Saturday, September 29, 2012

GF*BF (女朋友。男朋友 / Nu Peng You Nan Peng You)

It's Complicated

Taiwanese films are becoming sexy again, and this probably is due in part of its crop of up and coming directors who are now holding their own against the arthouse veterans, with their box office success being indication of their connecting with the audience at large, both local and overseas. Writer-director Yang Ya-Che's second feature film gf*bf shows the kind of appeal that's attractive to the general audience with its themes of romance starring a good looking cast, but in essence has a powerful story as gravitas to back it up.

Told over three decades from the martial law of the 80s, to the free spirited 90s and of today, the story revolves around three students, rebellious in their own right during their school days, but forming firm relations and friendship during their formative years. The brilliance in the scripting is in how Yang managed to craft really complex relationships between these three primary characters alone that worked on multiple levels, and showed a very fine and keen observation of the human condition, in the way we allow ourselves to be influenced by society at large, whether to conform or rebel against it, and how such decisions affect and change our behaviours, attitudes, and perhaps personality as well.

It's about how people change over time due to events and ever growing experience, whether jaded ones or otherwise, and how these changes affect the people around us, especially those whom we care about most. For Mabel (Gwei Lun-Mei), Liam (Chang Hsiao-Chuan) and Aaron (Rhydian Vaughan), life in school meant plenty of opportunities to work against the uniformed establishment, to try and break free from restrictive, and sometimes inexplicable rules. The impetuousness of youth continues into the 90s where the student movement got larger and more proactively vocal, before life in the present requires a lot more responsibility and level-headedness, with a surprise in the twist of narrative thrown in for good measure.

The trio's love triangle is what made this film come alive, and that's all that should be mentioned about it. While the title may be that little giveaway, suffice to say the romance in the film, amongst the characters, prove to be the best thing about the movie. All three actors gave convincing performances, that you'll feel every heart break, every heart wrench, and share in their little moments of happiness and warmth when things go their way, albeit not most of the time. Yang Ya-Che shows off some incredible sensitivity in making all of them multi-faceted, and multi-dimensional, and each of the actors did brilliantly to flesh their characters, making all of them pretty much endearing as we chart their ups and downs in life, especially their luck in love, or lack thereof.

Gwei Lun-Mei anchors the film, being the female amongst the two male leads, probably put in the best performance to date in a role that has plenty of spunk, yet filled with girly vulnerability when she gets her heart open and prone to heartbreak. There's a little sub plot involving her getai performing mom, and that provided a little bit of a distraction from the main narrative. While Rhydian Vaughan will likely set hearts aflutter with his good looks, playing the brash and sweet talking Aaron, Chang Hsiao-Chuan puts in a performance that's completely opposite as if to starkly contrast in broad terms, two different categories of men, and excelled in playing the strong, silent type who had too much bottled within him. For a reason of course.

gf*bf hardly put in a wrong foot in its story telling, and makes the audience work for their reward. There are films which make it easy to understand from the onset no thanks to having everything told in verbatim fashion, but this one allows some piecing together of facts and information, with a little bit of cultural and historical significance put on the side, that makes it unique, moving, and a masterful piece of filmmaking.

The Assassins (铜雀台 / Tong Que Tai)

The Premier

Just when I thought films based on the the Three Kingdoms era had gone out of fashion, here comes a lavishly produced movie from China that stars one of Asian's most well known actors in the lead role of Cao Cao, the de-facto ruler of the Wu Kingdom, toward the tail end of his rule. But first things first, for a film like this, don't expect too accurate a historical lesson, because dramatic license is there for the taking to spice a film up. We've seen how John Woo's Red Cliff went, from what should be an attempt to make it accurate, to lapsing into his trademarks in an all out battle fashioned out of the imagination in the finale. This one doesn't try too hard to reference from historical records, but didn't go too much into the fantastical like how Daniel Lee's Resurrection of the Dragon film did.

Often depicted as a cunning schemer, and the villain amongst the three kingdoms, debut director Zhao Linshan's film seemed to be take on a neutral stand in being none too judgemental on what Cao Cao did, and more often than not, the man is seen to react to his plotters' plans to rid him of power, rather than to be on the warpath to persecute his enemies. It's also something of a reminder for ruthless leaders, that it makes it all the more attractive to depose one from power, and the inevitable twilight in one's years are just natural opportunities to do so. We get introduced to such attempts early on in the film, but as the movie progressed, we get a different perspective of the man, especially on his unwavering principle of not usurping the throne for himself, which he can, but won't, much to the detriment of his power hungry and ambitious son Cao Pi (Qiu Xinzhi).

