendering her paralyzed on one side, gradually relying on the primary care provided by Georges to get through day by day. And given Georges' age, being primary caregiver is also something of a challenge, and a stress both mentally and physically, having made a vow to Anne that he is adamant in keeping, of having no further hospital visits, or to put her in a home.

The many things that Haneke had put into his film are the hard truths revolving around the dedicated attention given to the patient, from things like feeding and the changing of diapers, doing the household chores which include enlisting the help of others in grocery shopping, to hardware requirements like the commode or the adjustable bed. There may be a certain level of shyness involved during cleaning up, and in every step of the way you want to maintain the dignity of the patient, because the last thing you want to do is to have a drop of morale. The deterioration is painful to witness, as Eva goes from having strength to being completely bedridden, with the ability of communication, a very key thing, taken away when speech impairment rears its ugly head, when therapy can only do so much. Haneke doesn't gloss over the necessary aspects of suffering, even if under the hands of uncaring home nurses, and probably introduced a little tinge of fear as one grows old, gets sick, and get put under the mercy of others.

Georges gets the periodic visits from his daughter, but you can almost feel a distant rift between the two each time they try to sit down and communicate. What Haneke's story and screenplay brilliantly acheived is to be able to say so much without saying much at all, directing the actors to bring out ideas and back-channel communication through their acting craft, making it a very fulfilling experience watching, and dissecting the human relations and condition in each of the characters, even when Eva had to spend most of her time in bed, and portraying the limited range of emotions a stroke patient can muscle together. Perhaps I too felt some guilt each time Eva returns home to check on the latest status of her mom and dad, as it mirrors how I would have loved to be able to do more, if not for modern day commitments, or what we would like to think of as commitments.

Being a Haneke film, we'd come to know some darker moments to sort of jump through when we least expected, especially so when the title is one as benign as Love in its many forms. While what was shocking wasn't something narratively new in films done by others, it still made one heck of an impact, lingering for some time which I thought was quite wicked, leaving things rich and open to post-screening debate. Haneke makes you work to come up with your interpretation of events, never telling you verbose details unnecessary to spoonfeed, preferring that you experience and take away something from it, though this was perhaps one of his less obtuse works.

What made this film was also the performances of Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva, who hardly put in a wrong foot. Trintignant returns to the big screen after an absence of 7 years, with a role specifically written for him, which he duly delivered. His Georges came across as heartbroken and exasperated rolled into one. Emmanuelle Riva may seem to have gotten the easier role having to be in bed, and sometimes absent for the most parts as Georges keeps her Anne locked away, but credit to her fine acting without having the need to over-act or over-compensate for the condition she has to flesh out. The make up department also deserves mention for being able to realistically age her on screen as well.

Amour continues in its winning of the minds of various critics and chalking up awards in the festival circuit, as well as year end accolades. It should be interesting if it does culminate in walking away with the Best Foreign Language Film oscar statuette next year. Recommended!

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Guillotines (血滴子 / Xie Di Zi)


If it's a movie about The Guillotines, then give me the damned Guillotines! For the uninitiated, The Flying Guillotine was a franchise of films during the good ol' Shaw Brothers martial arts hey days where it's a much feared weapon used to decapitate the heads of exponents unlucky to be in its path, and unskilled to deflect the ugly metal hat with bladed rim and chain. Rumoured to be a weapon used during the Qing Dynasty under Emperor Yongzheng, it's one of many famed weapons in kungfu flicks that's instantly recognizable, until this monstrosity came along.

Sure, we'd need an upgrade or two. After all, this is the age of digital effects, so the guillotine weapon is now completely CGed with a bit too much information, showing the implausible tech wizardry that goes on inside the weapon, now resembling a sickle-sword in two parts, one that contains the revolving, spinning wheel that hooks onto one's neck, extends a couple more mean looking blades, before a yank of a chain decapitates one's head. Do we get to see the full works? Yes, despite some censored bits, but considered that the best demonstration of the weapon comes in the first ten minutes, that's all about what you can see of a film whose title is the weapon. Bummer.

With no less than having six writers involved, you'd think at least one of them had the sense to make the utilization of the weapon a more frequent point in the film, especially when we have seven characters in a team, all of whom take up fanciful titles like a basketball team, operating like a dedicated SWAT platoon, headed by Leng (Ethan Juan). The story turned out to be convoluted, a classic case of having too many cooks involved in the brewing of the broth, and with desire to help director Andrew Lau concoct an Infernal Affairs equivalent of a martial arts story complete with twists and turns hinged on loyalty, brotherhood, and a whole lot of hidden agendas.

Emperor Yongzheng has the crack Guillotines team set up as a secret underground army of his to wipe dissent amongst the populace, and this continues during the reign of his son Qianlong, who is adamant in embracing modern technology and weaponry, and also to wipe this dark episode of a blot on his dynasty's rule. To do so, he has a sworn group of those whose astrological star signs are aligned to his, whom his father had dispersed through various arms in the government, such as Du (Shawn Yue), an Imperial agent, and even Leng himself. The main antagonist to his dynasty is Wolf (Huang Xiaoming), the head of the rebel Herders gang, who is Han and going around rousing support from the oppressed and disgruntled, and soon enough we have Leng and his Guillotines open the film with a big action sequence that may just be the final entertaining fight you'd see in the movie.

