Friday, August 31, 2012


Lagaan... Not!

Akshay Kumar may be Bollywood's most hardworking actor today, but that also means that not every one of his films is successful given his constant churn of films, although his dabbling in just about every genre conceivable means a very versatile actor balancing his need for high art, with that which can pay the bills. Arguably his 100th film, Joker is that fantasy adventure that started off very brightly, but fizzled from the mid point with ideas running out of steam, and Akki very much hung out to dry, so much so that he's distanced himself from the promotion of the film. Really sad indeed.

But of course the producers, himself included, would love for you to believe otherwise. The signs are there reflecting a troubled production, with the making of the film stretching as far back as 2011, and deciding to abandon its plan of post-converting this to 3D, after the none too stellar outcomes of both RA.One and Don 2. But what's more criminal here, is how Shirish Kunder, in his second film outing as director, failed to capitalize on the fun premise that could have made it a more memorable film, rather than to now market this as for the kids market segment, hoping that the younger demographics would be more forgiving in what it had tried to achieve. Having started on a journey, but making no headway, then pinning it on a misunderstanding from the start, doesn't provide any confidence.

This marks the second time that Akshay Kumar and Sonakshi Sinha are paired together in leading roles in as many times, immediately after Rowdy Rathore. While the latter film was a lot of Masala fun, their outing here proved to be somewhat lacklustre. Akshay plays Agastya, a Non Resident Indian living with his stay at home girlfriend in the USA, working on a technology single-handedly that can communicate with the truth out there, but finds himself making no progress. I mean, it's an expensive project, and the dweeb of a trillion dollar company decided to put all its eggs in one basket, and one employee. Sure, he may be a genius, but even geniuses need help. So he's given one month notice to show results, or be shut down.

Some moping later, Sonakshi's Diva picks up a random call from someone from India telling her that Agastya's father is breathing his last breath. It's only 10 minutes into the story, but already the convenience with how things progressed, is showing signs of narrative trouble. Agastya had told Diva he's an orphan, and now some random call from a stranger comes in, claiming to be Agastya's brother (whom we find out only talks gibberish), citing some medical emergency back home, sees her packing up for the both of them, ready for the next flight out to India. Right. I guess Diva's only demonstrating that she's a real Joker alright, only that she's really serious about Agastya making that trip despite his work deadline, to attend to what could have, in any day, been a prank call.

But this is a film, so they do make their way to his village, in fairly comical fashion, and we see that things are still backward. The prologue had shown that lunatics have taken over the village just before Partition, and the maps having drawn such that this village was dropped out from paper existence, but it's still there, and amongst the madness comes Agastya's genius, who had decided to move out and overseas to make a name for himself. He returns, is moved by everyone's sincerity in seeing him back, and some Tarzan swinging antics later, is convinced to stay put, and make his village visible to the outside world again. The plan? To kill multiple birds with one stone, by crying wolf - that aliens have come, his device works, and having the world's attention focused on the village.

It all goes down from there however, as the ludicrous is piled upon by more ludicrous, and the jokes are just plain unfunny. Perhaps the item number Kafirana is just abut the best thing in the film with its energy, and provided for more livelier moments in the movie, but otherwise everything, moving like the expected clockwork of trouble finding its way to Agastya's plan like a spanner in the works, spelt boredom. It was fun to have the loonies dress up as would be aliens using very common household items and crops, but those cute moments dragged out for far too long. And as mentioned earlier that Agastya's brother speaks rubbish, well, actor Shreyas Talpade who plays him, speaks gibberish all through the film, that sounds rather familiar, like the chants heard over UTV's logo introduction, repeated ad nauseam.

Sure it's a kids movie, and one can point out that it shouldn't be taken too seriously, but I reckon kids should probably enrich their time by watching another alien film with more entertainment value, that of Steven Spielberg's ET. That's not to say there aren't some positives from the film though, but they belonged to the more technical aspects. The production sets here are incredibly beautiful and wonderfully designed, which is a pity given that it's adorning a story that finds itself losing steam from the get go, and not exploiting its art direction fully. The CG work used to recreate the aliens and their wares is adequate, not fantastic, but would still barely work to engage children who couldn't care more about the design, but only the presence of something out of this world.

There was bewilderment when the title of the film was announced, until Sonakshi Sinha tweeted that the Joker is found in a deck of cards not belonging to any suite. I guess that's true, that this film, in its current incarnation, doesn't find itself belonging anywhere nor fitting in, trying to be a lot that it isn't, and falling flat. The joke's clearly on us all, the audience, and you'd do yourself a favour by not falling for this joker. I hate to say this, but this goes into the shortlist as the duds the year has experienced so far. It's a real pity that Akshay Kumar had this to show for as his centurion body of work.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi

Shall We Dance?

It's a rare occasion when Bollywood decides to junk those six pack, rock solid abs, and that shapely hour glass, proportional figure, from its leading characters, with superstars idolized by millions cast as lovers and setting the stage for an incredible love story, for something that's more grounded to earth. Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi is that love story about middle aged singles finding each other serendipitously, and falling in love in the process. Without much fan fare, without incredible trips to far flung reaches of the world. Just in and around your neighbourhood, when you least expected.

Boman Irani is probably best known by most for his role as the principal in 3 Idiots, and he's arguably just about being one of the best character actors in Bollywood, despite having to usually play someone's dad in his movies because he's middle age. Here he reclaims the leading role as Farhad, the singleton who's way past mid life, and constantly being egged on by those in the family, either with love or being mocked at, to get hitched. It's just that he doesn't have much luck at the romantic front, and his job as a salesman / consultant at Tem Tem's Bra and Panties Shop, doesn't endear him to the opposite sex who are looking for a partner with a more glamourous job to boast about.

But his honesty is just about that primary trait he exudes, coupled with that filial piety that's overlooked, with Daisy Irani and Shammi playing his mother and grandmother respectively, almost always threatening to steal the show with their comical timing and personifying the loveliness in a zany household, ribbing Farhad for this single ways, yet eager that he soon finds a soulmate after failed attempts at variations in matchmaking. But the expanded household sometimes got in the way especially with its rather feeble attempts at jokes, such as an Uncle's probable Alzheimer's induced infatuation with Indira Ghandhi, that may be cute in the beginning, but got a little bit tired when it stayed past its welcome in the narrative.

Still, the revelation here is Farah Khan. Yes, THE Farah Khan, who had masterfully choreographed item numbers in countless of Indian films, as well as turning into a filmmaker, being in the director's chair for films such as Main Hoon Na, Om Shanti Om and Tees Maar Khan, the latter which I enjoyed even if it got ravaged by most. She goes in front of the camera as the spinster Shirin, who got amused by her first encounter with Farhad at the Tem Tem shop, before as the story would have it, like Romeo and Juliet, become his only love sprung from whom he should have hated, being responsible for ordering the demolition of an illegal water tank that Farhad's dad had installed in his family home. This sets up for the perennial war between the would be daughter-in-law with her potential mother-in-law, if the blessings to get married do come.

Being the rookie actress, her rawness does get noticed, but somehow this was somewhat refreshing, rather than the countless of flawless performances put in by the Bollywood idols that put them too high up on the pedestal. Director Bela Bhansali Sehgal had worked the chemistry and pairing between Boman Irani and Farah Khan to wonders, and their starring opposite each other in many courtship scenes, while expected in its development, turned out as what would be best thing about the movie. Shirin Farhad Ki Toh Nikal Padi is as simple as it can get in storytelling terms, with the director applying uncomplicated techniques that won't distract the audience, and sometimes, plain vanilla is something that works best, even when the thin story tried its best to stretch itself toward the two hour mark. For a Bollywood film, the songs here didn't quite stick after the end credit rolled, and while Farah Khan does show a knack for dance (for sure, right?), Boman Irani did look a little bit awkward here when required to perform.

And for all the singles out there, with paunch, belly and all, perhaps this romantic comedy will provide that glimmer of hope that all is not lost. It addresses the constant pressures one may get from well meaning family members, even drawing upon real world scenarios such as the protection of one's clan or turf through population numbers, without which some heritage would be lost. Or addressing the habit of judging someone at face value, or profession, and drawing all sorts of conclusions from it. A lingerie salesman you say? I'm sure some would jump at the opportunity without hesitation!

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Before We Forget


I've finally managed to catch this documentary by Jeremy Boo and Lee Xian Jie, having missed it while en route back to Singapore from the Hong Kong International Film Festival, where it made its world premiere at this year's edition of the South East Asian Film Festival, and other one off screenings at various locations. So you can imagine my joy that I've managed to jump at this opportunity to watch the film in a proper cinema setting. But much has changed from March until now, and perhaps I am now better equipped to sit through this, having to share similar experiences in being caregivers to a disease that has no known cure, that you'd slowly see one's love one having their cognitive abilities sapped away.