And Chow Yun Fat's charisma meant his portrayal of Cao Cao was what would be the most interesting of the lot in the film. His presence swallows up the screen, and effortlessly steals the thunder away from his co-stars. However, this is a role that he's played a number of times before, with the latest being the Emperor in Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower, which may bring some sense of deja-vu as a ruthless leader on whom assassination attempts have become a dime a dozen. In fact, his charisma meant we remember more of his scenes than the titular assassins', and this film could have been named "Cao Cao", which is a more accurate depiction of the movie, or should go by the Mandarin title which refers to a watchtower of sorts in Cao's fortress, which of course was built for a reason.

The assassins here referred to a pair of lovers in Ling Ju (Liu Yifei) and Mu Shun (Hiroshi Tamaki), who have been trained with countless of others since young to build that natural killer instinct in them, before sent to infiltrate Cao's camp and to wait for a signal that will trigger their Manchurian Candidate like characteristics. Mu Shun drew the shorter end of the stick, and became a eunuch, thus physically ending any hope of intimacy with Ling Ju, while she becomes a concubine, and a very emotional one at that, to Cao. There's a reason for all these of course, and credit has to go to the scriptwriters to pay attention to detail in order to enrich this Three Kingdoms story. Liu did what she does best in her recent period outings, playing that virtuous, at times token, beauty, while Tamaki as Mu Shun was totally wasted in the film, doing little and at best, a guest star who can lament at being left out of the fun and critical junctures.

What I liked about this movie, even if it's centered primarily around Cao Cao, is how it so easily brings in other elements and characters from the Three Kingdoms era into the narrative. We only get glimpses or mention of others, but that is sufficient to enhance the scope of this epic wannabe. While there's evergreen characters like Guan Yu, even earlier ones like Dong Zhuo, Lu Bu and Diao Chan got mentioned, since it's about that timeline when Cao's influence grew, and to have this film broach the topics, made it a little more expansive. And you can tell how the storytellers decided from the onset to do so, rather than haphazardly thrown in as an afterthought in the final act.

Then there's Alec Su's portrayal as the puppet Emperor Xian, which provides some light hearted moments against the heavier politicking backdrop where ministers and generals of the court have to face up to their failed attempts to rid Cao of his influence amongst them. The central part of the film had a gripping and intense court session that allowed Chow's Cao to show just how influential and cruel he can be, and the amount of power wielded despite not wanting to seize the throne for himself. And Alec Su was always in the thick of such action, and probably playing against Chow had also made him raise the level of the game in his character's interaction with Chow.

The Assassins provided more of a character study instead of lapsing into action sequences for the sake of. There's a distinct lack of war scenes and blood being shed if compared to the previous Three Kingdom related movies, but it is the power of the mind, the complexity of the primary scheme which took years of gestation, and its execution in the climax, that makes this movie an engaging watch. For those weaned on the earlier film interpretations, you probably won't see Cao Cao in the same light again.

Friday, September 28, 2012

[THIS Buddhist Festival] The Outrage (อุโมงค์ผาเมือง / U Mong Pa Meung)


The second edition of the THIS Buddhist Film Festival continues to feature a series of films centered around Buddhist themes, and The Outrage by director M.L. Pundhevanop Dhewakul fits right into the programming with his Rashomon inspired tale of truth and deceit, unraveling a mystery told through eyewitness accounts, which naturally comes with human failings and perceptions. The story itself is based upon a play called The Gate of the Ghost by one of Thailand's renowned writers MR Kukrit Pramoj, which got adapted from Akira Kurosawa's Rashomon, so the film is quite the centennial celebration of these two great personalities.

M.L. Pundhevanop reunites with most of his cast from his previous film Eternity, bringing back the likes of Ananda Everingham, Chermarn Boonyasak. Mario Maurer and Pongpat Wachirabunjong, amongst others, to craft a story that's bookended by the tale of a monk (Maurer) who is contemplating disrobing from the order en route to visiting his father. As we are told, he's one of the best at understanding the Buddhist percepts, but what he's about to encounter, will challenge his beliefs and faith, and perhaps factor into his consideration whether the temple would serve as a better place for refuge and continue his seeking of enlightenment to make sense of the senselessness experienced in the world.

