Friday, June 29, 2012

The Amazing Spider-Man in IMAX 3D

Teenagers In Love

Sam Raimi finally got his vision of Spider-Man up and running some 10 summers ago, and followed that up with two more sequels, the last which of course brought out some mixed reviews, especially when it went against conventional wisdom and stuffed it full of villains, and a number of mind numbing scenes involving Peter Parker's cross to the dark side, and for some reason wanted Mary Jane Watson to feature her non existent singing voice. Collectively they all made a lot of money at the box office, but a reboot was mooted to try and wipe away bad memories like those. And unfortunately Raimi and team had to bid farewell, and the friendly neighbourhood wall-crawler was up for creative grabs once again.

Does the character warrant a reboot in what would be just 5 years since his last cinematic outing? And of all persons, Marc Webb, whose credit to date was only the excellent (and was my film of that year) in (500) Days of Summer? If what Webb had established as his vision now for the character moving forward, then it's an affirmative YES. What made The Amazing Spider-Man work, simply put, was his relentless focus on the central characters of Peter Parker (Andrew Garfield) and finally, his first true love Gwen Stacy (played by Emma Stone, taking over the mantle from Bryce Dallas Howard's short stint in Raimi's last Spidey film), and like how he did it in (500), had revolved it around their love story. And boy, did it work wonders for the story, and held everything else together like glue. Webb can take a bow for a job well done, even if there were nerves felt from an expectant audience when his name was first announced to helm this film.

And the nerves were also felt when Andrew Garfield took over the hot seat from Tobey Maguire, and frankly, I would never have thought Garfield as the right person for the job. But I'm glad that he had proven me wrong, just as how Webb had unequivocally stated that we haven't seen nothing yet with what Garfield can do with the role. He morphed into Peter Parker the shy lad, like hand in glove, and then transformed into the heroic Spider-Man sans mask, straddling and struggling with his dual identities just as how any scrawny teenager would if to be blessed (or cursed) with new found abilities, highlighting awkwardness and the building of confidence to perfection. Webb knew exactly what he was looking for in a leading man and allowed plenty of emotional engagement and attachment to Garfield's Peter, with Garfield proving him right, and now carries the superhero mantle with aplomb, nailing it as an unlikely hero.

Then there's Emma Stone as Gwen Stacy, equally important as the romantic fodder for Peter Parker, and this update had given us a leading lady character who has beauty and brains combined, together with a degree of spunk that Mary Jane Watson in the previous three films had lacked, with the latter falling prey in each and every installment that it was getting pretty tired. Stone has proven to carry an entire film on her own, and here shares incredible chemistry opposite Garfield to make them that cute couple in school who have to battle the pangs of first love, and not only having to deal with that strong emotion, but loss as well. While that Maguire-Dunst upside down tongue gymnastics is something hard to beat, Garfield-Stone do have their little romantic stunt that adds a degree of fun that each of Raimi's version lacked. Which is a good thing especially when trying to sway over the nay-sayers.

I suppose almost everyone out there will know what to expect already from an origin movie, and James Vanderbilt's story kicks off into high gear from the get go, weaving and setting a new stage and universe in which this version of Spider-Man will thrive under, with Oscorp being that scientific conglomerate headed by an unseen, but constantly mentioned Norman Osborn, and having the mythos deeply involving the corporation, opening doors to possibilities that any subsequent film can cover, especially with that end credits scene. It also picked up from the Batman Begins template in a number of areas, but I'm not complaining because it's all good to successfully reboot the franchise, adapting elements from its comic book source which serve as canon, but giving it a different angle that maintains the spirit of things and events, even key ones like Uncle Ben's demise that truly shaped the destiny of the wall-crawler.

As always with the Spider-Man mythos, Peter Parker deals more with loss, and loses more than he's won, and having that retained in the film made it venture down a darker road, and being more vulnerable. And going back to basics never hurt, with one single villain in Dr Curt Connors (Rhys Ifans) as the Lizard, even if an army of Lizards were hinted at from merchandise, and keeping/hinting at others who may appear in subsequent movies. The villain-hero set up was reminiscent of the second Raimi film with Peter Parker and Dr Octopus sharing a connection before the latter went bonkers, and provided yet again another battle on the emotional front. The Lizard may be lesser known, but is a powerful foe that audiences may have already been primed for from Raimi's films if they were to do a little research on the recurring Connors character then.

Action wise, Webb had gotten excellent material from the comics and clearly dipped into them for inspiration, with Spidey's iconic poses and movement all making it into the film, coming off as poetry in motion. This was something that the earlier Spider-Man films had paled in comparison, with action sequences all being more kinetic in treatment, utilizing a whole slew of Spider-abilities. And the mechanical web shooters weren't all that bad, since again it went back to basics to showcase Parker's intellect, if only for a short while during a montage as does showing off his sewing skills. Webbing plays a big role in being the arsenal of choice, and the variation shown in this film is staggering, with the previous films never even coming close to how this Spider-Man excelled in fighting with them. And with those webshooters, you'll be itching for moments when the web fluid would run out, or to have something happen to them like how the Stan Lee (probably the best cameo appearances of all Marvel films here) devised in his stories, just to provide additional challenge.

Marc Webb had shown not only Sam Raimi can make a good Spider-Man summer blockbuster, and I'm pretty sure Webb's version can stand up to and probably excel from the predecessors, especially with better characterization balanced with his flair for visuals and surprisingly, delivering big action set pieces as well. It's a great responsibility being at the helm of film featuring a hero who's so well liked amongst fans, and Webb did great justice to the movie and characters, living up to the theme of with "great power comes great responsibility". If given a chance, watch this in the 3D IMAX version, where its effort in digitally remastering it for and filling up the IMAX screen, will not go unnoticed. Definitely highly recommended as it shortlists itself as one of the best this year, even if it's rebooting and revisiting a story that has been done countless of times before in various medium. This one rocks!

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter in 3D

Hello Old Friend

Fact, fiction and history all get blended together and blurred effectively in this Tim Burton produced, Timur Bekmambetov directed action adventure that puts the 16th President of the United States as a leader in the day, and a vampire hunter at night, in a story that's Batman-esque, complete with dark visuals that Bekmambetov is well known for from his Day Watch and Night Watch films. It's Abraham Lincoln like we've never seen before which supposedly puts him at the forefront of the fight against Vampires, responsible for the loss of a parent as well as becoming a growing force that's threatening his presidency.

For starters, with the countless of vampire related films these days, one can be already jaded and start to question, what's next, new and fresh? Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, based on the story by Seth Grahame-Smith, is a novel and interesting manner in which fantasy and history get blended together for a rarely seen before take of a What If, Elseworlds scenario, and the narrative hits it right at many spots along the way. It's impossible to cover every milestone in a biographical film, but this one had important milestones that were adapted, and carefully selected so that they can blend into the fantastical elements it so desires to fuse them with.

And the cast is top notch too, with Anthony Mackie and Jimmi Simpson playing Abe's loyal supporters, Mary Elizabeth Winstead as Mary Todd, Abe's wife, and the relative unknown of Benjamin Walker stepping into the big shoes of the titular character, and better yet, carries the role off whether be it the youthful, impetuous version, or the older one who's more in tune to the well remembered image of Abe Lincoln himself. Action under Bekmambetov's direction was spectacularly designed, if not already offering anything new as far as the genre goes, with the heavy use of blood, gore and dismemberment of the undead set to thrill, and one of the best use and 3D design to provide that incredible depth of field and having things really jump up and out at you as an added, though well executed, gimmick.

If you're in need for a straight forward action adventure involving the unlikeliest heroic protagonist, then perhaps Abraham Lincoln in a What-If type scenario may satisfy that desire, set to open in screens here sandwiched between the friendly neighbourhood wall-crawler, and the dark knight.

You can read my review of Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter at by clicking on the logo below.


Saturday, June 23, 2012

Teri Meri Kahaani

A Powerhouse Performance

The first thing that sprung to mind when I heard about the premise was that this could be like Hou Hsiao Hsien's Three Times, with three love stories presented in short story style, set in three different eras, and starring the same actor and actress as would be lovebirds. It's the quintessential love story in each of the short films presented, with little narrative links between the tales. And quite unlike a typical Bollywood film, I was surprised when everything came to close in just under 2 hours, succinct and to the point, exploiting the boy-meets-girl-loses-girl formula with success, three times over.