That's because with the embrace of guns and cannons, which boasts a far greater reach that the Guillotines infamous ability to kill within 10 steps (only), Qianlong is also keen to have new toys, and to do so, schemes to justify them while at the same time rid his rule of those who had served him, and his father, well. Opportunity comes when Leng's teammate Musen (Li Yuchun), who is also daughter of the Guillotines chief (played by the Master of the Flying Guillotine legend Jimmy Wang Yu in a non combat role, unlike in Wu Xia) gets kidnapped by Wolf, and during their rescue mission, has Du unceremoniously tagged along their quest.

Fine so far? Great, because everything else that came after is more talk than action. Soon we'd see Leng being more of a brooder than a man of decisive action, as each of the major characters begin to reveal true intentions, centered around what it means to be sworn to loyalty and brotherhood, yet being in a fix when required to perform execute someone else's dirty intent. There's opportunity for gratuitous massacre on screen just to up the body count, as the Guillotines crack team become more caricatures as the narrative moved along, rather than the feared team that operated in the shadows.

There's also a lot of The Last Samurai in this, given the very obvious guns and cannons versus sword fights and primitive weapons employed by the masses, in what would be an emperor's degree to wipe his enemies, that by the time this rolled out you'd know how everything would end, since Qianlong is after all very much one of the longest reigning monarchs in Chinese history, and all fantasy of rebels rewriting that, is zilch. The entire second half of the narrative also had Leng rescued by the enemy Wolf, and brought to see the light on what is the true meaning of peace and harmony, when living amongst those whom he had once sought to silence with his deadly spinning wheel at the drop of the hat through a decree by the courts.

Ethan Juan probably had it in his contract to shed a lot of tears and bawl like a crybaby in this one, while Shawn Yue, with Infernal Affairs tucked under his belt, performs in a similar capacity, albeit this time in a medieval get up. Huang Xiaoming's role was the most curious in the film, being almost messiah like, the chosen one seeking a way to lead his people out of misery, preaching his brand of politics and revolt through the many pockets of Han community still scattered around, and predicting his own untimely demise in what would be a necessary sacrifice he had foretold to bring about reconciliation. Even his make up and costuming looks traditionally messiah-like, although he held his own when non-violence doesn't seem to sway ideals.

It's probably about time that martial arts films inspired by those of old, stick to what made them genre in the first place. Nobody's quibbling if there's a solid story, but in trying to be intellectual and artificially raising philosophical examination, The Guillotines becomes a tired exercise attempting too hard to achieve something more cerebral, forgetting its entertainment aspect, and what had made its namesake famous in the first place, akin to the movie's Qianlong in attempting to wipe out what is remarkably cheesy in its mythos after having to ride on the goodwill of the franchise's coattails to have this made.

Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Les Misérables

Staring at the Castle in the Cloud

Director Tom Hooper charges ahead from his Oscar winner The King's Speech (and a personal favourite film in The Damned United), with an ambitious adaptation of Victor Hugo's Les Miserables, a story that has had countless of musical stagings, with most people holding dear to their favourite interpretation of characters and scenes. Boasting a stellar star studded A-list ensemble, Hooper's version has ingredients that makes it Academy Awards contender, although the challenge may seem to be getting audiences to embrace this glossy version made for the screen, which is never easy for something that's been around for more than three decades.

Set in 19th century France spanning decades, we follow the life story of the thief Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) through his time under duress serving hard labour under the watchful eyes of cop Javert (Russell Crowe), the latter adamant that the ol' leopard can never change its spots during the former's parole, only for Jean to be touched by religion when he was forgiven, and given a new lease of life to do good. And I guess you probably know the drill by now, that Jean goes on to be a successful businessman, still being pursued by Javert, encounters Fantine (Anne Hathaway) whom he saves, which the story going into the second chapter of saving Fantine's daughter Cosette (Isabelle Allen), before making another quantum leap when Cosette, now played by Amanda Seyfried, discovers true romance with Marius (Eddie Redmayne), who is part of the student leaders on the cusp of launching another revolution.

It's pretty much of an endurance marathon sitting through close to three hours, where unlike a musical or a stage play, you'd get an intermission. For starters it takes some getting used to, because every spoken word is sung (yes I know it's a musical) almost back to back, with the multitude of recognizable tunes from Work Song to Do You Hear The People Sing sung by the cast members, who have been put through singing lessons, otherwise one can guess how this would turn out if sounding less than professional. Hugh Jackman was fairly inconsistent in delivery, while Russell Crowe proved that he can't do this full time, since his Javert almost always came off quite one-note, and having a distinct lack of feel for the character. Anne Hathaway on the other hand, nailed it spot on with her I Dreamed a Dream, and is just about one of the best things in the film.

Film as a medium to present musicals have always been a fascinating journey, because of the characteristics that come with the medium. With film, it allows for expansive sets to be constructed, taking on a more three dimensional feel to the story telling since it's not just being on stage in front of you. Camera movement helps to provide spatial content, with jump cuts also producing an equivalent effect if necessary to move the narrative from location to location in double quick time.

But while the medium had opened up space, Hooper took on an intent to allow audiences a different experience, in putting us up close and personal with the performers. This is something one rarely gets in a staged musical because even the first row is a distance away. Hooper puts us just next to the characters with his plenty of close ups, that we probably get to see every facial expression and twitch as the characters express themselves through song. So once the actors open their mouths, we're put right there in the thick of the action, whether you'd like it or not. It makes for an engrossing watch, but for the quality art direction and lush production values to be appreciated, your eyes have to quickly dart around before the next musical number comes on.