And this experience centers upon a mystery murder of a warlord (Ananda Everingham), whose body is found by a woodcutter (Petchtai Wongkamiao), who reports it to the local police, in turn arresting the notorious and most wanted bandit (Dom Hetrakul) in 16th century of Thai's Lanna period. But all is not what it seems, as it involves the whereabouts of the warlord's wife (Laila Boonyasak) during the alleged crime of rape cum murder, and the roles each of the eyewitnesses play, whether directly or indirectly involved. Each person provides a different commentary of what they had seen and heard, and The Outrage becomes a fascinating investigation and quest for the truth.

Anyone who had seen Rashomon, or any of the variants in films that get inspired from the rather fractured narrative, flashback and interpretations of the truth, whether relying on bad memory, half truths, or even versions that gets set to glorify oneself or one's actions, would know what is coming and expected in the movie. But even then, there's nothing short of gripping moments that The Outrage is filled with, because with each retelling from a different personality, or perspective, adds to the richness of the tale, and examination into the basic selfish human psyche. Everyone paints the perfect picture of oneself in their narration to an open court, and the half truths that you're required to sift through for, is that part of the storytelling that makes the back story so rich, there's enough room to watch it all over again despite having to know the outcome.

The costumes, sets, and production values are nothing short of being lavishly top notch, where the filmmakers didn't scrimp in order to allow for some eye popping visuals, of landscapes and scenarios set both indoors in a cavern, and the vast outdoors in the jungle, or against the backdrop of a raging waterfall where the crime purportedly took place. While the cast put on stunning performances playing the same characters, but from different perspectives portray different emotions and behaviours, such as Dom Hetrakul's Singkam, who may either be the fearless bandit based on reputation, or a cowardly opportunist, it is Chermarn Boonyasak who excelled in her role that ranged from helpless victim, to cunning manipulator, that sees her at her best. And you can't help but feel the nagging suspicion that the only key woman in the story happened to hold all the cards as to what really transpired.

Things aren't always what they seem, and part of the fun, and in a certain fashion, the horror of knowing the extent of evil man, or woman, can do, is in watching it all come together, with the clash of value systems, perception, and the interpretation of truth, especially how it can be influenced so easily and take on a different form altogether. I suppose in this world it's hard to tell black and white, and shades of grey are the norm and reality. Recommended, as films styled after Rashomon always have something up its sleeve to surprise and provoke.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Premium Rush

Riding Like Hell

Cycling is a skill everyone ought to pick up, because nothing beats having to careen down busy roads and sidewalks, bypassing traffic for the most parts, and irritating the shit out of pedestrians while working up a sweat. Admit it, everyone probably have had a cyclist whizz by and avoiding a collision by the whisker, and in the cyclist's shoes, there's something of an indescribable adrenaline rush to have come so close, and yet escaping from an accident. It's the thrill of being on the edge, that excites some. When translated to the screen, it brings a simulated experience with nary the real world dangers.

Co-written and directed by David Koepp, Premium Rush encapsulates everything that's efficient and sexy in riding a bike, and stars the current hot property from Tinseltown, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Wilee (moniker for Wild E Cayote), a bike messenger who had chosen his profession because he can't see himself in a suit, armed with a law degree, and getting stuck behind a desk for a job. A trick cyclist who has put his stunt past behind him, and now utilizing his skills to make a living by guaranteeing delivery in the Big Apple, little does he know that the latest package picked up from Jamie Chung's Nima would see him become the constant game for crooked cop Bobby Monday (Michael Shannon, the man who would be General Zod in next year's Man of Steel), who is looking for a way out of a mounting gambling debt, and is seriously in need of anger management classes. Just what Wilee is carrying would probably be immaterial and serves as a necessary plot device to get the movie going, with attempts at weaving a story that's pretty much non-judgemental on the human trafficking trade.

Who would have thought that Bike Messengers would be a serious business in itself, and being quite the no brainer for speedy deliveries being made when the online world starts to act up. Like the Transporter, the messengers courier stuff from one point to another with minimal questions asked, and for the rate they make, it's no wonder it's fairly lucrative, though it seems to be part of compensating the risks being taken on the roads which are unforgiving, especially in crowded cities. For Wilee though, this challenge and lifestyle got a little bit more complex with his no brakes, steel frame, fixed gear mantra, making the protagonist a daredevil at heart and risk taker of sorts, fueling his passion by going for the ultimate ride in each of his assigned deliveries, with the help of GPS navigation.