Before We Forget provides a snapshot of two women suffering from dementia, and the experiences of their family in coping with someone afflicted with a cruel neurological disease. The filmmakers followed their subject over the course of one year in making this documentary, as it joins the ranks of other medical and health related films in Singapore, which are not many - Jasmine Ng's Pink Paddlers comes to mind, as do Ang Aek Heng's This Too Shall Pass, and even Royston Tan's narrative short Ah Kong (阿公) which was also on the same subject - in an effort to raise awareness of the disease, and hopefully to remove stigma that society is quick to embrace when faced with the problems.

The filmmakers Jeremy Boo and Lee Xian Jie chose their subjects well, having two persons at different stages of the disease being subjects, that will inevitably cover the timeline from onset to the loss of ability, or to highlight and allow us to appreciate that the disease brings about massive change, whether be it in one's being, or the life that revolves around the sufferers. In the Fernandez family, I presume Celine is already into quite an advanced stage, with the loss of speech and motor skills, while with Dr Irene Giam, we see first hand how one with extreme self-awareness, can over a period of time, slowly degenerate into a state that betrays her academic excellence. In my opinion, the field of Neurology is still very much at its infancy, with the mind and brain still being the big unknown, that we have almost no response to diseases that afflicts the mind.

And through its subjects, the film tackles misconceptions, and expectations, that come with the disease, whether through the patients, or as the film also smartly crafted, a spotlight put on those who are primary caregivers, never forgetting the toil it takes when one has to look after another full time, and the absolute patience that it calls for. Having two subjects and their family also allowe for stark contrasts, such as one who has already lost all powers of speech, and one still being able to express her emotions in rather eloquent terms. We also bear witness to mobility issues, with general discussions on faith, or the lack thereof, which sometimes with the dianogsis of a disease, it may turn some into become more spiritual or religious. And let's not forget about the very compelling monologue which Dr Irene Giam put forth with regards to the quality of life, which the filmmakers shrewdly interjects the narrative with how Joyce Fernandez would be fighting instead to stay alive, and to get home.

Quality of life is something that became the focus in the later part of the film, and also becoming the thought that you'll leave the cinema with. It provokes discussion into whether one would prefer to man up and come to acceptance of what life has decided to dish unto you, and call it a day when time's up, rather than to continue battling it out along a road that leads to the inevitable anyway. Sure, one can say that one fought the good fight, but having to endure tubes being pushed into one's body, and not being able to partake in life fully, may make one reconsider, since it also piles on the strain and stress on the caregiver. It's also sad to watch Irene's startling degeneration, from someone who's relatively self aware with gutso, reduced to someone who rambles.

One of the filmmakers' aims is to remove stigma that comes with the disease, whether on the patient or the caregiver, and they've done it well, never portraying anything more than necessary lest scenes start to feel contrived, or that they are generating sympathy for the sake of. It could have, but didn't, and you'd have to salute the filmmakers' decision not to, because of the tremendous damage that comes if it is deemed exploitative, doing more harm than good and running contrary to their beliefs prior to embarking on this film, and subsequent book project. The movie does not hold concrete answers on the cure, but it sure does highlight in its own way, how we should all be a little bit more gracious and understanding, in helping those who need a helping hand. I wish everyone featured in the film well, with thanks to have opened themselves up for a film, and to hang in there when the ride gets rough.

If you would like to find out more about the disease and the film, you can always do so at Probably the best local film to date this year, that has to find a bigger audience. The word during the Q&A is that there should be distribution for the home market sometime early next year, whether streaming, DVD, or otherwise.

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- Official Movie Webpage
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Monday, August 27, 2012

Bangkok Revenge

It seems that Action Films are getting back into fashion with its recent turn into more visceral violence that are being put on screen. Still, as an action film junkie, one will probably lap up the set action sequences shown in Bangkok Revenge's trailer, even if the story, at this junction from its recently released synopsis, may not be too much to shout about.

But boy, check the action out! Hopefully we'd get to see this here one day.

DIRECTOR: Jean-Marc Minéo
WRITER: Jean-Marc Minéo
CAST: Jon Foo, Caroline Ducey, Michael Cohen
RUNTIME: 80 minutes

Manit (Jon Foo) witnessed the murder of his parents when he was just 10 years old. The killers shot him in the head, but he miraculously survived. However, the damage to his brain left him unable to experience regular human emotions. A martial arts master saved him and took him in. Twenty years later, Manit has become a master of martial arts himself. He returns to the scene of the crime, seeking justice.

Take a look!

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Sunday, August 26, 2012


One Love

There are a number of autobiographical films these days paying tribute to the current crop of musicians, singers and the likes, and are often combined with 3D to milk in the cash since they are going to reach out only to a limited number of fans. So it's quite refreshing to see a biographical one told of a musical legend. For those who have no inkling to who Bob Marley is, or what reggae sounds like and its influence, Marley the documentary is for you, and for Bob Marley fans alike. Directed by Kevin Macdonald, who made films like The Last King of Scotland, The Eagle and State of Play, Marley revisits the music documentary, and it's really an ambitious one given the size and scale of what was covered, and finding that fine balance that can appeal to the serious fan, and the casual movie-goer without alienating them.

Macdonald takes his time to tell the story of this influential musician and charismatic performer, who came from humble roots in a small town in Jamaica, before doing what he does best with his band The Wailers, touring the world and spreading their message of love and peace through their music. In 144 minutes, Macdonald provided a very linear presentation in bringing us through the chronological series of events in Bob Marley's life, through a series of talking heads styled interviews with family, friends, and those who have played a significant part in various memorable episodes. You can sense the director's reverence for the subject in having carefully assembled and crafted Marley's various performances into the narrative, as well as digging through countless of archives to look for gems, especially those marking Bob Marley's formative years in Jamaica.

Not only were the good put on display, but those that some of us may frown upon as well, got included rather than being glossed over, or deliberately overlooked, such as the growing and smoking of weed, and his rather free loving ways with women, fathering many children with different women. But as the film painted them all out, somehow they all turned out good, with drugs never being part of the tours that made countries go jittery, and the open relationships that somehow got through with tacit understanding, that one may think of as terribly generous.

There's really little to say about what's covered in the film, because of its broad spectrum and attention paid to significant portions and incidents in Bob Marley's life, that the curious can probably look up Wikipedia and get the whole tale. But a film allows more to be presented, especially for those who have never seen him live, to have a feel at his stage presence from the archived clips that were carefully curated, even though I'm almost certain some days down the road, or even now, that some would have already turned up on file or video sharing sites. But I digress.

Macdonald knows his material, and the film got wonderfully edited in engaging the audience, even when there were moments that dwelled on his lineage and family background, or having to work on deeper issues like his music and Rastafari philosophy, allowing appreciation of matters close to Bob Marley's heart, and to see for oneself in what actually made him tick. Anecdotes from close friends, colleagues, and fellow members of the industry, whether from the studios point of view, or from members of his band who had come and gone, all brought out different facets of the man's life, whether from the angle of him being the consummate professional, the inspirational songwriter, or seen during his leisure activities in running and football.

It's also history on film, with how Macdonald reminded how closely tied Bob was to the politics of his home town, and the political infighting that had threatened to pull the country apart. It is here that I witness first hand the power of music as a unifying force for peace, healing the rift divided by reasons long unknown and diluted, but resolved once again by an artform, which in this case is music, together with Bob Marley's powers of improvisation and sincerity in wanting to make the world a better place, starting with his hometown, country, then other continents, and hopefully one day, the world. His philanthropy, no matter how disorganized it may seem, also got thrust into the spotlight, and from various news reels, interviews, notable quotes, Marley the documentary paints a more than three dimensional look at the man behind the music.

If you're not a fan of Bob Marley or have never listened to any of his music, Marley will urge you to do so by the time the end credits roll, as I doubt the reggae sounds will not cause you to be moved, or spark an interest in wanting to know, and listen to more. A staggering discography of more than 60 songs got packed into this documentary to provide like a quick overview to the music of a legend, and if you aren't a fan, chances are that Kevin Macdonald would have made you one by the time you're through this encyclopedic account. Highly recommended and into my shortlist as one of the best of the year!

After School Midnighters (放課後ミッドナイターズ Hōkago Midnighters)


I can't understand why After School Midnighters only managed 4 scheduled screenings here over this weekend, given that Japanese anime has its audience in Singapore. Directed by Hitoshi Takekiyo, this animated comedy film isn't quite the horror anime that the trailers may have touted it to be, but has a relatively fun action adventure setting based on three little girls in Mako (voiced by Haruka Tomatsu), Mitsuko (Minako Kotobuki) and Miko (Sakiko Uran) who spend a day, and night, at St Claire Elementary School.