You'd have your own personal favourite scenes from the musical, and I have three - with the three way romance between Cosette, Marius and Eponine (Samantha Barks) which is ever so brief but no less making a tremendous impact, having Jean Valjean go up against Javert in every instance to allow one to determine whether Hugh Jackman or Russell Crowe would fare better than the other when they sing, and the limited scenes in which Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter make their appearance as the thieving Thenardiers, providing comic relief for the very heavy themes and story line involving one man's redemption, rivalry, tragic romance, all against the backdrop of a student led armed revolt.

Not having the luxury of sitting through a live stage performance of this musical, Tom Hooper has done enough to drum interest to a level high enough to want to do so when Les Miserables comes to town the next time round. Meanwhile, make do with this lavish production meant for the screen, and be immersed in a world and story as first envisioned by Victor Hugo, and adapted from the Cameron Mackintosh musical. Recommended!

[Online] Curry Curry Christmas

Cougar Alert

Christmas is a time of good tidings,and given the growing commercialism surrounding it, it's easy to lose sight of the true meaning and the spirit of Christmas, which bodes opportunity for husband-wife team of Matthew Ing and Olivia Loh to come up with a family fantasy drama that examines pressures and expectations from within two Asian families, working with Bettermen Asia's Randy Ang who helms this telemovie for the new Mediacorp online video on demand and interactive broadcasting platform

Filled with familiar faces from local television and film, Curry Curry Christmas, despite its title, has little to do with cooking, or presenting a melting pot of cultures celebrating the season. Instead, it's set roughly about the time of the year, where two families have to work their internal differences and pressures amongst family members, dealing with traditions versus modernity, and having very real world scenarios serve as the catalyst where relations sour. Coincidentally this morning I was presented with a situation where the older generation was showing off their offspring and their offspring's offspring, wondering why I am not taking advantage of the carrots being dangled for not hooking up, getting that government apartment, and accumulating baby bonuses. But that's another story for another day, although it instantly put me in the shoes of some of the protagonists in the story.

Perhaps it's an Asian thing to want to compare, and largely this story deals with two different sets of mothers/in-laws having expectations of their children getting a life partner, and then proceeding to the next stage of giving them grandchildren, lots of them, in what would be trying to impose what they couldn't achieve, onto the next generation. The neighbours A-Mei (Catherine Sng) and Bhavna (Daisy Irani) play the two matriachs who have a lot of say in the story, and their draconian methods somehow become the cause of breakdowns that through the course of the film, all characters have to mitigate damage done. A-Mei constantly encourages her son James (Richard Low) and grandson Jonathan (Adam Chen) to find a partner to look after them before she's gone, and frowns upon their chosen ones with preconceived notions and set prejudices without getting to know those persons better. Equally old-fashioned is the mindset held by Bhavna that her son Ramesh (Gunalan Morgan) and daughter-in-law Aidah (Sonia Ratonel) quickly provide her with grandchildren. And to make things worse, Bhavna still holds onto the traditional attitudes and duties of a wife, which accelerates discontent amongst Ramesh and Aidah.

While there are two families here with issues to iron out, the narrative did feel a little bit lopsided toward the Indian family's plight, perhaps due to the "Curry Curry" titular nature. After all, Bhavna's husband Gopal (Subin Subaiah) is responsible for including special curry powder brought from a remote ashram in India, which is the special fantasy ingredient in his Curry Curry Paradise famous samosas that makes people open their eyes and hearts, and to some, serve as the additional mojo that ignites red hot passion. This side of the family also scored one of the best scenes in the film, where Bhavna and Aidah butt it out confrontational style with the latter finding it incredulous that the former had the cheek to spell out things like tradition, culture, duty, responsibility and obligation in very old fashioned terms that she'd expect her daughter-in-law to adhere to, especially Filial Payment. "In an Indian family you marry the son, and the family too!". Ouch!

And to bring the story to feature film length there were the smaller subplots that somehow didn't make as much of an impact, such as the on-off romantic entanglement between Jonathan and his older-aged boss Ruth (Constance Song) who comes with a reputation of having a thing for younger male associates in the company, Ramesh's dance studio business which had a dopey Caucasian (Patrick Kinghorn) of an Internet sensation, blessed with groovy moves, helping out with pulling in more women to enrol, and also to up the comedic ante. On the emotional flipside, Ramesh has one more story arc involving his attempts to try and persuade Uncle Choo (Vincent Tee), an ex pawnshop owner who knows kung-fu, to part with a ring that belongs to Aidah's mom, being the last and most treasured artefact Aidah has of her. But as much as this should have been utterly moving, this somewhat turned out to be void of genuine feelings as the scenes dragged out for far too long, losing emotional resonance with each line of dialogue that involved a character created out of sheer convenience.

Technically, the cinematography here tended to play it safe for a family drama, with the usual tracking shots employed by the same school of thought here that's seen in most telemovies. Sound however was inconsistent at segments, especially during outdoor scenes, but shouldn't perturb the casual viewer since dialogues were clear. One may have thought since this was streaming from a website that quality may have been compromised, but for what it's worth I'm on a fibre connection, and streaming from local sites should be fine without the expected lags from buffering. Sylvia Ratonel lends her vocals for the theme song First Love, which is memorable. will screen this again on their channel at 9pm tonight, and again on New Year's Day at 5pm on Channel 5. The film's runtime is approximately 100 minutes, before having the rest of its two hour timeslot filled with some behind the scenes clips.