Koepp probably had a lot of stunt people to thank, and CG artists for coming up with extremely well thought out designs to keep us riveted to the bike action on screen, and I'd swear if there was a pedal in front of me, I'd pedal away as well. A lot of effort had gone into spicing and sprucing a film that's basically multiple journeys from point A to point B, starting with graphical GPS maps that chart out the route one must take, to its associated streetviews at the destination. Then there are plenty of split-second decisions that Wilee has to make, comedic as it presents the different scenarios tied to the various paths that he could utilize to get out of tricky situations, more often than not it's something that's based on the instincts of an experienced rider. And as far as camerawork goes, nothing beats first person perspective behind the handlebars looking on, or adopting a near road level feel as the visuals weave in and out of traffic and obstruction. If this was filmed for the IMAX screen, I'm pretty sure it'll be a hit given its immersive experience, and the deliberate attempts at putting the view smack in the thick of all the action.

The non-linear narrative keep things interesting and engaged for the audience, since it forces you to piece together the chronology of events, and how the series of incidents helped to build suspense for what would be a plain narrative if mapped out in order from beginning to end. Joseph Gordon-Levitt scores in being yet another average Joe character thrust into being the accidental and reluctant hero who has to rely on his innate abilities and street smarts to survive what would be the law constantly on his tail, with Christopher Place playing a beat cop on wheels who's constantly comedy fodder for his lack of biking prowess. And to provide some breathing space in between high octane action sequences, the token on-off relationship between Wiley and fellow rider Vanessa (Dania Ramirez) forces itself like a pit stop in between an endurance run, which could have been done without if not to set up some rivalry between Wiley and Vanessa's potential suitor Manny (Wole Parks), yet again as a catalyst for an out an out race between two bikers who adopt different philosophies in life and biking.

Premium Rush scores in providing a unique selling point to the standard action adventure, and will probably encourage more to pick up the activity, if not more of some who will take it to the streets, or for the less courageous, the pavement, where the rest of us will likely be like the hundreds of faceless persons in the movie, dishing our fair share of colourful languages to those riding like the wind.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Dead Mine

Fire Away!

Dead Mine chalked up a number of firsts in the region, being HBO Asia's debut original feature, and Singapore based company Infinite Studios' new soundstage facility in Batam, Indonesia being used for the production. Technically, the movie boasts some excellent production values, from stunts to props, sound engineering and special effects to art direction, with the soundstage adding a dimension to filmmaking around the region, with one more slated for Singapore, but as the adage goes, never forget about the story, as it is still king.

The screenplay by Ziad Semaan and director Steven Sheil has an interesting premise, but unfortunately lapsed back to genre cliches. If the pace was kept high, and story tight, then Dead Mine would have been something of a shiny debut for the collaboration between companies and geographies. As an action-horror, it took quite a while for characters to be established around the usual caricatures that pepper the genre already, before the first big set action sequence acted as catalyst for the narrative to move forward, thrusting the entire cast into the titular location. Things slowed down a lot, in between posing, spewing rote dialogue, and traversing the many nooks and crannies of Dead Mine, but when it finally shifted to the high gear, it showed potential that never really reached a high.

Centered around the legend of Yamashita's treasure, the WWII Japanese General who had been rumoured to stash some handsome gold somewhere in the South East Asian region, Sulawesi, Indonesia becomes zeroed in for exploration, funded by corporate rich kid type Price (Les Loveday), who had brought along his girlfriend Su-Ling (Carmen Soo) for the ride, with his engineer Stanley (Sam Hazeldine) in tow, and researcher Rie (Miki Muzuno) to provide the brains for their expedition. Needing protection as they enter a foreign land, they engage the soldiering mercenaries in Captain Tino Prawa (Ario Bayu), with his rag tag team consisting of Djoko (Joe Taslim), Ario (Mike Lewis) and strong man Sergeant Papa Ular (Bang Tigor). My initial fear is that it may be something like Sanctum, but thankfully this was better, though not without its own illogical moments that exist for plot convenience.