During their day visit, the trio had ventured into the Science Room, and had a good time vandalizing two exhibits - an anatomical human body and a skeleton. Little do they know that like Toy Story, these two forms known as Kunstlijk (Kouichi Yamadera) and Goth (Hiromasa Taguchi) respectively, come to life when nobody's around. Angered by what the three girls had done, Kunstlijk summoned them back to the school using an After School Midnight Party pass to entice them, for the sole purpose of revenge, while Goth is dead set against vengeance, since he thinks the girls can help them save their Science Lab, and their own obsolescence.

It centers around the urban legend of three medals, which when brought together, can grant a wish. Think of it like the DragonBall. But in order to get those medals, there are, well, the usual challenges that have to be overcome from the arenas of the Pool, the Digital Room and the Music Room, each having their own "Boss" to defeat, before having the medal bestowed upon. This of course provides the set up for set action pieces, the introduction of more quirky characters such as a mer-man, to digital oracles and spirits of musical maestros, and in some cases, comedy as well. And the challenges may range from the mundane of out-swimming the mer-man, to more challenging ones like telling the oracles something new, or to compose a song to impress the composers, which is near impossible.

But leave it to the three girls to come up with solutions, and I have to admit they sort of grow on you as the film wore on. They couldn't be any more diverse in character, and bring their own strengths to the film. There's the little missy rich brat in Mako, Mu with her fringe covering most of her face, and wearing that oversized dress, coupled with a penchant of wanting to specimen almost everything in a bottle, and there's Mi as the youngest and most eager of the lot. They're infectious, and more so than the Power Puff Girls combined. Fearless too, with a mean streak running in them, that makes them the bane of some, and the hope of others in the story.

It's also pretty amazing that the narrative is rather expansive, and has plenty of elements which may seem innocuous at the point of introduction, but boy when it comes to the payload, they all delivered at the right place, and at the right time. And the plot elements can be as diverse as from gun totting rabbits to a time machine. Or how about an evil being known as Chabris manifesting itself as an awful looking fruit fly of sorts, hell bent on destroying everything, and being the chief antagonist for this big action adventure, with everything coming together for that one big closed loop.

The animation is a mix of simple designed characters, to the more intricate ones such as Kunstlijk for his many internal parts that have to be shown, to the details of his stripped down muscles. And besides the three girls, Kunstlijk himself is quite the character, being on both sides of the equation of the alpha type, to being slapstick fodder, especially when his various schemes go awry and backfire. Perhaps then it is his character that made After School Midnighters quite the engaging film it is, through his looks (or lack thereof) to being the glue in which everything revolves around.

It's a pity that After School Midnighters got an extremely limited release here, so maybe it may find its way through some of the more specialized festivals to reach out to a wider audience.

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Call for entries - 4th Singapore Short Film Awards‏

The 4th Singapore Short Film Awards 2013
Presented by The Substation, Co-organised by Objectifs

The 4th Singapore Short Film Awards is back! We are now accepting entries for the 2013 Singapore Short Film Awards.

The deadline for submissions is 20 October 2012.

If you have made a short film, no longer than 30 minutes, in 2011/2012, but screened publicly only in 2011, we want to see it! It may be in the running for the Singapore Short Film Awards 2013!

For more details, please visit:–-call-for-entries/

Friday, August 24, 2012

The Watch


A neighbourhood watch group concept is probably nothing new to the audience in Singapore, given that this scheme has some history going back into the 70s, in what would be a subset of neighbourliness, helping one another in the same block or community maintain some law and order. But of course if a comedic story is to be told based on this premise, there will be no lack of material drawn from experience in the patrols done, or even from within the group of diverse people coming together to achieve some common objectives related to safety and security.

Ben Stiller reunites with Vince Vaughn since their days in Dodgeball, and you can't help but feel that their characters have been set up to reflect a very obvious rivalry. Stiller plays Evan, the neighbourhood's most connected man with his founding of various clubs from running to Spanish classes, even volunteering for a small political office, that ensures his appeal across all spectra of the community, and in doing so, trying real hard to boost his popularity and perhaps ego. There's some truth to this especially when he feels to be of a lesser man, and needs his networks up in order to feel complete. But when a colleague dies so horribly in his supermarket, and the police is quite the inept force, he starts yet another club to address his pain and fear - the Neighborhood Watch, NW.

So enter the motley crew of only three, with Vaughn playing the paranoid Bob, a paranoid, over-protective father of teenage daughter Chelsea (Erin Moriarty), Franklin (Jonah Hill) a man-child who got rejected by the police force, and Englishman Jamarcus (Richard Ayoade), who is in it just so as to provide a glimmer of hope that his wildest fantasies involving Asian housewives. All of them seem to have emotional issues, with maturity way lower than their ages, so that's automatic avenue for lot's of comedy right?

Well, that was the plan anyway. Director Akiva Schaffer may have a series of SNL skits under his belt, but when extrapolated into a feature film, the story by Jared Stem, Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg seemed to have forgotten to put the comedy into the film. It's more of a science fiction drama by the time that the aliens make their appearance on screen, and even then their designs look like cheap knock off rejects from Alien. It's serious in tone and comedy becomes nothing but an after-thought, unless you think of Vaughn's constant trash-talking as humour - even that became boring after a while, and definitely looked very forced, as if he had to desperately dig at everything just to save the film. The best bits of comedy can all be found in the trailer, so what's left are the usual rote expectations from a team of misfits movie that deals with their team dynamics, arguments, and eventual get together to show the world, or community in this case, just what they're capable of.

To think of it as Attack The Block starring older men, with less action sequences, would probably be quite apt, but even then it lacked the novelty, and the thrills, that Attack The Block had brought to the table. There are some nice touches here of course, such as the how the father-daughter relationship between Bob and Chelsea panned out, and the off key, heart to heart talk between Bob and Evan regarding the latter's condition. And how about the constant under-mining of an authoritative figure being a running thread in the film, which plays on the questioning of authority who don't make sense - quite an appeal here - and on the flip side, having the not so capable leading a bunch of free spirited volunteers spells a recipe for disaster.

But everything else was rather mediocre. One would have thought that by banding a group of comedians together would automatically mean a riot of good time should they have collectively gelled their chemistry and tickle those funny bones big time, coupled with some surprises at the end. However The Watch is just that, standing around using eye power only, with little output.

Thursday, August 23, 2012

The Apparition

I'll Get The Lingerie Thief

The Apparition is an abomination of the horror genre. It tried so hard, but fell smack flat with lacklustre delivery, with a non existent plot and absolutely zero scares. Worst, the studios seem to know of the problems with the film, and put just about every fine moment that the film has onto its trailer, committing the cardinal sin of telling the entire story, and showing the exact ending. All these just to ramp up interest in its premise, before the sham got exposed a few minutes into its short runtime of 82 minutes.

Written and directed by first timer Todd Lincoln, it felt as if the filmmaker was totally clueless in knowing how to tell a story, rooting from a single great idea of a premise for the genre, but having undoubtedly little inspiration and creativity in the development of a story from the idea. It teased with the introductory inter-title about an experiment from the 70s, before proceeding to show a film purportedly capturing some glimpses of the said experiment. Fast forward to today, some college students get involved in trying to replicate that 70s experiment, involving the invocation of a spirit, and all goes awry.

Before you know it, that narrative thread is left hanging in the hopes that it will create suspense and mystery, and the film went on for the most parts to tell the story of lovebirds Ben (Sebastian Stan) and Kelly (Ashley Greene), in showing just how awesome their lives are, and having to co-habitate in the holiday home of Kelly's parents, in a designer neighbourhood with all but one neighbour. Perfect set up for things that go bump in the night, and before long, we follow the duo trying to make sense of shadows, open doors, moving furniture and the likes, before finally freaking out and looking for answers in the form of Ben's friend Patrick (Tom Felton), who was his buddy in that same college experiment seen earlier in the film.

As mentioned, there is absolutely nothing here that will raise your adrenaline level, or make you cower from behind semi-closed eyes. A toddler will probably laugh at the meek attempts to create an atmosphere to scare, and perhaps find Ashley Greene prancing around in her underwear a lot more appealing for those peek-a-boo moments. Pacing is totally off, not helped by Todd Lincoln having no story to tell. Everyone seemed to be sleepwalking in their roles, making it horrendous to sit through with scenes being fairly stand-alone with little links to one another, and the premise right at the beginning, well, was just that, not being exploited fully to keep everything under one coherent narrative.

You can sense that Lincoln had probably wanted to tell of a more cerebral story than the usual run of the mill horror flicks, but surely this is way out of his league, and I'm sure many in the audience will appreciate a more direct approach in dishing out the scares. He's got to realize that he's no Kiyoshi Kurosawa as the story tries so hard to become a spiritual peer to the Japanese director's acclaimed film Kairo (which was remade by Hollywood into Pulse), and that one shouldn't bite off more than one can chew.