Monday, December 24, 2012

[Online] BooksActually: The Documentary

Borders had come and gone, while Books Kinokuniya remains one of the largest, if not the largest commercial book store in Singapore. But then there is BooksActually flying its independent flag from the Tiong Bahru neighbourhood now, where once it was moving around the city centre, and is possibly the last dedicated brick and mortar bastion championing local literature, amongst other obscure and critical literary works from around the world. Avid readers here will probably know where the quaint little bookstore actually is, otherwise here's a map for your navigation:

Founded by Kenny Leck and Karen Wai, BooksActually: The Documentary tells the story of the entrepreneurs' struggles and their beginnings, to what the store is actually today, complete with its spin offs such as their publishing arm Math Paper Press, and their stationery brand Birds & Co, where you can get beautiful hand-stitched notebooks. You cannot learn better than from the horses' mouths direct, in talking heads styled interviews conducted with the founders, as well as staff, friends, supporters and suppliers, giving their own perspective to what makes BooksActually tick, and rock.

One may question the objectivity of such a documentary, after all, one of the executive producers is Leck himself, but I guess that embodies the indie spirit, of not sitting and mucking around waiting for things to happen, but to take things into one's own hands, and get out there to create opportunities. And going by the various focus areas that BooksActually got itself into, such as publishing and stationery making, there is no lack of ideas or the will to fulfilling niche chances, for survival through varying revenue streams, as well as to grow the business.

And that also extended to being a platform, or a venue, for book launches, book readings, meet-the-author sessions, and a whole lot of other activities as can be seen from its busy Calendar of Events. Step inside the shop, and you'll be amazed that it's a space that's tranquil for the avid reader, or the newbie, to be amongst the esteemed company of authors from far and wide, in a place decorated with trinkets from days past. I guarantee that besides browsing the shelves for books, your eyes will roam the premises for the many knick-knacks found scattered around, which were beautifully captured by the filmmakers here.

But it's not all fine and dandy, with the independent route being a tough one in forging one's own destiny, especially in a place like land-scarce Singapore where small tenants are forever at the mercy of landlords / landowners, and dependent on the goodwill of the supply chain. And this film has no lack of interviewees, from content producers to suppliers who provide testament to various issues highlighted as stumbling blocks, to provide a more expansive narrative, in addition to also keeping it focused as the introductory 101 to BooksActually, kept to under an hour (and making it suitable for an hour's broadcast if necessary).

What this documentary serves to offer, is that behind the scenes look into the brief backgrounds of the founders, their motivations, the collective tenacity of the team which brought them to where they are today, and their continued struggle to keep BooksActually afloat despite challenges coming from various directions - limited resources, rent, and competition from other bookstores both traditional and those online. The film also provided that slight glimpse into the state of the publishing industry here through nuggets of information fed by those from the industry, while serving to highlight that the local writing community can be proud to have a location that has grown a foothold in championing local literature, sharing the same never-say-die attitude to have a worthy, local voice heard.

You can view the entire 41:36 documentary from Vimeo:

And for a bricks and mortar company, there sure do have an impressive web presence. Click on some of the links below to learn more, but equally important is to make that trip down to the shop, and check it out yourself if you haven't done so. Here's a map in case you need directions on how to get there.

Related Links
- BooksActually Website
- Birds & Co Website
- Math Paper Press Website
- BooksActually Facebook Page
- For those on Twitter
- The Blog of BooksActually

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Intouchables

This is The Life

Just as how Jack Neo's Ah Boys to Men Part 1 finally took over the box office crown held by Money No Enough more than a decade ago, so did Intouchables take over the French box office equivalent from the quirky comedy Amelie, which was the champ over about the last decade. As the French entry for the Oscar's Best Foreign Film picture next year, I was glad I held out against watching this while on a flight, patiently waiting for it to make its big screen bow here, which it finally did outside of the 2nd Rendezvous of French Cinema earlier this month.

There were many moments that made it so easy for me to identify with the movie, especially coming from caregiving, which is never an easy thing to do. Those who have never done it, I'm talking about full time, real time, on the job alertness, and doing everything you can to make things comfortable for the other party. There's no Off button you can use, and anyone in this for full time employment, gets my utmost respect. And watching how the characters here go about their routine, bring back memories that are forever dear to me, and needless to say, these routines and close contact interaction, bring about a new level in relationships.

Lifting someone up from bed in back-breaking fashion, it brings new meaning to "He ain't Heavy, He's my Father". Tucking someone into bed. Did that too. The gloves for the toilet visit, nothing new, gross that it may be at first. Wheeling someone out to soak in sights and sounds outside of one's home, well, it may be the most inconvenient, but seeing someone's face light up for the rare trip out, is priceless. And these life-affirming, relationship building events may seem to stem from mundane tasks, and tasks we take for granted, such as bathing or just sheer presence to interact without distraction, but to the physically infirm, it means the world.

And this is what The Intouchables is about, the story of two men thrown together by fate in what would be an employer-employee relationship that develops into firm friendship, a bromance even if you'd like. Inspired by a true story, Francois Cluzet plays the rich aristocrat Philippe, who is quadriplegic from the neck down from a paragliding accident, and has to rely on an army of helpers and assistances to get through every day. But his primary caregiver never lasts more than a week, given his rather stiff (pardon the pun) ways, until Driss (Omar Sy), a young man with not the most polished resume - he responded to the ad just to chalk up mileage to get welfare - gets hired despite verbally crossing swords during the interview, and soon, a bet turns into what's life-changing for them both, bringing out the best in each other.