Once they get all chummy and acquainted, the set action pieces are what stands out in the film, aside from the nicely done production sets that made the Dead Mine an incredibly believable location, with two separate tiers being the sandy underground, and the concrete labyrinth above it which suggests the location was more than a potential treasure store, but houses something a lot more sinister, harking back to experiments and torture. There's no lack of gore that adhered to a limit set to keep the ratings as low as possible, so plenty of violence actually happen offscreen, before cutting to show the bloody, gory end result.

And the makeup and costuming department is no slack either, having creature designers work overtime to come up with Mutant POWs, which serve up a lot more terror than the more powerful Imperial Guard type enemies decked in Samurai gear, because as mentioned, the pace could have been kept high to add a degree of urgency, tension and genuine dread to the entire situation. There's plenty of running, and careful treading within the mine, but a little speeding up of lengthy explanations would have been appreciated, and perhaps making it a wee bit more of a fair fight would have sweetened it up a little, than to have it quite one-sided.

Between the cast members, I thought the Indonesian actors triumphed in the film, especially with Ario Bayu's charismatic allure that made it believable that he's the de-facto leader a skilled crew would work under. Anyone who had watched The Raid: Redemption would be familiar with Joe Taslim, and it's interesting now that Hollywood had already come knocking on his door with the Fast and Furious franchise. Unfortunately he has only a bit role here, and doesn't show off his martial arts for his role. Bang Tigor is yet another actor with immense presence on screen, and that's not because he's bulked up.

Still, Dead Mine is a genuine showreel of the kind of production HBO (and its Asia arm) is capable of, with a decent production budget, collaborating with talent in the region, both in front of and behind the camera, and yet again a testament to Infinite Studio's promotion of how a soundstage facility that's really a first of its kind here, could benefit filmmakers to be a little bit more ambitious in telling a story that can be set almost anywhere the imagination dares to venture. So long as it's driven by a strong script, I'm pretty sure we can be set for a lot more variety in the kind of films that could be told in the months to come.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Dirty Laundry

If Thomas Jane can be Frank Castle again, this short, which also has Ron Perlman in a supporting role, shows just how badass Jane can be, with his character now brought up to War Zone's level of graphic violence, which kinda befits the Punisher character to begin with.

And here's a short behind the scenes too!

Saturday, September 22, 2012


Hello World

Kareena Kapoor has always been involved in the largest blockbusters in Bollywood, and starring with the 3 Khans in films like 3 Idiots with Aamir, RA.One with Shah Rukh, and Bodyguard with Salman has made her one of the few who have collaborated with all of them in their respective hit films (OK, so RA.One kinda disappointed). Heroines have never had it easy in Bollywood when compared to the heroes, and Kareena is currently at the top of her game, but can she, like Vidya Balan, and Priyanka Chopra, marquee her own movie? The answer is probably yes, but if the self referential Heroine is anything like the title goes, she's going to need a better story and tighter script in order to make an impact.

The first look at the trailer and various promotional clips may have one thinking this is somewhat like Chopra's Fashion, also written and directed by Madhur Bhandarkar, in terms of charting the come and go, ups and downs, and longevity of the career of a fickle, fame driven industry, replacing the world of fashion with that of the movies, and also taken a leaf out of Balan's The Dirty Picture in centering the story around an actress who is willing to risk all for a shot at fame, and sustaining her position at the top of the cut throat food chain of an industry, but Bhandarkar's film now could have benefitted from attempting to craft a more psychologically complex film, or taken a deeper, more provocative look at the industry itself. It missed on a lot of marks set, and the film huffed and puffed throughout before finally collapsing on its own weight near the finishing line.

It's not that Kareena Kapoor didn't try to save the film. Her star power is going to be the box office draw here, and she did her best for a role that had her dig deep into emotions, especially plenty of negative ones as her character of Mahi, an actress on the cusp of decline, gets embroiled pretty much on her lack of solid relationships with the opposite sex, her insecurities both personal and professional, and her conduct with the various spectrum of her industry, from peers, to rivals, and the handling of the media. Not a chance goes by where Mahi passes on being catty to those she dislikes, and in the ways of the world, what you do unto others, others will do unto you. Kapoor showcases her acting chops and while convincing, she's clearly let down by the plot of the movie.

Beginning quite inexplicably with Mahi being thrown out of a car, then barging into a police station wanting to lodge a report, it goes into flashback mode to chart how we got to this stage, showing the world Mahi inhibits, with the glitz, and the glamour, and the movie premieres and after parties where stars will cajole with directors and producers to chart their next project. Transitions seemed to be in a hurry, and scenes were haphazardly strung together, probably in eagerness to show how confused, and broken the state of mind and emotion is for Mahi in the fame game, despite showing nonchalance to the competition from amongst peers.