The Apparition makes watching paint dry seem like a roller coaster ride. Avoid it at all costs, unless you want to learn how not to make a film. You have been warned as this stinker sinks right to the bottom of the pile of worst films of the year.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Hotaru the Movie: It's Only a Little Light in My Life (Eiga Hotaru no Hikari / 映画 ホタルノヒカリ)

There She Goes

Prior to the movie, I never understood what's a "Dried Up Woman" in the Japanese context, other than to imagine how suggestive that title would probably ever be when unceremoniously bestowed on a lady. Hotaru the Movie is based on the manga series by Satoru Hiura, and in 2007, a television series got produced starring Haruka Ayase and Naohito Fujiki in the title roles of lovebirds Hotaru Takano and Seiichi Takano respectively, a series which got a second season in 2010, from which the movie continues from.

Those not brought up to speed by the television series would find it suffice to know that Hataru Takano works for an interior design company, and she's quite the capable career lady, she's really the opposite when at home. A sloth if you'd like, preferring to relax on her veranda, stretched out and with beer in hand. Housework is not in her vocabulary, and messiness is but a second nature. Her boss Seiichi Takano coincidentally happens to be her landlord's son, which leads to her constant, cloying calls of "Boss", after a relationship develops.

The entry point into the film is an opportunity to set up a big budget spectacle for a romantic comedy to work, with the first act introducing the basic tenets of each lead character, and with Rome being put forth as a likely potential honeymoon venue. True to her character, Hotaru prefers to laze at home rather than to travel hundreds of miles to tour an overseas location, but the business trip opportunity that Seiichi gets himself onto, meant a fairly reluctant Hotaru going along after realizing that it just might be fulfilling one of the dreams of her partner. Cue the many touristy shots of famous landmarks that the duo will visit throughout the course of the film, which I'm sure will bring back nice memories of anyone who had visited the Italian capital city before.

But in expanding the storyline, writer Fumie Mizuhashi introduced a brother and sister in Rio (Yasuko Matsuyuki) and Yu Saeki (Yuya Tegoshi) whom Hotaru and Seiichi will encounter in their honeymoon, which somehow become one of those unwanted gatecrashers to the party. They bring about emotional baggage that threaten to stall the narrative and shift focus, especially when Hotaru and Rio start t hang out to look for the purportedly kidnapped Seiichi, and with Rio introduced as yet another Dried Up Woman as well. Yu's role is to add some comedic flair as the childish brother of Rio, although this role doesn't seem to add up too much.

Thankfully, this film triumphs in having the presence of Haruka Ayase, and between her and Naohito Fujiki, it's hands down just who the real star of the film is, and the more popular character of the two. Seiichi is a little stiff and played too seriously, prim and proper almost all the time, so it's without a doubt that Hotaru herself is the main draw and attraction. Ayase nails it as the zany, bubbly girl who really can't be too bothered about decorum, whether in Japan or overseas, and has enough antics up her sleeve to endear herself to just about anyone. It's really laugh out loud material with Ayase showing a knack for comedic timing, and some of the best scenes involve both leading characters misunderstanding and misreading intentions with what's actually being said or done, and the constant embarrassment Hotaru sometimes bring into their relationship.

Those who cannot stand anyone who cloys, or acts cute, may find it a definite turn off, but clearly this is a film not meant for you then, since it's meant for the legions of fans of both the manga and television series to continue where they last left off. There are a couple of surprises all contained within the final act that will please fans, and open up more avenues either for a follow up film, or yet another television series. Only time will tell!

Sunday, August 19, 2012

[BR] The Chemical Brothers: Don't Think (2012)

Friends will know I'm a fan of The Chemical Brothers, especially since spending school days in labs with their music constantly played as an apt distraction from work needed to be done. So I've spent a fair bit of time with their music, but yet to attend any of their performances / concerts even if they had swung by into Singapore - I can't remember. So I was indeed surprised to see this Blu-Ray available in a warehouse sale because it's a fairly recent product, so it has to be rescued from the bargain bin. No regrets there.

Filmed with a 20 person camera crew during last year's Fuji Rock Festival in Japan in front of a 50,000 strong crowd, since it's after all, the final headline act, Don't Think is a live album and concert film rolled into one, with views throughout either from amongst the party-goers, at the stage, or a top down view of the console to see Tom Rowlands and Ed Simons in action. It puts you right there together with the thousands of people, just minus the sweat and smell, and soon you'd find yourself bobbing to, and probably dancing along, as the Brothers work it out.

Directed by Adam Smith, there's a little bit of a narrative going on as well, as there are periodic breaks from the usual stage-audience cut-aways, to following Mario Kobayashi Stopford, credited as the Girl at Fuji, as we get to walk around a bit at the concert venue to check out the trails between performance venues, and various food and drinks shops fueling hungry and thirsty people taking a break from the non-stop festival. It puts you right there and then as if you're part of the festivities, even if you're really just lounging at home and watching this through a screen.

But the highlight of course is the staggering LED screen projecting hundreds of psychedelic images and laser light effects that accompany the many tunes the Chemical Brothers are spinning from the console, and it is these visuals that makes this film an apt substitute of being there, from ugly looking clowns to colourful silhouettes trancing to the beats. There's even an advisory the the strobbing effect may affect viewers with photo-sensitive epilepsy or other similar conditions, so be warned! It's quite unlike any other concert film where the focus is almost always on the performer, since there's nothing too interesting from seeing Rowlands and Simons operating the console, but this gets compensated manifold by the lights and effects show on display.

The Blu Ray is region free, and is presented in an anamorphic widescreen transfer which at times does show some grain, with a choice to listen to the soundtrack in 2.0 or 7.1 Dolby Digital, the latter which of course is the obvious and better reason since you'd want to recreate that sense surround concert experience. The Blu Ray also comes packaged with the CD containing just the live audio with the same tracks as played during the concert, and there's a booklet that comes within.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Ek Tha Tiger

Always Time To Romance

Salman Khan in recent years have been in top form, becoming the box office phenomenon and cementing his popularity and legacy with iconic roles in films from Wanted, Dabangg, Ready, Bodyguard, and now Ek Tha Tiger. Not to diss the other filmmakers who have enjoyed success together with Salman, but his first work under the Yash Raj banner has the usual YR gloss being applied, making it quite the stylish affair to accentuate Salman's charisma on screen as the larger than life Tiger, formidable and arguably the most fearsome field agent for RAW, India's external spy arm.

Pakistan had reportedly banned the film, since the story deals with RAW vs Pakistan's ISI in highlighting the obvious odds between them, in a spy versus spy world where the opening act had Tiger tail, intimidate, interrogate, battle, and finally walking away victorious from scores of ISI agents hot on his trail. We see him exercising his reputation first hand, and is what 007 is to MI6, and come to observe plenty of his parkour like skills in many rooftop chases throughout the film, with Salman doing what Salman does best in his many action roles, to thunderous applause of approval from fans in the audience.

The setting in this film is ambitious, with similar 007 jet setting to beautiful though not quite far flung locations with the likes of Iraq, Ireland, and even Cuba, so with different locales brings about different stunt teams and choreographers to vary the flavour of the action. It's a little pity though that at times, because of Salman's bulk in physique, it's quite discerning to note when a stuntman takes Tiger's place, since one would not want to risk the big star's safety in some of the more dangerous stunts. And because Salman will always be Salman in a film and does what he does best, there is no lack of camp and sense of fun, with movie logic thrown in by the bucketloads for good measure, otherwise you can't get away with sliding down a hill on a car door and passing through highway traffic unscathed, or have the ability to call upon a ramp in the middle of a runway. Yes, we live for moments like this in a Hindi action movie.

Still, with big budget action spectacle, such as the stopping of a runaway tram being one of many highlights, the story grounds itself into a romantic one. On his latest mission to spy on an Indian scientist allegedly giving away trade secrets on India's anti-missile system, he falls for the scientist's caretaker Zoya (Katrina Kaif) unwittingly, and having not been in love before (you see, it's an occupational hazard), he turns from tiger to tame pussy cat in her presence, going extra miles and veering out of mission objectives (he would deny it of course) just to spend more time with her. And ultimately, it is this emotion that will cause him to hang a target board on his back from both RAW and ISI, and for a man in love, will do just about anything to be able to walk into the sunset with his lady love.

Spilt into two halves, the narrative in the first comes complete with comedic moments, especially with Tiger's Ally McBeal-ish moments of fantasy each time Zoya's questions becomes something of a funny reminiscence that screams of what he would like to explain, but can't. It gets all serious with the politics in the second half though, with fears from Tiger's direct supervisors of his potential of leaking information of his country into the enemies should he be captured, so in true clandestine style, the Tiger has to be put down without prejudice. Such is the world of the movie spy, with a twist in the romance that Shakespeare himself would be proud of, especially when it has to rival the bard's greatest love story ever.