Written and directed by Kunal Kohli who helmed films like Fanaa and Hum Tum, the stories presented were uncomplicated in style and presentation, and is absolutely charming, being an automatic and excellent choice as a date movie. Each story is based on serendipity between the couples, with each chance and debut encounter being nothing short of memorable, developing into something a lot more, before a roadblock gets in the way which curiously almost always being the fault of the guy. And with each cliffhanger comes the hope that everything gets resolved with a fulfilling positive ending, not just because the writing and characterization make us root for the lovers to be together, but that Shahid Kapoor and Priyanka Chopra share this remarkable chemistry opposite each other, that doesn't betray the point that this is only their second pairing after 2009's Kaminey.

And Teri Meri Kamaani starts off with arguably its best segment set in the 1960s, where impressive CG gets combined with old school styled movie sets to bring out not only a believable blast from the past setting, but to add a unique flavour to the way films in those days get made in studios as well. Rightly apt for this tale is Chopra playing Rukhsar, a movie star who meets Kapoor's Govind onboard a train, sharing a trip to Bombay and then sowing the seeds of what could possibly be a start to an unlikely romantic relationship between someone famous, and an in-between jobs musician. Complicating matters is Govind's neighbour Maahi (Prachi Desai) who got utilized to try and shake off a persistent tabloid journalist, with a cruel twist set into the narrative.

Then we move into London 2012 at Stratford Upon Avon, with Kapoor's Krish having broken up with his girlfriend Meera (Neha Sharma) on his birthday, and began on the wrong footing with the stranger he bumped into, Chopra's Radha, but after a day and night of partying, and a semester of modern day instant messaging flirting and maintaining a long distance relationship of sorts, trouble comes when Meera decides to embarrass Krish online by posting less than flattering private photos of Krish, and for his tit-for-tat action really throwing a spanner into the budding relationship formed with Radha.

1910 Lahore forms the final part of the trio of stories, with Shahid Kapoor playing the Casanova Javed, who uses his charms on unsuspecting women around his village and gains a notorious reputation. Here he chances upon Chopra's Aradhana while escaping from soldiers in colonial India, and amongst the lot, this story dwells a little bit on the political climate of the time, and a more conservative courtship between the lovers. Gone are the fancy song and dance, or modern day conveniences, and in comes poetry which the characters recite in playful repartee, which I'm quite certain the nuances in remarks exchanged were sorely lost in translation.

Tackling multiple roles in a film isn't something new for Priyanka Chopra, having played 12 different characters in What's Your Rashee, and adopting 7 different personas in 7 Khoon Maaf. Once again she showcases her versatility and justifies why she's at the top of the game, and being one of the best Indian actresses amongst her generation, combining glamour and striking poise when they're called for. Aradhana allowed her to showcase a lot of restraint in a more conservative time period, while a more bubbly nature shone through as Radha. Shahid Kapoor does what he does best, and comes to life as Javed, the only character here who had to undergo tremendous transformation, although the other less flashy role of Govind probably served as the more interesting of the three he had to tackle. And together, the Kapoor-Chopra pairing proves to be once again something that probably movie goers will not get enough of.

Kunal Kohli has a winner in his hands, opting for something straight-forward and direct, and having a wonderful cast bringing life to his stories. Perhaps I would have enjoyed it a bit more if the stories are linked more than just thematically, although this may be sticking to the same old formula already done to death by cinemas from around the world. Still, Bollywood has its usual song and dance sequences which work extremely well here, and has technology to thank for in recreating sets of 1960s Bombay that's impressive, with its slight rawness and less than pristine rendering adding to some charm of that era. Highly recommended!

[DVD Launch] A Wee Thing - Short Film Collection by Wee Li Lin

One of Singapore's prominent female director Wee Li Lin joins the likes of Royston Tan, Jacen Tan and Sanif Olek in having their short films collected and compiled onto the DVD format, and the DVD launch this afternoon at Kinokuniya Takshimaya was made all the more special with some of her cast members Alaric Tay, Denise Tan and Jean Goh joining her in a pre-launch talk moderated by OBJECTIFS' Leong Puiyee.

If you had missed the session, then here's your opportunity to listen in on they had talked about and discussed:

Part 1 of 3

Part 2 of 3

Part 3 of 3

An interview that TimeOut magazine did sheds more insight on the films featured in the DVD Collection,

For details on the DVD compilation and the short films included, you can check out this page which also provides you an option to purchase the DVD online.

My Way (마이웨이 / Mai Wei)


I guess I have Korean director Kang Je-Gyu to thank for sparking an interest in Korean films. No it wasn't any of the masters of old who got me hooked, but my first foray into Korean cinema on the big screen was actually to watch his Shiri, and while some may be of the opinion it's nothing more than a standard action thriller fare, it got me hooked, and to wonder just what more is out there in Korean cinema. And Kang went on to direct only 2 more films over a twelve year period, the first being the war movie Taegukgi, and now My Way.

So in a way, that makes it three films in a row that he's dabbled with men in uniform, exploring themes like brotherhood and friendship in blockbusters starring some of the biggest names in the industry. And in My Way, he teams up with Korea's Jang Dong-Gun, and Japan's Joe Odagiri who play rivals in Cain and Abel style, the former being a young boy working in the latter's family during the Japanese occupation of Korea, only for a terrorist incident to forever scar their potential friendship into deep hatred between the men, especially for Joe's Tatsuo against Jang's Joon-Sik. And their rivalry extends to their love for running long distance, almost always on par in countless of marathons they participate in.

The story written by Kang, Na Hyun and Kim Byung-In then centers the narrative against the run up to the Second World War, with the premise having to build up and culminate in Normandy during D-Day. So that takes the men, now in army fatigues with Joon-Sik being one of many Koreans forced to conscript in the Japanese Imperial Army, and under the arrogant, merciless leadership of Tatsuo in what would be convenience to further the two men's rivalry, especially when one is put in a lowly position, and the other having life and death powers over the man he loved to hate. The trio of writers managed to pack this film with enough incidents befitting any war movie, from POW imprisonment, disobedience of orders, torture and the likes, and playing on the theme of Karma, having what went around coming around to perpetrators. Not a very subtle approach though.

With a war setting, expect plenty of theatres of battles across different territories and under various banners and allegiances, such as the Japanese, Soviets, and Germans even, and you can tell where the money went into recreating their realism from uniforms, weapons and vehicles, together with the recreation of the Normandy invasion. Don't expect too much accuracy though if you think that D-Day and other battles, were won/lost in a few minutes, but one does get impressed by the effort to ensure that each battle got portrayed on as large a canvas possible, making it feel that the series of events the characters find themselves into, are far larger than their individual. There are times though that the editing and leaving of material on the cutting room floor had led to episodes being spliced together rather haphazardly, so that's a bit of a pity.

It's steeped in testosterone, if not for China's Fan Bingbing playing a bit role here as a sniper with vengeance against the Japanese at the top of her mind, and of course with her potential of opening up this film to the Mainland market. Other supporting acts include the good friends of Joon-Sik, such as Jong-Dae (Kim In-Kwon) who probably was the only supporting character given enough time for character development, and being somewhat of an in-between of the two men, offering a view of what each of them had, or could have, become. And this character alone demonstrates how adaptable Man can be when faced with circumstances that calls for that fine balance between morals, ideals and the basic need for survival. Recommended!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

How I Spent My Summer Vacation / Get the Gringo


Mel Gibson's return to the big screen in front of the camera recent years seems to be getting back on track. He's taken a large knock for various well publicized and controversial allegations and abuses, but those seem to have taken a back seat like how the lacklustre Edge of Darkness has been largely forgotten for more memorable fare and smaller films like The Beaver, and Get the Gringo, also known as How I Spend My Summer Vacation here. Count yourselves lucky all you Mel Gibson fans who are still out there, we're one of the few countries getting this in the cinemas as the USA had opted for a video-on-demand release instead.