Heroine also got bogged down by the none too perfect relationships, making Bollywood seem like a cesspool for broken relationships, infidelity and adultery, where actors prey on actresses in their hotel rooms and trailers, and sports personalities become adamant in wanting an equally famous actor/actress hang by their arms. Its look into the behind the scenes in the industry just scratched the superficial surface of casting for a film, where a string of hits will continue to bring on big budgeted projects and plenty of money spinning endorsements, while duds, or not being in the limelight for whatever reasons good or bad, will slowly see one's career starting to fade. These again are something known through the grapevine, and need not be repeated ad nauseam in the film just to chalk up screen time.

Subplots were also haphazardly added into the film, making it more bewildering, and sprawling a lot more than necessary. An arthouse film, and its eccentric director and acting muse, almost threatened to run away with the film from the mid point, providing what would make up to be the better bits in the movie because it was getting tiring witnessing Mahi perpetually drunk, or high, or just plain down, most of which were self inflicted. The self-destruct button was clearly set by Mahi in her burning of bridges and destruction of any semblance of friendship and relationships formed, and the story was stuck in this rut of self-torture, before trying its very best to turn things around in what could have been a wake up call to the transience of life, haphazardly assembled for the last few scenes as Mahi sold her soul for one more hurrah.

In what would be reel life imitating real life, there's an unfortunate tragedy in the production of the film that would likely bring the curious to watch Heroine, just like how a scandal boosted Mahi's hopes of a comeback. Heroine could have been a fascinating look at the industry, and a great showcase for Kareena Kapoor, which unfortunately didn't turn out to be as well as expected, and kind of a disappointment.

Ruby Sparks

You're Real!

(500) Days of Summer may have been my favourite film back in 2009, and who would have thought that Ruby Sparks served up a story today which is just as strong in emotions, and sucker punched me in the gut, leaving me breathless by the time the movie ended, weeping and aching in heart, and yet uplifted in spirit for its bittersweet feel. It's like a companion film in spirit, a reflection and examination into the dynamics of a relationship, with a little bit of fantasy thrown in, and how reality and fantasy don't really make good bedfellows when it comes to affairs of the heart, more often than not, having to taper expectations to meet with reality.

If gone in blind without knowing a thing about the film, one may have thought that it's probably written by a guy, given that this was quite the guy's wet dream, in having absolute control over a female counterpart just because, not having to deal with complex emotions that rear their ugly head once in a while, and able to almost wish it away at will. Well, the surprise here is that it's written by Zoe Kazan, who also plays the titular character of Ruby Sparks, and directed by the duo of Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, responsible for Little Miss Sunshine, which explains the ability in making this a truly worthy follow up to their hit little film.

It's a writer's movie as well, centered around Calvin Weir-Fields (Paul Dano), a prodigy of sorts who had written one acclaimed novel some 10 years ago, in between writing some smaller works, but never having it in him to replicate the success of his virgin effort. Still remembered by fans everywhere but in dire need to put out one major work, inspiration one night through a series of dreams about a girl, led him to write about Ruby Sparks (Kazan), and lo and behold one day, in miraculous terms, Ruby truly exists in the world, inhibiting every single trait that he had wrote about. Never really recovering from his previous break up, he's now suddenly thrust into one, and one that he has complete control over, able to tweak Ruby just by typing what he wants into his manuscript.

Not since Adaptation by Spike Jonze a decade ago, had a film about a writer experiencing some existential emergency, enthralled me from start to finish. Ruby Sparks spent time to up the ante on the issue of her existence, whether only in Calvin's mind, or is in fact a real person, with humour coming from disbelief shared by Calvin's brother Harry (Chris Messina), and even then, with how things go, whether everything can possibly be made up by one person, locking himself up, and being extremely focused about having to cough up his next big novel. It's suggested, and opens itself that little avenue of possibility of being a lot more than just what is being put on screen.

But I digress. Kazan's screenplay probably nailed it spot on with her keen observations on relationships seen from a male perspective, but who knows that she could've also gotten key inputs from real life beau Paul Dano himself. And their chemistry in the film shows up really well, making it utterly believable that miracles can and do happen. And her screenplay was no mean feat as well, dealing with the insecurities of a man with an ego larger than he would admit to, with fantasies centered around control. And many of us have been there before, when things become a power play, with the story taking the characters down a slippery slope of being able to play god, and to literally manipulate, and hurt someone whom we hold dear to. Not forgetting of course the adage that we only miss something when we lose them.