It's no doubt that Ek Tha Tiger would be the blockbuster it's expected to be, for its lush production values now combined with two of the hottest Hindi stars of the present moment. Salman Khan and Katrina Kaif sizzle on screen with their chemistry each time they appear together, whether for a lovers' sharing of sweet nothings, or when it's time to hit the action button. At some points in the last act come questions of loyalty and allegiance that would put you on the edge of your seat because you'll find yourself drawn into rooting for them to get out of the deadly scenario they have put themselves under, though credit has to be given for not stretching those moments too far that it gets bogged down by its own doing.

The songs in the film serve as another major highlight, since they punctuate the romance and the action, without a song and dance moment in the film being felt out of place. Banjaara had Sukhwinder Singh's vocals, and allowed Katrina Kaif to become the clotheshorse with a number of costume changes throughout. But my personal favourite from the soundtrack is Mashallah, though featured in the film only as the end credits roll. Anyone doubting the chemistry between the leads, should just take a look at any of the film's music videos to be convinced.

Directed by Kabir Khan, who was at the helm with films like Kabul Express, and New York, he has shown a knack for being able to craft stories that are larger than life, and being entrusted with Ek Tha Tiger after only two films with the studio, demonstrates the confidence it has in the abilities of the director. Hopefully, with the announcement of a sequel being green lit, we'd see another Tiger outing with Kabir at the helm again. Definitely recommended, for those eager to watch a Hindi blockbuster that can rival Hollywood's anytime.

Thursday, August 16, 2012

The Expendables 2

For Planet Hollywood!

The mercenaries are back! And if the response from the box office is stellar, I suppose The Expendables can build upon a formula that's established through the two films to date, that somehow follows how James Bond would have done it, with its longevity inspiring similar treatment. There's the opening big bang action sequence, followed by Bruce Willis' shady CIA operative Mr Church coming on to provide Barney (Sylvester Stallone) and his team a challenge they cannot refuse (by way of blackmail). Technology and weapons go down to bare basics with loads of guns, knives and brass knuckles, with room for a female companion somewhere, against a mob boss played by somebody well known.

The Muscles from Brussels Jean-Claude Van Damme had agreed to step into the shoes of the villainous boss called erm, Vilain, and shows he still got the moves with his signature roundhouse kicks. His plan is to make billions through mining weapons grade plutonium from a mine mapped out by the CIA, and together with lackey Hector (Scott Adkins), snarl in cocky fashion for the most parts, with Hector doing most of the dirty work of enslaving villagers to do their dirty bio-hazardous work. I guess egos got put aside when both got signed on to play villains amongst hundreds of faceless goons who are plain fodder when the Expendables come knocking, no thanks to a personal vendetta being set up early in the movie, giving Barney just cause for tracking, hunting, then killing.

Don't expect The Expendables sequel to be any brainier than the original of course, since nothing is cerebral here, and anything that exhibits a little bit of ingenuity, or brains, get mocked at. Just look at how Dolph Lundgren's Gunner Jensen got treated throughout as a mad scientist equivalent. It's really all about the bigger the guns, muscles and explosions, with the first scene establishing just how our heroes would plough through their adversaries - with ease like hot knife through butter. There's plenty of CG blood, gore, decapitations of various appendage done in a myriad of styles, they're all dumbed down to somewhat cartoony violence - where no matter what the faceless goons throw at The Expendables, nothing sticks, with vice versa accuracy the other way round. You may balk at scenes involving high caliber weapons literally ripping through a hole in someone's body or blowing up heads to smithereens, but it's the way the heroes become executioners, all without remorse.

Directing duties are given to Simon West, and in all honesty, he ensured a better way to shoot all the action, that is a leg up from how Stallone decided to do it, which was a blurry mash of clashing bodies in extreme closeups. Here we get to see who does what, with some incredible stunts filled with movie logic loopholes, you'd fare better if you leave your inhibitions at the door, and enjoy this action film for what it is. The screenplay by Richard Wenk and Stallone doesn't leave any room for character development, except for the continued buddy bromance between Barney and his right hand man Lee Christmas (Jason Statham). And their crew also got pared down with Jet Li appearing in just the first two scenes, with the team made up most of the time by Barney, Lee, Gunner, Hale (Terry Crews) and Toll (Randy Couture), with Yu Nan replacing Li as the token female and Chinese character who balances brains, guts and brawn.

What this outing now had, is plenty of jokes. It doesn't pretend to be what it's not, and junks seriousness, ever willing to trade in laughs at every opportunity. There are enough corny one liners here, and action set ups, that parody the action careers of Stallone, Willis and Schwarzenegger combined, the trio whom most audiences are really here to watch gracing the same screen together. And let's not forget good old Chuck Norris as Booker, with a tip of the hat going in the direction of the countless of Chuck Norris jokes that get a leg up when told by the legendary man himself, with his Booker having a reputation of being much of a lone wolf, coupled with a knack of appearing when needed, and given the abilities of all his action film roles combined.

The story centers on a vendetta to be settled between The Expendables and Vilain, and being a personal one too, with a handful of emotional scenes for Stallone to flex his acting chops a little. In what would be an uncanny coincidence, Stallone himself had to battle personal loss during the promotional tour of this film with the passing of his son. Despite having his crew made up of veterans of action roles past, Stallone continues to show that he has a fun-filled, violent action franchise that's picking up traction, and has enough legs to warrant more films to come, especially when more names like Snipes and Eastwood have been bandied around as potential inclusions. Action fans, this is something that you won't want to miss, especially if you've grown up in the 80s and 90s!

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

The Silent War (听风者 / Ting Feng Zhe)

Follow Me

If China has an NSA equivalent in the 1950s, then perhaps this secret unit codenamed 701 may be it, with its huge army of operatives employed in listening, code making, code breaking, and having field agents out there move in when the intelligence war is won, and time for some real action. Based on the novel "Plot Against" by Mai Jia, writer-directors Felix Chong and Alan Mak combine forces once again to weave an intricate spy thriller that's full of their usual innovativeness employed in storytelling, and reunites them with leading man Tony Leung, after their project Confession of Pain.

I can imagine how they could have enticed Tony to pick up the role. After all, one of the most memorable sequences in Infernal Affairs has Tony Leung engaged in a back channel communication with the police through morse code. And morse code takes centerstage here, with the directors perhaps having challenged the actor an opportunity to brush up his skills. Sure I may not understand morse, and nor can I vouch for the authenticity of what's being communicated in the film, and if my dad was still around he could decipher all the dits and the dats in a jiffy. In any case, any film with the thespian on board is worth a second look, and here, the filmmakers threw another gauntlet, by having him play a blind man, taking away those soulful eyes from the equation, to force the actor out of his comfort zone and deprive him one of his most mesmerizing gifts.

And of course, it's not a surprise that Tony Leung still aces his role of He Bin, an assistant to a piano tuner, who is somewhat like a peer of Daredevil, with his extra sensory prowess channelled into his ability to listen to sounds miles away, or to discern voices from noise. He is discovered by Zhou Xun's 701 operative Chang Xue Ning, one of the best in the business, and their adversarial relationship soon gives into a budding friendship, before hinting of something more. But in the 50s and sworn to a job she pledged her life to, the romance doesn't get anywhere, especially when Shen Jing (Mavis Fan) enters the picture, a fellow operative in the larger family dealing with code breaking, with whom Xue Ning entrusts He Bin to, given her mission to weed out the enemy number known as "Chungking".

Wait, isn't this supposed to be a thriller? It sure was primed to be one, with the first hour dealing with He Bin's discovery, and reluctance to assist the 701 unit, who have to re-locate all the telegraphic channels of the enemy, which suddenly went silent, and having been switched to something else. Blinded in a way, the 701 is desperate to have its listening channels back online, lest their operatives get into harms way. So in comes He Bin and his uncanny ability to zone in beyond the noise, and hunt down the enemy's communication lines, so that surveillance can be re-established. It's a pretty tight set up to introduce us to all the major characters, giving us a little glimpse into their back stories, and motivations.

But it degenerated into its romantic entanglement for a little too long, before the directors realize their over indulgence. It did work out however, in showing the deep friendship between the three central characters involved in the love triangle, with Zhou Xun playing it really like a cool cat, unfazed by competition and knowing her place in the order of battle, while Tony Leung did convince as the illiterate man blessed with a gift that is ruthlessly milked by the organization if not for a friendly face attached to the unit, and the compassion shown. Mavis Fan rounds up the role as the demure, next best alternative, and doesn't really have much to do save to pop up in the final act offering clues.

Rather than opt for big bang sequences, scenes here are kept relatively minimal, lens beautifully by Anthony Pun, with special effects saved for making what He Bin can do, in a very visual sense, bordering on piecing together hypotheses and conclusions that can be drawn from powers of deduction. The period costumes and sets beautifully adorn each scene, and it's somewhat a refreshing change with a period Chinese story that's set up without the usual Japan bashing, with the "enemy" here being the Nationalists in a tussle for power over Mainland China through the employment of spies, and intelligence gathering. It's an unconventional war that's the mainstay focus here, and the filmmakers did their best in contrasting the brutal field work with the more idyllic background that some get to work in, all fighting for the same objective, but in vastly different environments.