You can half expect writer-directors Olivier Nakache and Eric Toledano's story to contain the usual clash of cultures and background, with one refined in the arts and the other being quite the rough and gruff, obviously no time to enjoy the finer things in life when one has to worry about bringing home the bacon for an extended family, with trouble brewing when members trying to stay in line with the law. But their story is tinged with so much sensitivity and truth, that it's hard to quibble with the loads of humanity on display, going by the adage that one shouldn't judge a book by its cover, or by one's background or resume. One may be rich, but getting someone else to wait on you, even if providing him or her with a comfortable life, is a different ballgame altogether, especially when one is not kin or kith.

But throughout the story, one cannot deny that life can still go on quite comfortably in a material way, with wealth on display, and if there's a minor grouse about this, is how old money gets flaunted around, with Meseratis and private jets being part of the arsenal to enjoy life. Then again, this is part of the true tale, so it's not debatable. Not forgetting the extended ensemble cast of assistants in the form of Yvonne (Anne Le Ny) and Magalie (Audrey Fleurot) amongst others who pepper the scenery, the former serving to fill in the blanks for Driss as he tries to gather background, while the latter coming in as an object for Driss' romance, with a little surprise up in store.

There's no qualms The Intouchables is a delight to sit through, being a story of hope and friendship. And in some ways, even for the most able amongst us, this is a tale that reminds us of the importance of humour, which is medicine enough to get us through some of the toughest situations we'll encounter from time to time. Both Francois Cluzet and Omar Sy put in amazing performances, and their delivery of their characters, screen charisma and banter, are more than reasons enough to catch this. A definite recommendation!

388 Arletta Avenue

Somebody's Watching Me

Just when you thought the first person perspective, found/edited footage films can no longer reinvent itself, having possibly adapted itself to all kinds of film genres suitable for the medium, writer-director Randall Cole throws in one more into the hat, and quite brilliantly it's got to do with home invasion, being acutely that of privacy, which will irk even the most liberal amongst us, feeling icky that someone else has total coverage over everything about our lives, obviously without authorization. But its smartness stretched out its luck a little too far, and what began as an interesting premise soon gave way to implausibilities that tanked the entire story.

The cast list is pretty impressive though, centering around the couple James and Amy, played by Nick Stahl and Mia Kirshner respectively. But what we learn of their lives come courtesy of a stalker who voyeurs into their titular house, from a car inconspicuously parked on an opposite road. Armed with a recorder equipped with zoom lens and a directional microphone, we get to see, and hear, the couple's every move, and gain knowledge about their state of affairs and backgrounds.

Yes, the filmmaker has put us into the shoes of the perpetrator, and honestly it gets quite addictive as we listen in through more cameras and more microphones, no thanks to the perp gaining entry into their home, and mounting more hidden cameras, which extended to places like their car, and office computer. That's when things got stretched a little too far, as the film started to believe in its own arrogance, that it failed to work within its own constraints set up by the premise, and had to have you accept its brand of logic, making it from a premise that's possible and real (and therefore identifiable), to film fantasy.

The plot quickens after a while of static camera shifting, and this happens very frequently due to different cameras mounted at various vantage points around the house, that made the presentation one big channel surf by an attention deficit disorder sufferer. And this betrays the wafer thin plot about how Amy goes missing, and James being the wreck when he cannot locate his wife, relying on one of his suspects, Bill (Devon Sawa), to help get down to the bottom of things, and with Amy's sister Katherine (Krista Bridges) breathing down James' neck, suggesting that he has something to do with Amy's disappearance.

The brilliance came only in the last ten minutes, offering a reveal that we'd already know of, and making us aware of the shoes we've been stepping into the entire time. It offers an ending that's open to more follow up films, but unless the story takes precedence, this is going to languish in gimmicky territory despite a brilliant start. It's a gem of a genre waiting to be polished further, which is a pity it wasn't done so in time for this feature film to make its necessary impact.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Dabangg 2

Hud Hud

The arrogant swagger is back, and there's no reason not to strike while the iron is hot. A phenomenal success in 2010 that once again cemented Salman Khan's box office clout than never before, leading to a string of blockbuster after blockbuster, Dabangg 2 turned out to be fun in most parts, but overall it didn't feel that it pulled off the charm of the original, even with most of the cast returning for a second outing. Written by Dilip Shukla and this time directed by Salman's brother Arbaaz Khan, who also plays his screen brother, Dabangg 2 is that sequel that tried to emulate its predecessor for the most parts, and didn't manage to bring something new to the table.

As the saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. So despite the film's Robin Hood aka Chulbul Pandey (Salman Khan) being transferred to the big city that he wanted to where we last left off, we find him in the city of Kanpur, where his adventures seemed to mirror that from his original outing. He continues to bring his small town sensibilities and police force corruption aka welfare fund donation modus operandi to his new station, with nothing less than a big bang entrance and obligatory effects laden fight to whet the audience's appetite for more to come.

The opening credits recapped most of the key scenes from the first film, before you get to hear the rehashed Hud Hud Dabangg track that's reworked for this sequel in Dabangg Reloaded. And in fact there are a couple of tunes here that sounded like upgrades from those in the earlier film, with a conscious decision to adapt and update to achieve a kind of aural link between the movies. Which was unnecessary, but felt that it provided a consistent sound, and feel, that we're in the same consistent world the characters are in. And not to mention an opportunity to continue from the previous songs too. There's the item number with the policemen getting rowdy in celebration, a night out to the sleazy alleys where Kareena Kapoor turned up in the Item Number Fevicol, and a couple of romantic ballads to reinforce that Chulbul is still very much in love with his wife Rajjo (Sonakshi Sinha).