Gibson does what Gibson does best as a character here, being the strong, silent type who relies on his brains, brawn and resourcefulness to get out of sticky situations. Innate abilities and a huge dose of luck also play their part in having his nameless Driver attempting to outwit, outlast and outsmart his way past Mexican and American gangsters, crooked cops, and ambiguous agents, in order to regain his freedom after being locked up in a Mexican penitentiary that is a mini-town in its own right, complete with the folks from both sides of the law making strange bedfellows. It's a glimpse into the murky world of corruption where criminals run rampant within the walls that are supposed to restrict their freedom, but instead turning the premises into fiefs of operations.

Based on a story written by Mel Gibson, Stacy Perskie and Adrian Grunberg, with the latter making his debut directorial feature after deputizing for numerous films, it has all the ingredients necessary to stand tall amongst this season of summer blockbusters, with a tale that keeps you guessing of the Driver's backgrounds and motivations, which soon dissolve into the basic theme of friendship developed with a nine year old Kid (Kevin Hernandez) who holds a certain secret that keeps him alive within a notorious place, and who may just be Driver's ticket out if the cards get played right. Needless to say the villains here were unfortunately relegated to single function caricatures, but thankfully the plot picks up the pace when we get to witness how Driver and the Kid work their way through the system, with subplots bubbling under the surface ready to explode in frantic rush to the finale.

There are some moments that sag though, as Grunberg just cannot lift the film's early act from droning rather repetitively on how tough and gritty the entire corrupt environment is through Driver's voiceovers. We get the point, and it's time to move on, only to find more scenes seemingly adamant in wanting to showcase just how miserable life can get in a corrupt prison system. It took a while to have elements set up and put in place, although you'd get to appreciate the efforts it took to gel all character relationships together, with Grunberg adopting a style especially in the beginning with its quick edits cutting very close to how Tony Scott would have stylistically done it if the latter was at the helm.

For all the action that the trailer promises, what truly stood out was a mid section, free for all shoot-em-up complete with its graphical depiction of bullet wounds flying all around, entering and exiting various points of the body, and the requisite slow motion to keep things watchable, not forgetting having the Driver break his cover on his background having to save the Kid and his mother (Dolores Heredia) from gunfire coming at all sides. While conveniently set up, how the Driver wiped his enemies from existence thanks to a little bit of play acting and impersonation became my favourite scenes in the entire film, with Gibson at his element flexing some comedic abilities that just sat through really well and dare I say lifted this film from being just average. Recommended!

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Temporary Hiatus

By the time you read this, the baby above would have left the tarmac at Changi Airport and I'll be up in the air on the way to the land of the great firewall.

No access to blogger, which means absolutely no updates until I'm back later this week. Until then!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Battlefield America

Kids Can Dance

Street dance films are the rage these days, and this genre probably won't see extinction at least in this decade, with the American Step Up franchise seeing the latest installment coming here in August, and the European Streetdance films having its latest release earlier this year. All versions now boast of the use of 3D to try and jack some extra revenue from its target teenage audience looking out for inspiration to hit the dance floors, and eyebrows definitely got raised when the dancers here are, well, kids.

Not that they're doing a bad job. I belong to the camp of those who feel a little bit awkward with children being dolled up and having their parents push them into participating in modelling or beauty pageants, and to take competition that come their way so seriously, you wonder if the lack of a proper, normal childhood will have any detrimental effects later in their lives. And here, a handful of kids no older than 12, get to move and groove in what I thought was gangsta style, some adopting the same attitude outside of the dance floor, and you'd wonder just what's going on behind the scenes in bringing these kids up. And to my surprise too are two of the kids, one being really androgynous, and the other I thought was female until it was revealed much later to be male instead.

That aside, the dance moves if you ignore the age, are pretty ok as far as the Step Up and Streetdance standards go, minus a notch. Being kids, they don't have the mileage chalked up in executing more fanciful sequences, the best of the best here being nothing more than a somersault flip that turned out to be the finishing move, which in the other mentioned films are nothing but a walk in the park. Clinically choreographed, it's a pity we don't get to see much dances by opposite parties since the preliminaries en route to the titular competition largely went by without being able to see much. Even the finals were just a one round three-cornered fight, ending with a dance off between two groups, following formula that's established for the genre.

And the excuse of a plot got wrapped around a high flying, arrogant executive Sean Lewis (Marques Houston) who got to serve time in community service, falling in love with the beautiful supervisor at the center played by Mekia Cox, and having to develop friendship and camaraderie with a group of troubled kids there by teaching them dance. It got a little bit tired with the usual man-hating-kids to man-warming-up-to-kids and vice versa, since you're likely to stay many steps in the way the plot develops, right down to expecting the type of challenges and road blocks that come their way. Think Dead Poets Society dumbed down by a lot, and you have what Battlefield America attempts to achieve. Even the way the kids get into trouble and the way their challengers behave, remind you of how the Karate Kid goes about dealing with adversary, right down to extrapolating that to the adult, supervisory level.

Director Chris Stokes may have seen an opportunity in adapting the modern street dance film formula for teens into something for and at the kids level, but it's street dance we're dealing with, that comes with a certain territory with it that's out of reach for the underaged. That made the film suffer a little bit in having a story that's rather generic and done ad nauseam, having to dwell in safe and feel good themes despite being a tale set in the underground dance scene, and ultimately felt something like after sitting through a moral education lesson. Still, for those involved in the world of street dance, I'm pretty sure this would just be another feather in the cap to try and be inspired by.

Piranha 3DD

They're Back

Director John Gulager did a great job with Feast, and went on to do two more sequels which had gone direct to video. Roped in to continue where Alejandro Aja had left off with Piranha 3D, we return to Lake Victoria to witness the aftermath of the events from the first film, with suggestion now that the prehistoric man eating fishes have now gone exploring more of its waterways, and finally finding opportunity to chomp on more fresh meat available in The Big Wet, a wet and wild theme park complete with a sectioned off area for adults only. Yes, you saw that coming, didn't you?

Written by Joel Soisson to work on what Patrick Melton and Marcus Dunstan of various Saw and Feast films had already written, I'm pretty sure the signs on how well this sequel will fare in the story department would be telling from the filmography that Soisson had worked on. Don't expect much to come out of Piranha 3DD other than to rehash the same violent mess of the first film, only this time it seemed that Gulager may have opted for this to be a wee bit friendlier from a gore standpoint, reserving much of the bloody mayhem for the final 20 minutes in what would be too little too late, complete with plenty of cheese in the entire buildup.

The characters here are mostly new, revolving around Maddy (Danielle Panabaker) who had returned to her hometown for the summer holiday to find that her 49% share of her mother's water based theme park had been turned into a strippers on water joint by stepdad Chet (David Koechner), which of course gives rise to many opportunities for gratuitous nudity to grace the screen, from boob and ass shots, to full frontal if deemed necessary, complete with silicone on display. While the first film also had its fair share of such scenes, the ones here are purely exploitative and done for the sake of, even a sex scene (where nothing much happens) provides for a ludicrous development that threatened to be somewhat like Aliens, only played out much differently for a mix of meek laughs, and for a terribly lame one-liner to be uttered.

While the earlier effort had a comical element associated with it, this follow up paled in comparison no thanks to many unbelievable one liners that don't hit their mark, and I wonder how anyone can deliver them with a straight face. That, and plagued with a story that is pretty much non-existent, peppered with more caricatures that are in it to become fodder one way or another, lending to the death count prioritized as dictated by the usual horror film rules. The saving grace came from the supporting cast who returned for yet another outing, such as Ving Rhames and Christopher Lloyd, but the one who stole everyone's thunder when he first came on for the final half hour, is David Hasselhoff, playing a satirical version of his star status, with that Baywatch body now blessed with man boobs, and hamming it up to be so full of himself, it's painfully funny.

It's a pity then for this 3D movie, which being shot in 3D, had plenty of gimmicky designed shots to enhance the in-your-face experience. There's nothing much to the story except to link up scenes for the Piranhas to feed on unsuspecting bodies, usually in different states of undress. Naturally that in itself may be a draw for some sections of the movie going crowd. Stay tuned during the end credits for a lot more extra scenes not seen in the film proper. Strictly for B-movie fans who find delight at man eating fish going on a feeding frenzy, and for fans of David Hasselhoff.