The finale did remind me of The Godfather in a way, operatic but here, somewhat anti-climatic given the surprise thrown up in order to deal the characters with an emotional sucker punch. But by and large when the film really got down to its highlights of cold calculations rather than having emotions in the way, it's gripping at best, boasting all round performances from the leads. Even Wang Xuebing as 701's chief nicknamed "Devil" projects screen presence that threatened to steal the show despite having to play wingman here, and I'm already interested to take a closer look at this filmography.

The Silent War may not be Felix Chong and Alan Mak's best work, nor Tony Leung's for that matter despite having to perform with a handicap, but it did serve up sufficient moments that differ from the usual found in the genre, and provided for an entertaining two hours in a world of spy versus spy. Recommended!

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Iron Sky Post Screening Q&A with CG Supervisor Lee Stringer

Click on the image below to bring out the details.

The Q&A session on 25th August will talk about Great VFX without breaking the bank in Singapore. If Iron Sky can do it with so little money, so can Singapore. The Q&A session will be emceed by Michael Lim, founder, Singapore Visual Effects and Animation. Advance tickets already available online and at Cathay Cineplexes.

You can read my review of Iron Sky here.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Iron Sky

Ready For a New World Order?

If too many cooks may have spoiled the broth, then tell that to the filmmakers of Iron Sky. Possibly the first of its kind in successfully crowd-sourcing a portion of its budget from the fans (even before that term became sexy), and also taking on a collective and collaboration approach from conception to marketing the film, Iron Sky milked the Internet for what it's worth, building up a community of collaborators and fans who got involved one way or another. It showed how crowdsourcing can be reality, and arguably how inputs and help from the network at large actually became assets, rather than liabilities.

I mean, a premise that involves Nazis on the dark side of the moon, can't be taken too seriously, with an absurdity approach to the spawning of the narrative. As the story by Johanna Sinisalo and Jarmo Puskala goes, the Nazis of World War II have colonized that area of the moon when escaping Germany in 1945, and plotting a revenge invasion of sorts some 67 years later, if only they have enough computing power to bring their largest warship, the Gotterdammerung, to engineering reality. These Nazis, ever so resourceful, has access to Helium-3, as well as blueprints to crafting equipment and weaponry that make them look very much like steam punk engineers, with incredible attention paid to details.

It's the year 2018, and the President of the United States (Stephanie Paul), sort of like a Sarah Palin lookalike, is up for re-election. Sending an African American male model, James Washington (Christopher Kirby), to the moon may just about excite the entire electorate, but as it turned out, Washington got captured, and the entire effort turned out to be a public relations nightmare. We're introduced to the Germans who seem to be stuck under the 1940s doctrine and mindset, as coached by Renate Richter (Julia Dietze), fiancee of the ambitious Klaus Adler (Gotz Otto) who had set his sights at usurping leadership to become the new Fuhrer, and to invade Earth at first opportunity.

This Finnish-German-Australian production is full on satire, especially when they directly poke fun at all of Nazi Germany's ideology, and mocking their ways from wanting to create the perfect Aryan race, right down to highlighting the absurdness of their beliefs, with plenty of insider references and jokes that will probably make real Nazi sympathizers weep. While comical, it's also fairly serious at times in its treatment, with themes that will resonate in today's world, about those who are easily indoctrinated or brainwashed into beliefs, and how such conditioning by power hungry individuals can be used to build a base of followers who are held back on skewed rationale, being so secular that this in-breeding of sorts become shackles of the mind.

But this is a film that is as much about the United States of America than it is about the Nazis. It takes another satirical look at the US, her allies and traditional enemies, and laughs at the paper diplomacy each country adopts to defend their self interests. The words of the country representatives are just talk, and treaties mean nothing when everyone signs them with fingers crossed behind their backs, with the usual merry go round finger pointing very much reflecting the political situation of today. And the US has gotten the worst of jibes (and perhaps little love there) with the filmmakers making statements about their foreign policy, as led by the President's number one biatch/campaign manager turned Sky Captain wannabe Vivian Wagner (Peta Sergeant), I can't help but to crack up each time these two women break up the mood and starting to make girlie comments on each other.

The Wow factor here is the special effects that can rival the best that Hollywood can rely upon for its blockbusters. Extremely well done whether or not it's involving a small scene, or set against animated backgrounds that don't exist. To learn about how the effects were done is even more remarkable, given the limited resources available as compared to a typical Hollywood blockbuster, but enabling the creators to come up with creative knock offs, and paying homage to, classics from Star Wars to Star Trek, and all the while laced with comedy that even Austin Powers, or the Zuckers would be proud of.

Iron Sky is about cooperation, and testament to the power of the collaborative spirit. On one level, it doesn't take itself too seriously with its number of zany scenes played out purely for laughs, but on another level, it's chock full of issues critical of today's political climate. Recommended!

Sunday, August 12, 2012

[Short Film] Batman: Puppet Master

There was a time when Edward Nigma aka The Riddler was mooted and rumoured to be the villain for the Batman film after The Dark Knight, but that remained unfulfilled with Christopher Nolan opting for Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. Still, that doesn't stop fans from picking up on that intent, and making one of the better, if not the best short film right now, about the Batman.

Done under similar settings and treatment to entrench their short film in between the events of The Dark Knight and The Dark Knight Rises, Batman: Puppet Master has a number of positives going for it, such as bringing back Victor Szasz from Batman Begins and giving him an expanded role, and introducing The Ventriloquist / Scarface into the Nolan Bat-universe. And of course there's Edward Nigma himself, never addressed as The Riddler (perhaps not yet), and having something of an origin going on to address his need for a cane, as well as giving his character a new spin.


Someone's been letting inmates out of Arkham Asylum...

In the months following the death of Harvey Dent, Batman, still a wanted fugitive, is pushed to his limits as a new crime wave hits Gotham. Batman's search to find who's responsible leads him to a showdown with the masochistic serial killer Victor Zsasz.

Meanwhile Gotham's newest crime boss, a mysterious figure known as Scarface, has an meeting with Edward Nigma, an FBI agent, sworn to bring down Batman at all costs.

You can watch the short film here, and see if you'd agree with me that this is a very well made, tightly scripted, short film that should deserve some recognition for the effort put in. Perhaps then we can also see a logical follow up in the story as well, because of the potential it had set itself up!

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[DVD] Talentime (2009)

Dearly Departed, and Missed

Like Mukhsin, Yasmin Ahmad's final feature film Talentime had a theatrical release in Singapore, but unfortunately there isn't distribution for the DVD. So those in Singapore will have to make do with the Malaysian DVD release, and unfortunately the reproduction leaves much to be desired. It's also not easy to hunt down a copy with English subtitles, and thankfully I had a friend do that for me recently given a trip to Kuala Lumpur.

It's almost touch and go, given that the details of the DVD printed on the sleeve, for some unknown reason, only lists down the film as having Malay subtitles only. After all, Yasmin's Talentime has a mixture of the major languages used in her country Malaysia, and I believe English was one of the dominant languages used by the characters in the film, since the teenagers are in a multi-racial co-ed school, and have to rely on English, other than Bahasa, as the lingua-franca. Having watched this a number of times already, I can probably get by with not having the English subtitles available, but that would suck if I were to rewatch the film some time down the road. What you could do, if you manage to track down a copy at a shop, is to request that the DVD be played, so that you could have a chance to verify if the subtitles are available in Malay only, or has English ones available. But the DVDs are getting scarce, so I'd recommend that you'd grab any copy available first in any case.

For the brilliance of her films, the DVD releases of her filmography has unfortunately been found wanting. Rabun is only available on VCD and is out of print, and so is Sepet - the Singapore DVD release having the best reproduction and the Malaysian one requiring cuts to be made. Singapore's DVD release of Gubra is also the best version out there, but after that film, the rest didn't really have a proper transfer. Mukhsin was in letterbox format and seemed to have been lifted from a fairly bad print, with care put into audio presentation instead, and so was Muallaf, although the latter was in an anamorphic widescreen presentation, and more importantly, without cuts. Talentime though was again in the letterbox presentation, with some detectable noise in the print.

You can read my review of Talentime here.

The Region Free DVD by Primeworks Studios and MVM Home Entertainment presents the film in the letterbox format, with subtitles available in Malay and English, despite having it printed on the DVD sleeve as "Bahasa Malaysia" only, and even imprinting that notice on the DVD disc itself. So as already mentioned, track a copy down, and request for a verification. Audio is available in Stereo only, and scene selection is over 9 chapters. There are no extras found in this release, which is a real pity. But you can probably make do with the blog entries that can be found in Yasmin's blogs The Storyteller and The Filmmaker, where she dropped nuggets of information from her films, especially the later ones, including Talentime.