The relationships with his father Prajapati (Vinod Khanna) and brother Makki (Arbaaz Khan) have vastly improved given the end of the previous movie, now brought over here for completist sake, with the former being comedy fodder, and the latter obviously given a smaller role since Arbaaz is now at the helm behind the camera. The focus in this installment is centered upon family, with a significant number of scenes dealing with Chulbul and his relationships with each family member, whether making fun of dad, being lovey dovey with wife, or ribbing his brother, who's in his own marital rut. There's a new addition, though I felt it was hastily developed for the final act, just to give Chulbul reason enough to unleash hell.

The drama though served as a counterpunch in trying to save the film. While Chulbul Pandey is fearless, or Dabangg, family and the threat of having them harmed, somewhat blunted his approach for a bit, leaving him to think about loved ones, rather than to charge headlong with gusto to right the wrongs, and to deliver his brand of no-nonsense justice, often ending up with a villain's death through rough-handling, or via Chulbul's accuracy with a firearm. Don't expect ultra violence here, since the violence dished out by the hero continues in its cartoony style, and Salman being Salman, you will expect a ripped shirt for the sake of, sending his admirers and supporters into thunderous raptures.

What served to be disappointing is the lack of a strong villain in this one. We know how powerful Chulbul Pandey is, so it's important to get a credible villain who could hold his own as an equal. Here, there are three brothers who serve as the sequel's primary antagonists, led by Prakash Raj who plays Baccha Singh. But Raj, the fine actor that he is, cannot seem to break out of his usual negative triad leader role he had held on from his Singham days (also a cop movie), which in a way was too close for comfort with Singham and the earlier Dabangg film. If anything, there's a curious link between gangsters and politicians, and the corruptness that flows being the two groups, with one aspiring to become the other, and bringing about lawlessness to the wards they promise to look after.

Dabangg 2 still retains most of the formula of what made the first film work, with some cheeky wink-wink jokes for fans thrown in for good measure. But it's a real pity that structurally it was Dabangg all over again, for another outing. It's fun, but could have been a whole lot more. Oh, and do look out for Salman's new dance move that will likely be the talk of the town, involving that belt buckle hook and dance of his that's taken on a new, impossible, though crowd pleasing twist. Watch this with a rowdy bunch of fans for maximum impact!

Thursday, December 20, 2012

Wreck-It Ralph

The Best Wrecker!

Think of this film as the electronic gamer geek's equivalent of Pixar's Toy Story, where the characters in the games come alive in their respective consoles when all the humans in the arcade had gone for the day. Traversing one another's world through electronic means such as cables, switches and control stations, those of us who had grown up in the 80s and 90s will find this a nostalgic wet dream come true, with countless of easter egg style appearances of famous games we had once played growing up, peppered with characters whom we had once upon a time commandeered through countless of adventures against the on board computer's AI, defeating scores of enemies that usually don't possess too much intelligence, bring programmed to be repetitive, or at best increasing its speed and response in order to force us into conceding the token used to activate the game.

Ah, those were the days, which were vividly relived in how Wreck-It Ralph took time and effort in capturing those 8-bit gaming heydays. The story centers around the titular Ralph (voiced by John C. Reilly), the default villain in the Fix It Felix Jr. game, where he wrecks a condominium because its developers had unceremoniously booted him out of his favoured slack spot, only for the hero Felix (Jack McBrayer) to come along, repair the damage with his magic hammer, and boot Ralph from the rooftop. You can imagine if these characters are real, just how dead end the job is, especially when accolades go to the hero, while you the villain remain forgotten, or largely ignored, just because well, you're the bad guy. Ralph has done this for 30 years, and in his rare appearance in the Villains' Annonymous meeting chaired in Pac-World, he confides his desire to be admired and appreciated instead, only to be earnestly advised by the likes of Street Fighter's Zangief (director Rich Moore himself) and Zombie (Raymond S. Persi), that what matters is what's inside, not labels.

And truly that's the simple message that goes out to the audience of various ages, the older ones here to witness Toy Story in an electronic environment, while the younger ones undoubtedly charmed by the colours and designs that resemble one big arcade game that comes with different default built-in games for the variety on display, be it the violent first person shooters in outer space, a saccharine sweet car racing game with all female competitors, or the good old 8-bit styled games where the characters' motion isn't that smooth, to reflect the lack of refinement and limited technology in games that we grew up with. The story is surprisingly very much layered, with multiple easy to follow sub-plots that deals with Ralph's search for acceptance, his acquaintance with Vanellope (Sarah Silverman), an outcast like himself for her being the glitch in her world, and his friendship with Felix, and not forgetting the threatening adversaries that come in the form of a fast-breeding bug, a crazed King Candy (Alan Tudyk) that was more than meets the eye, and from the real world, the danger of having one's game labelled Out-of-Order.

The filmmakers here, with first time feature director Rich Moore at the helm, had built a world complete with the necessary rules befitting of something that exists online. If one's game is Out of Order, then the characters will be forced to abandon it and live as nomads of sorts in electronic limbo, or go out permanently with the game. And mortality is reminded again through Sonic the Hedgehog's announcement that if they were to perish in someone else's game world, they will perish permanently. It may be sombre-sounding, but with Moore having cut his teeth from Futurama and early Simpsons episodes, these are naturally masked with a sense of wit and humour, with a story geared toward an encouraging theme of learning to accept and being oneself, and not doing things to seek the approval of others. And the partnership between Ralph and Vanellope is set to endear, despite them being loggerheads when they first start out. I suppose it helps when one of them is a hulking giant with impossibly huge hands, and the other being the wide-eyed child who defies her world's establishment bent on disallowing her to partake in a race. You can see why they click, being outcasts of their own world, put together in an Us versus Them situation.