First Time (第一次 / Di Yi Ci)

This is Love

A made in China romantic comedy couldn't hurt, could it? I was surprised by the quality of director Han Yan's First Time, starring Taiwan's Mark Chao and Hong Kong's Angelababy in leading roles, and was pretty much blown away at how sophisticated the entire package was from plot to production values. Then the key ingredient was finally laid out for me - that this is a remake of a 2003 Korean Film And that made perfect sense.

It's not that I'm knocking down made in China productions, but somehow I feel that the level of story telling just isn't all that yet, and what's worse is its censorship code having to meddle in the way stories have to be developed, told, and end in some kind of morally acceptable manner. The result is films that have to slant a certain manner, sapping away at innovation and creativity, which tells when you view the film. But it's never going to be stagnant and will improve over time just as audience's taste develop, and hopefully change for the better, and with that, more solid tales will come. And First Time shows that with the right, solid material, cinematic wonders can be made.

Of course the structure of this love story isn't new, dealing with star crossed lovers from a manner that comes packaged with twists and turns when you least expect, wondering who's playing who, and who had pre-requisite knowledge about where the other half was coming from. Essentially First Time tells the love story between Song Shiqiao (Angelababy), a girl who suffers from a neuromuscular disease, and Gong Ning (Mark Chao), a former classmate whom she had a liking for. Like all lovebirds, they find strength in each other's company and affection, and inspire each other to go beyond their limits, which in this case, is Shiqiao's pursuit of ballet, which her mom Zheng Qing (Jiang Shan) is adamantly against given her illness.

To say anything more would be to ruin the surprises that come as soon as a third into the story, and more in its final act, where saccharine sweet acts of encouragement, enlightenment, forgiveness all get rolled into one, that sledgehammers thick emotions down your throat where you'll find it hard not to tear or two. Besides the main narrative thread, there are many smaller subplots involving the theme of romance and family relationships, such as that of the older generation in the love story between Gong Ning's parents which got told in an indirect manner involving a traffic junction (which turned out more moving), and the obvious love and care a parent like Zheng Qing in her looking out for the best for her daughter.

Mark Chao and Angelababy make a cute on screen couple, and the story provides ample time for them to be together, engaging in various courtship rituals. Mark Chao went one more step to ensure he lend his real singing vocals to the many songs in the film since he's fronting a rock band, and didn't overplay his Romeo bit, save for his character coming off as a cad in the early stages of the relationship which will be explained in due course. Angelababy proved to be more than just another pretty face amongst her peers, and while her role here didn't exactly provide that acting chop challenge, she does enough to make her Shiqiao character extremely likable, with Han Yan ensuring her thoughts get developed through the use of animation in the film.

It was as long as since Crying Out Love, in the Center of the World, that a cassette tape was used as a narrative plot device, now put into a similar, yet different use here where sweet nothings get exchanged in the medium, and you can trust the Koreans to come up with a rationale why only a single side gets utilized. All in all it's a solid romantic tale that stood the test of almost a decade's worth of time, with charismatic leads leading the charge in making this stand out amongst the crowd. Now my interest has been piqued to want to watch the original version. Recommended!

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Double Trouble (宝岛双雄 / Bao Dao Shuang Xiong)

Being Human

I'm quite sure Double Trouble is one of many Pan-Chinese films out there which try to play on the China-Taiwan subtext through its main characters, and one of many attempts to try and get the buddy cop action comedy genre right with one character from China and the other from Taiwan teaming up against trecherous Non Resident, English speaking Chinese characters who will not bat an eyelid at looting from China. Fan that national fervour please, except that this film actually had Jaycee Chan trying to emulate what his famous father Jackie Chan had been doing during his heydays, minus the latter's gung-ho, no stuntman spirit and plenty of fisticuffs and acrobatics to please fans worldwide. Directed by David Chang Hsun-Wei, Double Trouble has limited moments of fun, but ultimately a choppy pacing, and throwaway characters populating the flimsy storyline did it in.

Jaycee Chan plays Taiwanese museum security officer Jay, one of a team of elite guards tasked to protect the museum's famed painting exhibit due to be unveiled for the world to see. We learn he's a maverick and non team player, preferring to spring into rash action without thinking much of the consequence. And in a typical Jackie Chan Rush Hour storyline, Jay's foil happen to be a Chinese security guard from Beijing, Ocean (Xia Yu, whom I last saw in Electric Shadows), on tour in Taiwan only for him to botch Jay's pursuit of two female femme fatales in their escape with the said painting. Mind you this is no Mission: Impossible, so the heist was pretty much a walk in the park, literally, with actual combat being few and far between, only for the models of Shoko and Jessica Cambensy (or better known as Jessica C) to flaunt their long tresses as they kick choreographed butts.

With the villains playing cat and mouse with our unlikely duo Jay and Ocean, who have to team up just because they need to pursue the latter's tour bus since the painting got expectedly onto someone's bag, what develops is a rather formula chase-bicker-fight routine, with the showcase of one of the major action sequence being atop a moving bus. With so many action films being done to death with various hard hitting routines, this one dwelled in more PG environment, with massively obvious CG moments compensating for the lack of funds for a proper, gutsy stunt team to take over. With so many Chinese films these days reliant on CG in the hopes to spruce their film with some make belief production values, more often than not this backfires quite badly, almost akin to taking the audience as fools for not being able to notice these attempts, which turn out to be midly irritating. Vivian Dawson as the main villain for the finale also got dispatched in too easy a fashion for all the posing bad-assery on display, in a big fight that again got plagued with some continuity errors.

But for effort, then Double Trouble does have a premise on paper that looked almost like the equivalent of a Rush Hour for this part of the world, with an impulsive young chap partnered with a talkative cultural bumpkin of sorts who likes to exaggerate his fighting prowess, both on the good side of the law being thrown by circumstances to work together on a mission, and from there developing strong camaraderie. In actual fact, both Jaycee and Xia Yu possess that amount of chemistry to power the film, and in truth their scenes together are what holds the film together, since villains are largely absent for the most parts, with the female femme fatales reduced to modelling and showing off their bustlines. And don't forget the support from the Taiwanese contingent, who lend the likes of Chen Han Dian and Chang Fei playing comic characters such as a tour guide called Idol (a pun on his character's name and profession), and the latter a rather failed gangster who can't seem to have a competent crew amongst his ranks. Their jokes come fast and furious, and the best repartee of course comes from their rapid fire Taiwanese language complete with devil may care insults hurled both directions, which somehow become music to the ears. Chinese actress Deng Jiajia rounds up the ensemble as the token female love interest.

So did Jaycee show potential to step into his father's giant action-comic shoe? Yes to a certain extent, with the help of wires, plenty of rough around the edges CG, and stand ins to provide the necessary camouflage, though he earns some credit for performing some stunts himself, as seen in the series of outtakes during the end credit roll. Comic timing was almost there, with a major running joke here involving his nuts getting kicked until numb. I'm not sure if being an action star is his cup of team, since he did have his fair share of action films with the likes of Invisible Target, although with a fledging music career also in the wings, such as providing the theme song for this film. This movie may not be that shining star on his filmography, but it does provide an interesting what-if look at how much better he could have perfomed if there was a stronger storyline and characterization. What I feel plaguing most Pan-Chinese co-productions is having to pander to the Mainland's standards of story-telling, of what's righteous and just, which makes the film quite sterile, and in firm deja-vu territory no thanks to blend and generic storylines.

Double Trouble serves up laughs and becomes rather forgettable once you leave the cinema. There's opportunity for a follow up going the other way round with Jay being the tourist this time in Beijing, but that dream will only happen if this one strikes the jackpot at the box office.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

[DVD Launch] A Wee Thing - Short Film Collection by Wee Li Lin

As one of Singapore’s leading female filmmakers, Wee Li Lin first gained recognition with her short film Norman on the Air. Her subsequent films like Autograph Book and Holiday have travelled around film festivals like the Tribeca Film Festival and the Pusan Asian Short Film Festival. Her signature comedic touch has made her short films relatable and in demand.