My hope is that one day, all of Yasmin Ahmad's films could be remastered properly so that future generations can get to enjoy her films in the manner as they were intended. It may not be easy navigating through all the rights and ownership, but if there's a will, there will be a way.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Magic Mike

Ride 'Em, Cowboy!

Fans of Channing Tatum wouldn't miss him much even if the summer blockbuster GI Joe: Retaliation is now undergoing some massive post production 3D, or as rumours have been buzzing about a major re-write and reshoot so as to have Tatum's character play an expanded role than originally intended. After all, his star is beginning to shine, and it would be foolish to write his character off. Thankfully then that Magic Mike did indeed make it to Singapore, and boy will it please his female fans to see a lot more than they would have bargained for, together with a number of hunks in a male revue to tease and titillate.

Based loosely on Tatum's own experiences as a male stripper when he was 19, Magic Mike takes us into the world of the men behind their persona and on-stage antics, which naturally comes complete with a full repetoire of phallic motions, pelvic thrusts and almost dry humping for customers who turn up in droves to watch their male fantasies in action. And there's some truth in what the owner of the Xquisite club, Dallas (Matthew McConaughey), says about money being made from these fantasies, as he shows the ropes to rookie Adam (Alex Pettyfer), recruited by Tatum's titular character when they met during one of his many day jobs.

And for someone down and out, but willing to do anything it takes to earn a living, this lifestyle may seem like a good option to make that quick buck, parted easily when providing a little cock and tease to legions of screaming fans who want to have a piece of you. The given is to be blessed with good looks, with diligence put into hours of work out sessions to sculpt a body worthy of a god. And then with the right contacts and chance, the doors get opened. This is the tale of two men, one a self-appointed mentor to the other, and how some get led astray because of availability and opportunity.

But of course Adam's story comes packaged with the usual pitfalls that come to haunt those looking, and are eager for, quick success. The lifestyle of drugs, women, and money from illicit means rear their ugly head, as if to reinforce stereotypes of those engaged in the business that it comes part and parcel of, and it's extremely difficult to refuse unless one quits the scene totally. There are of course those, personified by Mike, who are in need as a means to get a different end, which in his case is to raise enough capital to get credit for a custom furniture business. Hopes and dreams also extend to relationships one try to establish, especially when they usually develop from something sexual, and are hardly the permanence anyone is looking for. For convenience, Adam's sister Brooke (Cody Horn) becomes the object of mutual attraction for Mike, as he figures out his on-off open relationship with Joanna (Olivia Munn).

Steven Soderbergh has crafted what would be one of his most profitable films to date, with production costing about 7 million, but having already raked more than 100 million at the box office. Shot in a style that's almost documentary in nature, the line is never crossed here, with those looking for hard sexual scenes needing to look elsewhere. Most of the time the performers stay very close to the line against indecency, with dry humping and simulated sex being routines of choice. Some portions of the film do turn dry at times, especially when scenes aren't centered at the men, but to develop the budding relationship between Brooke and Mike, and then explode when routines get their screen time. The dramatic scenes serve as fillers for the real feast for the eyes, and the revue sequences were definitely a lot more fun, with various uniformed routines bound to elicit laughter from all sections of the audience, and probably tease the female crowd at the same time as well.

Until Channing Tatum returns to street dancing like from his Step Up days, Magic Mike is probably the closest a dance fan can watch him in action, or for his fanbase to catch some of the routines he had probably performed when he had yet to burst onto the Hollywood scene. His acting, like most of the guys here save for McConaughey, still requires more work, but boy this guy still got the moves.


Taking Aim

Brave is a small film, but don't get me wrong. I suppose learning from the mistake that Cars 2 made, Pixar probably realized that bigger doesn't always necessarily mean better, and this film told what it wanted to tell in a fairly straightforward fashion. To be honest I wasn't too thrilled with the teasers and trailer, but the end product was way better, and a surprise. Being a Disney film as well, it somehow felt that it couldn't escape from the formula that Disney had already established with its animated stories, although that may be a good thing since Pixar hasn't really broached the same subject, yet.

So under tremendous pressure from being an offspring of one of the juggernauts in the CG animated film arena, Brave was courageous enough to go for the familiar that Disney had to offer, but done in Pixar's style. We have a female director in Brenda Chapman at the helm, who co-wrote the screenplay with Steve Purcell, Mark Andrews and Irene Mecchi, which like in fairy tales, takes place with Kings and Queens, Princesses and Princes, Witches and Magic Spells, rooted in old Scotland. It's Scottish and the filmmakers aren't apologetic about the heavy accents, and the protagonist is a teenage girl, which fits the mold of the famous princesses under Disney's fold. Fiercely independent with a mind of her own, and always eager to question, with a penchant to break tradition, Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald) isn't your typical demure princess, but like Disney princesses in recent years, have grown to encapsulate values of the modern woman, with abilities to equal, or even surpass, the many burly men, and none too burly peers, rather than to be the typical damsel in distress.

This is probably the very first mother-daughter story arc for Pixar, and one of the rare few like The Invincibles and Ratatouille that has human protagonists. Chapman and team bring about a lot of female sensitivity when crafting the characters here, and this especially stands out in both Queen Elinor (Emma Thompson) and Merida of course, with the former being a proponent of tradition, and very much a stickler for protocol, that women in their position should know how to conduct themselves, and avail themselves for marriage to seal alliances and such. Merida on the other hand, is that quintessential tomboy, never batting an eyelid at scaling mountains and walls, or charging through the forests with her horse, and is a formidable archer to boot. Doted, she finds her birthright stifling, and most of the first act sees her self-sabotage at a Games conducted to find her a beau from three clans. This is natural avenue for comedy to happen given the varied abilities of her suitors, and the family background they come from.

But the distinction in Brave, comes from the mother-daughter tussle, with both sides failing to appeal to the other to listen. In a rebellious response, Merida runs away from home, only to encounter the Witch (Julie Walters), whose help Merida enlists to conjure a magic cake in order to change her mom's attitude, but this of course presents something quite expected given the blatant clues left lying around. It's a classic tale of being careful with what you wish for, and then the tale of regret in desire a revert to what once was. It's not going to be easy, and with help from her triplet brothers (who inevitably are primed to steal the show, with spin off potential at the side), Merida has to make things right before the deadline of two sunrises.

As always, Pixar's animation quality is impeccable, and the studio seemed to have cracked one of the holy grails in how vivid one can make a character's hair appear to be. This is no Tangled, and throughout the film you can really sense how Merida's bright red hair would have felt, with the action scenes providing much of a challenge for air, erm, hair flow, and you'd really be convince it's probably real hair up there on screen. The animals in the film, from horses to bears, are also very well detailed, and it's as close to what one would expect from the animal kingdom as possible. Like most animated films from Disney and Pixar, Brave also had some relatively off moments in its comical scenarios, given that for the most parts it's fairly dark in mood, with scenes that deal with the occult and magical beings.

What I had enjoyed about the film, is how simple it took the notion of things happening for a reason, and made it a critical emotional punch. It boiled down to having a solid story and crafting characters whom you will care for, or grow to care about. And if you'd take a step back, you'd also probably realize that the magic cake did really make Merida's wish come true, albeit in a very roundabout fashion. Things may not seem like they are in effect at the time, but usually with the benefit of hindsight, you'd come to appreciate why certain things happened in a certain way to ultimately achieve the results one desires. The witch had her chance for redemption, given an earlier and grave mistake made that had effected a lower profile of a wood cover, and took it well, confident enough not to warrant any follow up scenes, except perhaps to fulfill a promise shown at the stinger at the end of credits.

Merida, without a doubt, joins the ranks of the other classical Disney Princesses. Highly recommended!

Like all Pixar feature films, I'd always look forward to the short film that precedes the main feature proper, and the tale here, La Luna, deals with a little boy's ingenuity, in a fantasy tale about how the Moon can change its look, thanks to a three-generation family of grandfather-father-son who have this thankless task of sweeping up reflective stars from the surface of the moon. Beneath the cute looking facades of the characters - the father with a bushy moustache and the grandfather with an incredibly long beard - this short film tells about how one finally becomes one's own man, with some support given from one's kin. Again this shows off Pixar's storytelling ability in making a touching film, sans spoken dialogue. Absolutely beautiful.

Thursday, August 09, 2012

The Bourne Legacy

Where's The Nearest McDonald's?

One of the more acclaimed and successful film franchise in recent years is the Bourne series of films, I'd guess many had thought that this franchise could not continue if without the return of director Paul Greengrass, and leading actor Matt Damon as Jason Bourne. However it's a case of milking the cash cow, and under the hands of another director and lead actor, can the same universe continue, or will a reboot be required? Christopher Nolan may have left his The Dark Knight Rises at this crossroads, the same point in which The Bourne Legacy takes off from, and I'm really pleased at how Tony Gilroy's version of the Bourne film had turned out, with Jeremy Renner proving to be a force to be reckoned with as well.