The characterization here is primarily what makes this film stand out, and many can identify with Ralph during times of insecurity, or having that yearn to belong and feel accepted. And perhaps this film inspires us a little that despite how we look on the outside, it doesn't really matter so long as we stay true. You'd come to admire the effort to clear rights and put in iconic characters from the days of old computer games, and it's certainly a hoot to imagine them up to something else outside of what they were built or programmed for, with the filmmakers throwing a challenge to everyone in trying to identify the multitude of characters and games they had put in to pay homage to. This alone begs multiple viewings just to roam the corners of the vast landscape painted, to spot something that others may not have already, and call it in.

Wreck-It Ralph has everything, from themes of friendship, romance, action, comedy, mystery, and an incredibly moving ending that makes it a surefire winner. I'm going to stick my neck out and put my vote behind this as the best animated film this year to have come out of the Hollywood machinery, with plenty of heart and soul even if the characters are supposed to be made up on bits and bytes. With a little bit of luck since the environment has been set, perhaps we may even see a sequel or two (hopefully not direct to video) for further adventures of this big friendly giant.


The short animated film Paperman that precedes Wreck-It Ralph is a joy to behold and watch, so make sure you're not late for the screening. It's a romantic film that has a lot to do with serendipity and chance, and how through a little Disney inspired magic, two strangers who met each other earlier in the day, get to come together again thanks to paper aeroplanes. There's hardly any line of dialogue, but there's plenty of emotion put in here together with a labour of love that makes this a tough one to beat, holding its own against feature length heavyweights, thoroughly moving with plenty of feeling.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Jack Reacher

What Ryan Can Do, I Can Too

Jack Reacher is written to be quite the physical giant, so when Tom Cruise got interested in the character, many would not have fathomed that Cruise himself would take the role, although I felt it was probably one of the best ways to get author Lee Child's famous investigator onto the big screen by none other than one of the biggest stars Tinseltown has to offer. Written for the screen and directed by Christopher McQuarrie, Jack Reacher the film, based upon Child's book One Shot, is a solid investigative drama dealing with a sensitive issue of today with a sniper's seemingly random shooting, and you should know better than to trust the marketers on their treatment of this film.

With Drop The Lime's State Trooper track pulsating with the Camaro's engine roar, together with plenty of fisticuffs as thrown by Cruise's Reacher, one will be forgiven to think that this is an action film thanks to the trailer. Granted there are action set pieces, they are not the showcase of the movie. Instead it's quite old school in its treatment, dead serious yet punctuated with moments of wry wit, backed with a genuine whodunnit mystery. Like Cruise's other films in A Few Good Men and even The Firm, his protagonist must uncover the mystery to why he's being called by the accused, Barr (Joseph Sikora), whom everyone automatically thought he was a friend, and to carefully navigate through murky waters with yet to be revealed villains adamant in sending him back to the shadows where he came from, or to frame him up so that he's out of commission.

But the best in the business aren't known as the best for nothing. Reluctantly hired by Barr's defence attorney Helen (Rosamund Pike) to become her investigator, we follow Jack Reacher as he conducts the ABCs of investigations - assuming nothing, believe nobody, and checking everything. No stone got left unturned as McQuarrie's screenplay gets you hook, line and sinker, drawn deep into trying to unravel the Why and the Who involved in this relatively complex piece of intrigue, and how it's pure bad luck that the antagonists have to grapple with Reacher's unique skillset, which almost bordered on a parody of Taken when he gets in conversation with the bad guys.

Reacher's modus operandi, and investigative skills and techniques would be what will draw the crowds hungry for this genre of film. It's an investigative drama through and through, with hypotheses and theories readily thrown up for deeper examination, which some may be quick to dismiss as convenience, but it's antagonist screw-up mostly. These naturally introduce us to the supporting cast who aid, or get in the way, of Reacher's investigations, and allows for the appearance of Robert Duvall, whose charisma in a bit role just chews up the scenery. It's the story here that's engaging, because there's zilch development character wise, where we don't get to see how Reacher develops into the tough guy he is, nor be bothered too much with it. Most times Tom Cruise just continued being Tom Cruise, which is inevitable because little is done to try and get him behind the Jack Reacher persona, but we're not complaining.

For those who find investigative dramas a little bit dry, there's no lack of action sequences that mattered, with a few that stood out, such as the very first time we see Reacher take on five thugs, in Spider-Man-ish style complete with very dark and wisecracks, before putting his military training and background to good use. It's no nonsense, and frankly quite methodical in his choice of martial arts, going for the jugular, or to inflict massive pain to demoralize opponents, than to waste time horsing around. Then of course there's the finale which mixed things up a lot to offer action fans a buffet of experiences, combining sniper with melee, firearms and martial arts, with some self-deprecating down-out-of-luck moments.

Despite having Rosamund Pike as the female lead, there's little romance thrown up in the story, unlike most other Hollywood films of such nature. Pike's presence as Helen the attorney felt nothing more than a little plot necessity in having to reach into Jack Reacher's thought process, and allow him someone with whom he can debate and bounce ideas off, versus having to talk to himself, or worse, for a movie, talk to nobody, or having a narration throughout. It's a pity her character served as pretty much the mouthpiece of the conspiracy, helping audiences piece stuff together in quite verbose terms when the need calls for it.