An interview that TimeOut magazine did sheds more insight on the films featured in the DVD Collection,

Join Wee Li Lin for the DVD talk and launch at Books Kinokuniya on 23 June 2012, Sat, 2pm to 3pm. Wee Li Lin and some of her cast members will be there to talk about her DVD and there will be an autograph session as well.

You can also click here for more details of the event. See you there!

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A Few Best Men

Murphy's Wedding

You meet the girl of your dreams, and with the feeling being mutual, decide to fast track the romance into marriage. It's one of the big decisions in life, and so you engage some help from your pals, who happen to be some of the most disorganized bunch ever, unintentionally lining up what would be one of life's most memorable events with a series of mishaps and accidents that are just waiting to happen, from run ins with drug dealers, abuse of drugs and drink, and an animal featured somewhere as well. No this is not The Hangover films, although at first glance A Few Best Men may seem to tread on similar territory.

Unlike the American films that focus on extreme shenanigans, A Few Best Men may deal with similar wedding blues in comedic fashion, but was rather a bit more restrained in its grossness, although toilet humour is something staple that is never too far away and utilized when there's a need to for maximum effect. This Australian production follows a more British route with witty repartee, and quirky, zany characters peppering the landscape, with probably the only sane people in the entire film being the groom David (Xavier Samuel) and his bride Mia (Laura Brent).

The titular characters refer to David's best mates Tom (Kris Marshall) who's usually the catalyst of problems with his indifferent attitude, Graham (Kevin Bishop) the somewhat dim witted follower, and Luke (Tim Draxi) who still can't get over the break up with his ex. Together they lend support to David as his best men for his wedding, making that round the world trip from England to Australia. Mia on the other hand comes from a political family, with a senator for a dad in Jim (Jonathan Biggins) whose more than proud to turn his daughter's wedding into political gain, wife Barbara (Olivia Newton-John, probably the largest name in this ensemble), and sister Daphne (Rebel Wilson last seen in What To Expect When You're Expecting). With worlds so different colliding together, sparks fly in similar, slowly but surely fashion to Meet the Fockers, with a scene being somewhat of a lift off The Hangover films when the stag's night out turned into one big blur.

A Few Best Men sees the long awaited return by director Stephan Elliott, who did the acclaimed Priscilla Queen of the Desert. And I have to admit unabashedly that I'm somewhat of a fan of writer Dean Craig's work, after what he did with Death at a Funeral, dealing with something similar with family and friends' shenanigans standing out during life's ceremonies, and in a way this film seemed like a spiritual companion to his earlier work for the way it encompassed rip tickling moments over one of life's major rituals. It's basically Murphy's Law put on display here, with everything that can go wrong actually do go wrong, with a couple of surprise (some may argue convenient) twists thrown in for good measure.

The soundtrack is also noteworthy in the film, consisting of mostly evergreens and oldies from the 60s and 70s, and having Olivia Newton-John lend her vocals as well. In fact, her character becomes what would be the live wire of the film as it wore on, together with Kris Marshall and Kevin Bishop drawing the loudest of laughs thanks to their subplot involving their quest for weed from which everything got intricately tied to no thanks to their being stuck with contraband drugs, and being quite inept in helping the groom settle and solve the mess they got everyone into.

If one is game for ensemble films and buddy type ones where the inevitably lessons extracted will be themes on brotherhood, friendship and family, with lots of laughs thrown in from good measure, then A Few Best Men would be your choice this week during the summer season breather in between blockbusters hitting the cinemas. Highly recommended!

A Few Best Men opens exclusively at Filmgarde this Thursday.

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Japanese Film Festival 2012

In case you're not aware, it's that time of the year again for the Japanese Film Festival, one of the most well received film festivals here in Singapore, with classics screened for free together with its ticketed contemporary offerings. Running from 1st to 8th July with a total of 19 films over 8 days, here's a message from the festival director Gavin Liu giving the lowdown on what to expect in this year's edition:


Hi everyone,

The Japanese Film Festival returns this July with 19 films over 8 days, from July 1 to 8.

I have included a brief summary of this year's festival programme.


Over the years, you may have seen the films like ICHIKAWA Kon's "Burmese Harp" and IMAMAMURA Shohei's "Hogs and Warships" but have not have known the studios behind the films. This year is Nikkatsu Studio's 100th year, and the festival is honoured to be able to showcase some of the critical hits from Nikkatsu's slate of internationally renowned directors. One of whom is two-time Palme d'Or winner IMAMURA Shohei, whose six films in this year's programme will include his debut film and his internationally renowned films like The Pornographers, The Insect Woman and Unholy Desire.


Since March 11, 2011, Japan and its filmmakers have grappled with the enormity of the devastation caused the Earthquake and the resulting Tsunami. Film production stopped briefly, and as budgets shrunk and got diverted, filmmakers considered their response and priorities. In reply, international film festivals from Pusan, Hong Kong to Berlin have given Japanese filmmakers a platform to reach out and respond. The festival is honoured to showcase two of these films making waves internationally - "Fukushima Memories of a Landscape" premiered in Hong Kong while "No Man's Zone" premiered in Berlin. These films document the undercurrents beyond the headlines, and the people who continue to be affected by the events of last March. There will be a post-screening Q&A with a Singaporean volunteer who will share with us her perspectives.


Each year we bring you the latest films making waves. Two of this year's films are debut films from very promising young directors. We have "About The Pink Sky" - award winner from Tokyo International Film Festival, and "Death of a Japanese Salesman" - directed by SUNADA Mami whose father is the focus of the film, and who was an assistant to KORE-EDA in "Still Walking" and "Air Doll". Director KORE-EDA's "I Wish" will also be screened in the festival. From the people who brought you "Mother Water" and "Megane" last year, comes "Tokyo Oasis". Capping off our line up will be "Life Back Then" and "Chronicle of My Mother".

For further details of the festival, please visit

Please help spread the word.


I Have Gotten My Tickets. What Are You Waiting For?

Saturday, June 09, 2012

The Dictator

All Hail!

I had visited the Republic of Wadiya in North Africa, and it was great. Especially when the host is none other than Admiral General Aladeen, the Dictator himself. Sacha Baron Cohen seemed to have outdone himself with his latest character creation after the likes of Ali G, Borat and Bruno, and together with director Larry Charles who did the previous films in mockumentary style, their latest collaboration took a more fictional turn with Cohen, Alec Berg, David Mandell and Jeff Schaffer contributing to the narrative, which in one work I'll summarize as: Wicked.

It's been too long since I went to the movies and laughed as hard as I did today, and I'm thinking it's probably since the mo-lei-tau days of the 90s in Hong Kong Cinema that something as irreverent as what's included here, can tickle my funny bone so hard, that it was an incredible laugh a minute for what felt longer than its 83 minute run time. OK, so sue me if I am laughing at everything that's politically incorrect, crass, rude, vulgar, racist, sexist, disrespectful and just about violating every iota of human decency. It's an outright comedy, so I guess having to lighten up with the silliness on display isn't really a crime committed.

Sacha Baron Cohen seemed to have outdone himself this time. When you were probably thinking with his Borat and Bruno films earning him some form of notoriety, here comes yet another creation that's just as no holds barred despite being scripted. Probably the best comedian in film at the moment, you got to salute his marketing and publicity machinery for getting him just about almost everywhere in character to earn that mind share, given that the Admiral General is a new character that hasn't appeared in the television shows that Cohen had done in the past. Modelled after the late dictator Gaddafi of Libya, everything and anything about dictators - their wealth, harem of women, and having whatever they say as law - get made fun of through wonderful satire, even if the story's wafer thin, the laughs specifically designed were incredible.

And it centers around the necessity of Aladeen to travel to New York to address the UN General Assembly, only for a plot hatched to replace him with his own decoy to sign off a new democratic constitution for his fictional country. But trust the Admiral General to survive outside his comfort zone, team up with a once political exile (that he thought had been executed), and to find genuine love in the form of an environmental activist, while in the running against time to regain his rightful place as leader of his country and prevent his losing of grip on his country. The villains are clear, and very much pointed at oil companies, and the Chinese, which in the film became the butt of many jokes which I suspect some may not find it amusing.