Written by the Gilroy brothers Dan and director Tony, with the latter having screenplay responsibilities for the earlier Bourne films as well, they had set up Legacy to tangent off from Ultimatum, with the beginning here taking place some 6 weeks before Ultimatum's, and running in a parallel timeline. The return of characters both major and minor in cameo appearances convince we're still in the same universe, and dealing with similar shady secret operatives who are hell bent at containing the damage that Jason Bourne is out to do through his expose of all the clandestine projects under the CIA. Rather than close the doors revolving round the possibility of Jason Bourne's return, Legacy had set it up so that the next film, if it happens, has more doors opened up for the narrative to move forward.

But for now the first hour can be extremely dry, as we take many steps back to see the earlier stages of the programme that Jason Bourne was put under, with the guinea pigs at various stages of experimentation, who remain dependent on the regular drug doses they have to take to maintain their super soldier abilities with heightened senses and physicality. We get introduced to Jeremy Renner's Aaron Cross, who's also on the project, and learn of the existence of many others, who are all on the crosshairs of the agencies they serve, in order to kill them off for the longevity of the programmes they are put under. Led by Edward Norton's Retired Col. Eric Byer who's brought in to contain the situation and threat that Jason Bourne is posing, Aaron Cross outwits them through an episode taken a leaf out of Grey, allowing us some man versus drone plane action sequences that set up Cross to be quite a formidable Bourne clone.

The introduction of Rachel Weisz' Dr Marta Shearing was in essence to provide for a Marie type character whom Cross can run around cities with in escape from their hunters, but more importantly to serve as a link to the drug formulation used to turn those in the programme into formidable assassins, being one of many scientists involved in genetic research, which as usual, comes with the deliberate weaponization from new research. To add to the story, how anyone can get to the level of Jason Bourne's expertise is given an explanation here, which is something yet to be explored in detail until now. One thing's for sure, the role is not one that's the typical damsel in distress, although being involved in a deliberate massacre may trigger some negative reactions in light of what had happened in the USA. It's one of the better stand out, though more harrowing, scenes in the movie, which may undoubtedly strike too close to home for the Americans, and the box office.

Jeremy Renner's stock had risen in recent years after The Hurt Locker, with involvement in steady franchises such as Mission: Impossible, and Marvel's comic book films, and whether or not he'll take over Tom Cruise for further M:I adventures remain to be seen. But he's already cementing his role as Aaron Cross, and looks set to take the Bourne movies forward, even if there are rumours of a pairing with Damon for the next film. Renner worked the action sequences with aplomb, whether it calls for fisticuffs, rooftop chases or spectacularly weaving dangerously through Manila's traffic on a motorbike, and is convincing as an ex-army operative turned guinea pig who now has to bite the hand that fed it, constantly on the move in order to stay alive. It's early in his story arc, and it may seem Cross is on the backtrack for the most parts, so it would be interesting if, like Bourne, he's allowed to take the fight back to his hunters.

It took about 60 minutes before The Bourne Legacy exploded into life, and swung into the high gear formula its predecessors have been known for, but without the shaky cam cinematography that alienated and irritated some. Tony Gilroy decided to go for traditional techniques without being too flashy, which served well. Familiar ingredients defining the Bourne movies continue here, with the jet-setting, cat and mouse chases, and battle of wits. Protocol also comes in the form of the hunt being commanded from a control room setting in which Norton's Eric barks orders, and the multitude of ground work and effort going into tracking the needle in the haystack which is Cross and Marta. It's the hunter who becomes the prey, and vice versa reversal of roles, that has Legacy continue the good work set up by the initial trilogy.

If you'd take a step back, The Bourne Legacy had really kept it simple by introducing a slightly different premise than we're already familiar with, which in tongue and cheek fashion, went on to have the patient seek out his doctor for more medication, only to be brought to the factory for the drugs he requires, and an effort made to be weaned off them. All these, with their employers hot on their tracks in order to finish them off, and keep their clandestine projects under wraps. It may not be the best film of the franchise given that it's the beginning of another, and had dwelled a little longer to have everything set up, but once it got its act together, the adrenaline never stopped pumping. It's also interesting to note how many variations of Extreme Ways can Moby come up with! Highly recommended!

Greedy Ghost (贪心鬼见鬼 / Tan Xin Gui Jian Gui)

Huat Ah!

It's the month of August already, and with National Day fanfare it's time for a local film to hit our shores. This time round, the regional co-production of Greedy Ghost got the much coveted spot that traditionally spells box office gold (in local terms at least), in the horror comedy genre that is gaining traction amongst filmmakers here, with another 2 more films - My Ghost Partner and Hsien of the Dead, primed for theatrical release soon. Those who have been following my local film reviews will know that some of the worst of late happened to have Boris Boo at the helm, but I'm quite pleased to note that Greedy Ghost proves to be his best work to date as a director.

I suppose recognition has to be given when it is due, but that's not to mean that Greedy Ghost is flawless and had a lot going for it. The story, written by Boo and Mark Lee, centers yet around Singapore's obssession with luck, gambling and lottery. We still can't get over the phenomenal box office success of Money No Enough, and do remember though in the aftermath of that film, a slew of copycats came out that revolved around the same things, such as Lucky Number, and The Best Bet which was directed by Jack Neo. If you'd take a step back, Greedy Ghost deals with karma and retribution in our relentless pursuit for riches and material wealth, most times at the expense of others. It's a cautionary tale about this obsessiveness in gambling, and how it touches almost every facet of the lives of the compulsive gambler, where everything is and can be made a bet, coupled with the means and compromises one is willing to make in order to win. And stuck in urban legend is of course, the seeking of spirits to provide winning lottery numbers.

So here comes the spiritual, or horror aspects of Greedy Ghost, which surprisingly, for a film touted to be a horror comedy, has neither. There are surely no scary moments in the film, bar the horrific acting of some of the actors, the chief of which would be Brendan Yuen's Zou Run Fa / Ah Fa character, the resident good for nothing loud mouth. And for comedy, it's almost expected that the presence of Henry Thia as Ah Hui, the timid, almost monk-like character with few strands of hair left, would bring on the laughs, but even that failed to garner a few chuckles, with his rather restrained outing compared to his works in any typical J-Team production under Jack Neo. So it's not a surprise that the film failed in its marketing attempt to brand it as a horror comedy, but exceled for its dramatic moments as mentioned earlier on the examination into the psyche of the Singaporean gambler, in a movie that had two main but separate narrative threads running.

The biggest name in the movie, Taiwanese TV personality Kang Kang, in what would be his first leading role in a feature film, stars as Ah Lim, who has an entire main story working for him. Friends with the other two men, he finds a wordless scripture, and courtesy of co-writer and producer Mark Lee who voices the spirit, this scripture happens to provide Ah Lim with a series of winning Toto numbers. It took a while for repetition to set in, with the spirit convincing Ah Lim to buy those numbers and strike it rich, and under persistant goading, Ah Lim succumbs to temptation (or threats), and becomes rich beyond his wildest dreams. That of course brings about a change in character, and a caveat that since these earnings were won through the help of a spirit, there's the tacit requirement that the larger the winning, the shorter the lifespan, unless these gains get lost permanently. The battle for material wealth, and longevity or lack thereof, is set.

The other story deals with Ah Hui and Ah Fa's job as grave diggers, with the latter being none too bright than to take jewelery from a corpse, deliberately breaking her bones in the process, despite Ah Hui's blase attempts to convince otherwise. Needless to say, they start to get followed and haunted by "Madam Butterfly", and the film follows their desperate attempts to shake this spirit off their backs, employing a series of mediums and ghost-catchers (for cameo appearances by the likes of Irene Ang, and Chua En Lai) to help in an exorcism, culminating in a very bland final act in a forest, with Jessica Liu (also in her first feature film), as Ah Fa's dim witted girlfriend (whom any feminist will want to hang), getting more involved after a rather uninteresting and sporadic first hour.

Technically, this film does boast a few nicely CG to move the story along, but the biggest culprit here is lighting. The film seemed to have been shot under extremely dim conditions, as if lighting is beyond budgetary reach, but felt necessitated and therefore by its intended genre. As mentioned, Boris Boo had finally stepped out of the long shadow that is the J-Team, and showed how he can make a better film without that reputational albatross around his neck. Greedy Ghost, as an original co-creation with Mark Lee, shows that he's probably more comfortable working with material of his own, rather than being a director for hire, going by disastrous track records such as Aku Tak Bodoh (that didn't deviate from the film it was based on), and Phua Chu Kang The Movie, which is based off the once popular local sitcom. Gamely dressed in drag for a cameo, I suppose having more creative space meant a much enjoyable time bringing his creation to the big screen, which shows in the final product.
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