Still, I'm giving this a wholehearted recommendation, with the likes of Richard Jenkins, David Oyelowo and even director Wener Herzog himself lending star power to the film in a rare appearance as an actor. This may be the start of a promising franchise that Tom Cruise could be getting himself involved in, and it certainly does enough as a first film introduction to the famous Lee Child character, who will clearly garner more fans to pick up the books, compare the film and literary versions, and maybe devour the further adventures already available in print.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

CZ12 (十二生肖 / Shi Er Sheng Xiao)


My generation grew up with Jackie Chan movies, where we would be eagerly anticipating his once a year blockbuster release usually around the Lunar New Year period. The draw would of course be his brand of action, consisting of death defying stunts all executed by himself, to varying degrees of success as captured in the end credit outtakes, to the all round family entertainment that is sans sex and swearing. Then Hollywood came knocking, and the inevitable happened - Jackie Chan grew older, and sane enough to slow things down a couple of notches. But there goes the usual charm, which of course no one will berate him for, after giving his prime to entertaining the masses round the world.

No longer the usual one man hero / one man show in his films, his characters become the team leaders, rather than operating in lone wolf fashion, and in some ways, nurturing fresh faces amongst his troupe to do things the JC way, continuing his brand of action-filmmaking. He had arguably made his 100th film with 1911, and with his latest release in CZ12 (Chinese Zodiac 12), you could sense the very obvious slowdown, and less risk taking involved, which culminates in a less than enjoyable audience experience, sad to say, when he tries hard to compensate with an increase in drama and story, which is perfunctory at best for the action sequences to surface.

Wearing multiple hyphenated hats, probably the most in a feature film, having a hand in everything from producing, directing, writing, lensing, deciding on art direction, and the list goes on. Perhaps having to wear too many hats may have diluted his focus and responsibilities in a lot of areas, resulting in what would be a very lackluster Jackie Chan movie by his standards. The usual comedy he puts in are very tired and unfunny, and the stunts give way to some obvious wire work, and a hint at stand-ins which once upon a time would be unthinkable. Perhaps it is these high standards he had already set, that he's woefully unable to achieve, being also bogged down by the latest technology buzz to replace practical effects with CG ones as much as possible.

The story is simple, with Jackie Chan playing JC, a mercenary Indiana Jones type thief for hire, operating with a lean crew (Zhang Lanxin, Kwone Sang-Woo, and Liao Fan) and often posing as a National Geographic journalist. They get assigned by an unscrupulous auction house to steal what would be the bronze heads of the Chinese Zodiac statues, which in the late 19th century sat pretty in a Chinese palace already demolished by the invading Western forces. So he goes jet-setting round the globe to recover these artifacts for the wrong reasons of personal profit, before being told off and influenced by a group of well meaning lobbyists whose objective is to convince owners of any antiques and national treasures, to return them to where they rightfully belong.

I won't even go into too much specifics of the story, because it conveniently introduces characters, from a Chinese woman (Yao Xingtong) working in France, to a French lady (Laura Weissbcker) whose ancestor happen to be one amongst many to have laid eyes on the treasures in China, and helped himself to plundering for profit, including being shipwrecked, which leads the merry crew to an abandoned island where perhaps one of the longest, and most uninspiring set action pieces takes place. Granted this film has got its fair share of investors, it's a little bit of a scrimping felt when this entire sequence was sound-staged, with stunts that try to look dangerous when it's obvious there's no degree or hint of risk. A bunch of multi-lingual, multi-cultural pirates enter the scene as adversaries, and I tell you it's one of the most tedious sequences in the entire film, contributing to the tremendous sag in pace at the halfway mark.

The highlights though were the first sequence involving Jackie Chan in what would be a suit of skates, nimbly escaping from soldiers as he weaves in and out through pursuing vehicles, and the quintessential warehouse setting that serves as a villains lair of sorts, which allows for all hell to break loose, and for the man to do battle against a whole host of adversaries, giving opportunity to perform his usual bag of circus acrobatics that have become the hallmark of his career. It's vintage JC just in that segment. And in what would be a case of too many endings, the finale involving a sky-diving fight on approach to an active volcano, is again something of a letdown, given the lack of sophistication in masking and refining its movie magic moments (the outtakes will show just why the hunger and appetite for risk is no longer there).

Running just over 2 hours, CZ12 would have benefitted if the pace was tighter, and trimmed without many unnecessary moments that dragged and bloated the thin storyline, be it the light comedy that tried too hard to be funny, action that became repetitive after a while, or the chest-thumping, nationalistic moments with characters exalting their motherland, and preaching from a morale high ground of obligation to seek and retrieve national treasures from the hands of greedy museums and private collectors. It may be amusing for a bit, but too much of something just becomes a little bit abhorring.

CZ12 is full of excessive moments, which I think is natural for JC the filmmaker to have had become a little over self-indulgent with his latest effort. A slew of cameos from Oliver Platt, Shu Qi and Daniel Wu, amongst others like Jonathan Lee, were sought to spice up the ensemble cast especially in the dying moments trying to sweeten the deal, but these add to nothing other than a distraction from fans from what is a rather dull action-adventure. It's one thing going out on a blaze of glory, and another fading into the sunset. Even the usually interesting end credit outtakes of a typical Jackie Chan movie, didn't manage to last to the end, and had little to show for effort put into this film.
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