But in any case, The Dictator boasted the likes of Ben Kingsley (who would have thought!) as Aladeen's uncle Tamir, and another comedian in Anna Faris, who frankly in another movie would have been a marquee. Here she's clearly over-shadowed by Cohen, though that could be due to her character being there as the butt of some of the sexist jokes, and nothing more than to further reinforce the notion that dictators are lonely at the top, and all they really need, for the good of the world, is a good cuddle, love and attention, at least for his Dictator, who got the world's attention through his plans to own a few nuclear weapons. Other stars appear as cameos, such as Megan Fox playing a prostituting version of herself, and Edward Norton too in a somewhat similar role. Yes, Edward Norton. Really.

Even for the harshest of Sacha Baron Cohen's critics will have to agree that The Dictator does have its moments when it goes for the jugular in making fun of the politics of our time, the corruption that's permeating through what we like to think of as a fair system, and of course, the notion of democracy itself, by drawing some unlikely parallels between the woes of today's world against that of the democratic system. It's satire at its best, with excellent writing and flawless delivery all rolled into one that makes The Dictator truly memorable, especially when it knows when to pull its punches, and when not to for maximum effect.

Apparently our censorship tolerance level had been tweaked to relax a little here. While Sacha Baron Cohen's other two films Borat and Bruno were rated R21, with the latter having to suffer the removal of certain scenes, this one got away with M18, despite having male genitalia on display, and same sex kissing which would have automatically earned it R21 status many moons ago. So if you're game for a rip roaring rowdy time experiencing some outrageous comedy that will tickle you silly, then make a beeline for The Dictator, before he decides to take your head off for the lack of support. Highly recommended as one of the craziest film comedies of this year by arguably one of the best comedians in recent times who's not afraid to make fun of everyone and everything in no holds barred fashion. Stay tuned when the end credits roll for some extras, including scenes that didn't make it to the final cut.

Second Chance (La Chance De Ma Vie)

Calamity Jane

It's not hard to see why Second Chances happens to be one of the biggest romantic comedies for the French last year, a genre that doesn't seem to buckle under cliches, when all the necessary ingredients for it to succeed get pumped in, from charismatic leads, a simple plot peppered with quirky incidents and a host of supporting characters breathing life to subplots, with a contemporary soundtrack of pop songs and ballads accentuating the mood from saccharine sweetness to the reflection of a hurt soul by a series of events beyond one's control.

Francois-Xavier Demaison plays Julien, a highly successful relationship counsellor blessed with the gift of resolving any fire-cracking situation amongst couples. We begin the film with his self-exile in a remote monastery, where he relates to us the flip side of his talent, which is counter-balanced with a string of disastrous short lived relationships of his own with the opposite sex. It seemed that every single one of his ex girlfriends decided to leave him because for some inexplicable reason they will all become Calamity Jane, and being warded in a hospital is such a norm that Julien develops a friendship with one of the resident doctors Vincent (Thomas N'Gijol).

But temptation to begin another relationship comes in the form of Johanna (Virginie Efira), a beautiful blonde who randomly catalyzes a friendship during a wedding reception she accidentally gatecrashed, culminating in a one night stand that sealed a steady relationship with Julien. And it naturally came with a photograph montage of the happy times they spend together, complete with cheeky snapshots of the accidents that happen to befall her. When Julien reveals the truth about his past relationships and the dangers that are looming over the horizon, Johanna brushes it off, and one would think they're set for life, but life is never easy, it comes with roadblocks, and challenges that will test the most steely of willpower and determination.

Director Nicholas Cuche kept things going at a very breezy pace, with comedy all well timed and delivered with natural precision by the cast, never feeling forced save for some deliberately over the top moments for some to keep in character. The charisma of the leads will make you root for them to stay together despite the odds staking up against them in the form of a series of bad luck, and having a customer's well to do, good looking son also falling for Johanna, turning up the heat of the competition. While Francois-Xavier Demaison shone with his hang dog puppy demeanour who just cannot believe, and has to resign to his lack of luck, it was Virginie Efira who proved to be more than a good looking host, showcasing her knack for acting with a flair for physical comedy when it's called for.

And when Second Chances looked set to become one lightweight romantic comedy, the final act, hinged around a sudden realization, will hit you. Hard. And made this film a winner. It's about how we usually are quick to jump to conclusions especially when the going is bad, and you'd realize just how true that is especially when it's like a default human trait that we succumb to from time to time. It's easy to blame others for things that don't go our way, and to quickly claim credit for times when they do, forgetting about the backend efforts already laid out and in place for things to happen successfully. Highly recommended!

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Madagascar 3: Europe's Most Wanted

Not Moving It

There are eager animated film franchises that rehashed the same old themes and gags in all its installments, and deservedly crashed under its own repetitiveness. Think Shrek, which started brightly, but with each sequel the grumpy ogre and his friends started to become cheap parodies of themselves. There are other film franchises that grow from strength to strength though, such as Ice Age where we get to go on an incredibly long journey with its characters trying to survive the inevitable change and extinction, and then there's Madagascar, with Europe's Most Wanted surprisingly having a lot more to offer than what it had suggested.

We go back to where we last left off, rejoining Alex the Lion (Ben Stiller), Marty the Zebra (Chris Rock), Melman the Giraffe (David Schwimmer) and Gloria the Hippo (Jada Pinkett Smith) who are still in Africa, but getting homesick and yearn for their lives back in New York. So they hatch a plan to regroup with the Penguins, who had left with the Monkeys in their flying machine to Monte Carlo and its glitzy casinos, and compel them to take everyone back to New York. Granted it's a slow start, but when it picked up with Frances McDormand voicing the French policewoman Captain Chantel DuBois, more of an animal hunter in disguise and hell bent on adding a lion to her trophy wall, it really went over the top with a multitude of action sequences that get set to show off dedicated and meticulously crafted moments for 3D. It's clearly one of the better 3D efforts in an animated feature film that took pains to ensure the medium got milked for the premium ticket you paid for.

Then the narrative goes up a notch with the introduction of some circus animals with whom our protagonists get to mix with in order to momentarily escape the fanatical clutches of DuBois, and in comes the opportunity to expand on its cast, with the likes of Jessica Chastain, Bryan Cranston and Martin Short entering the fray as a cheetah, tiger and sea lion respectively, each with its own distinct quirk, objective and baggage. It's a zoo animal meets circus animal rivalry formed, and Alex and gang wanting to stick around, with thanks to the Penguins, because the circus is en route to Rome and London, where an American circus event promoter would be in town to evaluate if the troupe can make money if brought across the Atlantic, and naturally, New York.

I'm rather surprised by the depth of the narrative here, as Eric Damell and Noah Baumbach's screenplay managed to squeeze a lot in under 90 minutes sans end credits roll. Characters don't get thrown in for fun, but have enough screen time to perform without getting the feeling of being redundant to the whole scheme of things, and how they all blend well together for the major set action pieces, complete with comedy ranging from witty repartee to physical slapstick gags. The major new entrants to this installment will also become crowd favourites, such as the girly cheetah Gia, the curt Russian tiger Vitaly who has to reclaim his theatrical mojo, and Stefano the sea lion trying his very best to hold the entire troupe together, while not being very bright himself.

Every scene got designed to have the characters endear themselves to the audience, even if they come silent, such as the bicycle riding bear, and a couple of English dogs voiced by the likes of Vinnie Jones, Steve Jones and Nick Fletcher. Paz Vega also lent her voice to a collective group of show-horses, while perennial favourites such as Sacha Baron Cohen's Julien and Cedric the Entertainer's Maurice almost always threaten to run away with the show, given their rather spaced out moments that run outside of the main narrative thread. There are colours galore with gags running wild, and I'd suspect where your sense of humour might have been misplaced if there's absolutely nothing here in the film that can tickle your funny bone.

With an assortment of pop songs ranging from 90s hits to those by Katy Perry, the signature theme song only got an airplay during the end credits, and is an amalgamation of the Afro Circus song written by Chris Rock, that somehow had a strange yet infectious blend that epitomizes everything that had transpired in this film, and set itself up for more. Themes of friendship and sticking together through thick and thin, of never giving up and the likes, are good themes to have for a film that's going to appeal to the young for sure.

I'd like to think there's a stop at three policy and to leave the franchise as it is now, going off at a high, rather than to continue with a formula that would ultimately show its age. Madagascar 3 worked and delivered everything you'd expect of a crowd pleaser that can appeal to all age groups, and I'm very much compelled to earmark this for a 3D blu-ray title for keeps. Definitely highly recommended in my books, given its rarity of it improving upon the strengths of its predecessors, and finding room to add more characters, not caricatures, to its mythos.

Wednesday, June 06, 2012


We Have Lift Off!

Did Ridley Scott's Prometheus, set in the same universe as the Alien franchise which he kickstarted back in the late 70s, live up to its hype? For those who got teased by its potential in having its characters probably meet our true creators, what with religious connotations and the like, may be disappointed given that this film posed a lot more questions than answers, questions that will allow follow up films to explore where Prometheus had left off. Those well versed with the Alien films, especially the first one, may find this supposed prequel, or genesis if I may call it, rather familiar, since there are many structural elements in its narrative that were reminiscent of the original film.

So what did Prometheus, written by Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindeof, achieve? For starters, this is a worthy Alien-ish prequel as far as the creatures evolution is concerned, providing a very interesting twist to how the iconic slimy finally came about, in a much extended timeline, to haunt Ripley and crew later on. And as much as I would hate to mention this, it's the star power attached to this film that lifted it from becoming a bore for those who have sat through Alien countless of times - you can tick that checklist containing elements such as massive ships on both human and alien sides, a strong female protagonist, an android of ambiguous agenda, and how everything went from innocuous mission to that fight for survival when biological hazards get introduced onboard.

What worked to the film's favour would be its characterization of the major players here. Michael Fassbender of course stole the show as the android David, developed by the Weyland Corporation (before it merged with Yutani to become Weyland-Yutani), to be onboard Prometheus in its 2 years plus long journey to what Dr Elizabeth Shaw (Noomi Rapace), a clear spiritual predecessor to Sigourney Weaver's Ripley, called an invitation to visit. David is creepy, and possesses a wry and wicked sense of humour, as well as hiding a certain agenda that will reveal it's ugly head as the film progresses. There are some who may find his abilities being rather convenient, but I thought it's an issue blown out of proportion, and his itchy hands and fingers point to being programmed for a more ulterior motive constraint by available time left.

And I suppose Noomi Rapace, under Ridley Scott's direction, finally found a film to break away from her career defining role as Lisbeth Salander in the Millennium trilogy of films. Gone is the goth fashion sense, and in comes a cleaner look, though not lacking in the same steely demeanour. Possibly in one of the most intense scenes in the film, Rapace proves she can stand out from amongst an ensemble, and her character in being the alpha-female when called upon, proved to be no push-over. Then there's Charlize Theron continuing from Snow White and perfecting her role as the resident bitch, playing a character with limited screen time (and looking good), but chewing up the scenery each time she appears. The best scenes she has here comes opposite Guy Pearce (in another space outing), disappearing under heavy prosthetics to play Peter Weyland, the head honcho who commissioned the trillion dollar mission, but alas they were limited, and I thought had promise to be explored further, and given how it was played out, probably in another medium.

The major downside is of course how the structure of the tale was so Alien-like, and despite not having seen Ridley's original film in recent times, there's no doubt how one can almost stay one step ahead of the action. However what I had enjoyed here was the premise in the search for our creator, that took on the thesis of a what-if he/they had come from a species more technologically advanced than ours, and being able to craft the homo-sapiens rather than believing in Darwin's theory of evolution, occasionally coming back to account for UFO sightings and to see how well we, as creations, are doing. Or so we thought.

Biblical parallels such as having been created in an image, and issues brought up such as this having been almost like a futuristic Noah's experience of sorts, or one of the many plagues that got unleashed, get set to blow the minds of many if one chooses to draw some parallels, not so much in a provocative manner, but utilizing such scenarios to further the development of its own story universe. Even if these are put aside, the story here tosses up interesting, open ended questions with regards to the motives all suddenly revealed in the final act, allowing plenty of room for that post screening discussion, until the next film, if it gets made, rolls around to address them.

Prometheus has that Ridley Scott signature of attention to detail given the tour of the titular ship as a rather peaceful introduction before the mayhem began, as well as the littlest of beaming pride displayed all over, such as David's finger being imprinted with the Weyland logo. It didn't go for the jugular and you can feel the punches being pulled too many times, as if keeping all cards very close to his chest, and leaving room for more adventures to follow on from what Prometheus has now teased even further. One can only hope any subsequent film will link up in some way back to the original quadrilogy, while expanding upon its own themes and mythology created.

Saturday, June 02, 2012

Din Tao: Leader of the Parade (陣頭 / Zhen Tou)

Drum It Up!

Our censorship guideline rears its ugly head yet again, and imposes our draconian, incomprehensible requirements onto Taiwanese cinema, and rather than celebrating the diverseness of languages found on the island, we do what Beijing will probably be proud of, turning all the characters here into Mandarin speakers only. With The Soul of Bread, the Taiwanese dialogue got butchered everywhere, so instead of doing the same here, we went one up, and dubbed over ALL Taiwanese dialogue into Mandarin. Well Done!

Does that spoil the film? I would like to say no, unless you scrutinize everyone's mouths, and wonder what expertise in ventriloquism they had mastered in making the sounds coming out of the mouths not in sync with their pursed lips. The dubbers don't even attempt at acting along with the mood of the characters they have taken over, and unless one is performing in a mime, language, tone, and sounds are intricately linked to one's performance. And everything just felt too artificial here.

Which is a pity, because Din Tao belongs to the class of films that would have earned a place amongst my favourites, because music played a large part in it, and its evergreen zero to hero formula got delivered well, just like how Japanese film Beck, and Thai film SuckSeed managed to draw you into the characters' plight, and make you root for them from start to finish, and capped it off with a rousing, memorable performance. I would have preferred to witness an unadulterated version of that finale though, rather than having to frequently cut to a whole host of supporting characters and their flabbergasted reactions to how much their loved ones in the troupe had grown. Perhaps the home video release may have that as an extra feature.

While a glimpse of that big Nezha, or referred to as the Prince, puppet costume was seen recently in The Soul of Bread, Din Tao introduces one of Taiwan's traditional performance that takes place prior to religious processions. Centering around the troupe known as Jiu Tian (literally translated as Nine Skies, and is a real life troupe that provided inspiration for the movie), it's a classical father-son rivalry story, and here we have two sets of father-son relations that got explored. The first involves Uncle Da (Chen Po-cheng, entirely dubbed over) a failed troupe leader, and his son A-Tai (Alan Ko), a failed musician in Taipei who returns to his hometown in Taichung. The other deals with their collective rival and Da's fellow disciple Wu Cheng (Liao Jun) and his son A-Hsien (Alien Huang, who was in Michelle Chong's Already Famous).

The main plot gets kicked off with a do-or-die challenge thrown by Wu Cheng and accepted by A-Tai, who has 6 months to whip his Jiu Tian troupe into shape and defeat Wu Cheng's competent troupe. The usual zero growing to hero antics get put on display, with the usual motley crew of usual suspects having to get their acts together, and in the meantime putting aside character differences for the greater good of the troupe. They embark on a training tour around Taiwan, and learn how to bond together, getting fair attention of the media and having their profiles raised, much to the jealousy of their rivals.

Din Tao has shades of Kenneth Bi's The Drummer, but of course that film was focused on drumming, whereas in this one, drumming is just a part of the entire performance experience, and one gets a sneak peek into something traditionally practiced. But as mentioned, what made this a bigger film is its examination into the themes of tradition and the challenges faced with tradition keeping up with the times, and how sometimes we cannot blindly follow something just because. A needless romantic triangle got thrown in toward the final act of the film that was really inconsequential, but thankfully didn't slow down the narrative one bit, which was a bit of a stretch for the first half with its repetitive sequences involving training of the Jiu Tian troupe members under the new leadership of A-Tai, and its constant interruption and lack of respect given by the members.

Don't get me wrong. Din Tao: Leader of the Parade has ingredients to be a very successful and moving film, which the Taiwanese box office can attest to. Except that it should have been given the cultural respect and have its entire, original language track version played here. The irony is of course the themes it's trying to preach in having one not accept tradition lock stock and barrel, but certainly all these got lost with the censors here who prefer not to look and think outside the box, but find solace within the confines of unsound man made rules. And I weep.

L!fe Happens

3 Women and a Baby

The title says it all, when precautions aren't taken and risks weren't evaluated, allowing the body to rule over the mind, and nine months later, life happens. As the premise goes, Kim (Krysten Ritter) decided to go ahead with her one night stand anyway when housemate and friend Deena (Kate Bosworth) took the last piece of latex to fuel her own carnal desires, and that lapse costs Kim dearly when she becomes mom to Baby Max (played by Connor and Zachary Ross). This becomes the comedic tale of single motherhood, friendship, romance and the likes, a pure chick flick that walks the path of one's horror story during a moment of indiscretion.

Kim certainly isn't cut out to being a mother, clearly without a proper support structure in place save for housemates Deena and Laura (Rachel Bilson), who between them juggle time to take care of Max in what would be reminiscent of Three Men and a Baby. But of course this time juggle wrecks havoc on every one's lives especially when they're at the crossroads of their individual profession, and having baby at home means less time outside for nights out,

Directed by Kat Coiro who co-wrote the story with Krysten Ritter, which they claim had a lot of their individual characters and traits put into the characters of Kim and Deena, Life Happens plays out the typical insecurities of the female, with the baby in it more for the gimmick. As the central character in which the film revolves around, Kim shows she's not all that perfect, willing to "disown" her child Max so that she could have a shot at establishing a new relationship with Nicolas (Geoff Stults) whom she met at a party, and learnt fleetingly of his disdain for kids. And seriously her character is not all that likable given that innate crutch to push Max to just about anyone to babysit, while she schemes to get laid, to put it crudely.

While the film also tried to show the prejudices faced by single mothers and the many challenges they have to conquer, the story throws in Deena as the blonde who gets all the fun, with a career that is taking of, and almost always in control over the relationships with the opposite sex. And the scene during the double date was one of the best as it exposes just about how close and chummy both Kim and Deena are, and yet fully understanding each other's flaws and amplifying them just to spite the other. Cat fight, someone?

The casting is a little bit strange and needed getting used to because each of them don't really look too comfortable in their roles. Krysten Ritter for the most parts looked like a dead ringer for Anne Hathaway, while Kate Bosworth struggles as the alpha-female Deena. Perhaps the most wasted of all characters here belonged to Rachel Wilson, who plays the bimbo with questionable careers that don't seem to last, present only to lend her star power, and to play up on her character's naivety during her reality show participation as America's Last Virgin. And with this being a chick flick, the male characters were nothing more than one dimensional caricatures mostly portrayed as perfect studs, or cads for not fulling understanding the plight of the woman.

Don't look toward this film for that silver bullet instructional material on how to bring up a baby. It had some elements underlying its point that parenting is a full time job made all the more difficult when there is no support from a spouse, and literally sapping life out of oneself in the care and development of another human being. It's almost similar in treatment to another single mom film titled Motherhood starring Uma Thurman, but this one had a lot more characters involved in raising the baby, and having a bevy of good looking casts in a comedy always helps.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Rowdy Rathore

Got An Itch In My Stache

Salman Khan had done it and probably started the recent ball rolling with Dabangg hitting blockbuster status. Then there's the efforts by Ajay Devn, Abhishek Bachchan and John Abraham in Singham, Dum Maaro Dum and Force. So it's only a matter of time before the hardworking Akshay Kumar also put on that khaki uniform with the three lions, and play a no nonsense, hard hitting cop up against corruption and evil as personified by local village gangsters. The plot is simple, the fight very pronounced between good and evil, the romance is thick and cheesy, and the villains all very cartoony. It's a Masala offering with a capital M, and Rowdy Rathore was full of rowdy fun.

Akshay Kumar plays two characters here, each with his own half each side of the interval to accommodate the stories of ACP Vikram Rathore the fearless cop, and of Shiva the cunning thief, whom we get introduced having as glib a tongue as he has silky smooth hands every ready to pinch any valuable from anyone. We get up close to Shiva first, and his unlikely romance with Paro (Sonakshi Sinha, whose breakthrough performance was Dabangg). Vowing to give up his thieving ways to gain the acceptance of Neeraja, his henchman 2G (Paresh Ganatra) and he commits one last heist, only to find a six year old girl Chinki in the trunk of supposed valuables they stole, and compelled to have to adopt her in the meantime when she is adamant that Shiva is her dad. All these confusion will get straightened out by the time the interval rolls by, but until then, the narrative is relatively choppy, flitting between Shiva's pursuit of Paro, and his disdain for Chinki.

But it's after the interval where things got a little bit more interesting with the story of Vikram Rathore coming into the picture, and making Rowdy Rathore pretty much worthwhile. Fans of many South Indian cop films will find this Hindi remake of Vikramarkudu in familiar territory, and films of the same genre will probably tote the same narrative structure as well, with honest cop blessed with super human strength (as part of the fun) going up against corrupt officials and thugs who rule villages with iron fists. In some ways it's almost serving a cathartic function of sorts, when films offer escapism to those who feel oppressed, and find an outlet to cheer for the unlikely coming of a hero, if only on screen. With anyone challenging oppressive authority, schemes will soon be in place to remove the thorn in any corrupt side, but I must say witnessing Vikram Rathore tear through evil like hot knife through butter, was really something that anyone can cheer to after a hard day's work, especially if one has one's fair share of injustice experienced during the day.

It was publicized that Akshay Kumar hasn't played an all out action role since, well 7 years ago, but I thought Tashan wasn't that far behind although he had to share the limelight with his co-stars. Here he owned both characters he played, with the only distinguishing factor between Shiva and Vikram being the subtleness in the design of the mustache he wore for each character. Action sequences are naturally over the top in any Masala film, and this one has its fair share of incredible stunts topped with countless of explosions. There's something a little bit disturbing though in the action choreography, in its effort to follow Hollywood yet again, that slow-motion techniques favoured by the likes of Zack Snyder, found its way to this Bollywood film, and in a pivotal sequence, looked very much inspired by Stephen Chow's Kungfu Hustle, even after so long.

But the best parts of Rowdy Rathore isn't the action, but the characterization and the Indian-English dialogues they're made to express. In Vikram Rathore he stands by his fearlessness of death, and threats to anyone daring to put his daughter in harm's way, with that twirl of his handle-bar mustache and smile, capped with his mantra that he does whatever he says. Shiva on the other hand, although of less brawn but equally, if not more cunning, continues Vikram's good work as Rowdy Rathore, only to add a new flavour to Vikram's threat that he now also does what he doesn't say, sending his enemies into a frenzy only because they cannot fathom what Shiva has up his sleeves.

The song and dance sequences got largely limited to when Shiva and Paro get to express their love for each other, inclusive of spatial travel to far flungs of India, and it's a little bit surprising as to the numbers of songs, and frequency the narrative got interrupted. With the second half intensely gripping, it got abruptly paused for a rock-song sequence that not only brought both actors out of character, but ruined the mood it so carefully set out to craft and instill a forthcoming brooding sense of revenge. Still, it managed to pull in more star power especially in its title track of Chinta Ta Ta Chita Chita with Kareena Kapoor and Superstar Vijay as cameo Item performers.

There's a third story arc squeezed in at the end that came too rushed and was on overdrive to deliver the Rowdy Rathore portion. It was fun to see how the corrupt get their just desserts when having to go up against one of their own - the mantra it takes a thief to catch a thief - and the finale was a pretty much long drawn out affair that started off out of the blue with a sudden kidnapping of sorts. It's true that one can always fall back that a Masala film gets license to do whatever it wants to, but I just felt that if it could have been a little bit more disciplined with its structure, rather than to throw in curveballs on locales and characters, it had potential to become a cult classic. Still, for those of us who crave the quintessential Masala film in a long while, then Rowdy Rathore promises a rocking rowdy time!
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