Full of heart, warmth, and humour, Ruby Sparks got a lot closer personally, and I was fascinated at how a single character could have reminded me of two separate persons, which was as freaky as it was irresistibly engaging. Who would have thought that Ruby Sparks, without a doubt, would become the personal favourite film of the year to date, that it came out almost out of nowhere near expectations, and blew my mind away, just as how it addressed a certain pain point deep inside that wouldn't fade away until now. A definite recommendation!

The Possession

Incredible Hulk

I'm a little bit wary when a horror film touts itself as based on a true story, because one can only take that with a pinch of salt, given that it's a film after all, and there's a need to dress it up for the silver screen and for dramatic purposes. Moreover, having to state the events took place in less than a month, seemed a little bit far fetched, given how the screenplay played things out, which made it look like months instead. Still, for the curious, you may want to look up an article called Jinx in a Box written by Leslie Gornstein, which the events in this film is purportedly based on.

So is it any good, given that the trailer essentially told the entire story from beginning to end? It got better as it moved along, and really tested your patience in the first half of the film since it really took a long time before a turn of events leading to the first boo. It introduced the characters of a dysfunctional family, where Clyde (Jeffrey Dean Morgan) has already divorced from wife Stephanie (Kyra Sedgwick), with the former getting only the weekends to spend time with daughters Hannah (Madison Davenport) and Em (Natasha Calis). The arrangements seem pretty well oiled, with Clyde having moved to another house of his own conveniently located in a new neighbourhood. As part of moving in, they pick up extra dishes at someone's backyard jumble sale, and Em gets attracted to a mysterious box, which gets bought and brought home.

Warning lights are probably flashing now, since stories of old have already warned never to pick up strange looking objects from anywhere and bringing them home. Opening Pandora's Box is also something nobody should do, and when done, welcomes a whole lot of trouble. Em becomes possessed and Natasha Calis almost got a chance to be the next Linda Blair in The Exorcist, except that The Possession minus all the kinky moves that would make parents frown and grown ups blush. Make up also helped to make her look her zombie best, coupled with fans borrowed from a Bollywood studio to let her hair fly around when the air around is still. And for those who object her bout of violent behaviour, especially when becoming possessive and protective of the mysterious box, even stranger things happen, and her unusual behaviour soon triggers Clyde to do some sleuthing of his own.

Credit must be given when credit is due, so Danish director Ole Bornedal did what he could in avoiding the usual cliches of slamming doors and jump scares. Instead, the focus was on building atmospherics through the use of creepy crawlies, and he succeeded to an extent in doing that. It took a while to build up a story, which could have done a lot more with its context of dismissing the change of the child's behaviour because of the psychological pressures in dealing with her parents' divorce, but this never really quite took off.

Instead, the last half hour floored the pedal to the metal, moving at breakneck speed and allowed a battle of good and evil, and dealing with a parent's undying love for his child, complete with self-sacrificing gesture to try and lure the evil that is inside. While there are a whole host of exorcist type films of late, to varying degrees of success and presentation, this one probably was one of the first that I've seen that was a Jewish exorcism, not involving a priest but a rabbi (Matisyahu) instead, with certain rites performed I'm sure didn't had much of an authentic ring to it (I may be wrong). And to make things a little laughable, there was a scene where Clyde thought he could do it alone through the learning of the rites on Vimeo (wonder how much they had to pay to displace YouTube), before seeking professional help.

But the unforgivable element in the film, is the editing. For all the good work that was done in the film, with the actors trying their best to flesh out a relatively flimsy storyline, everything got let down by the poor, poor editing. This probably came from having 2 editors in Eric Beason and Anders Villadsen handle the film, so one can only speculate on the clash of ideas. Ultimately it really reflected their weak editing skills and the limited scope of their abilities, making almost every transition here a fade to black, probably the only technique they can both agree on. This irritates since it's so frequently used, especially at the beginning of the film, and made it all worst when it was used so carelessly in the gripping finale, totally spoiling the mood and threw a spanner in the works. It's really choppy work, got in the way and drew attention to itself, so it was bewildering why the filmmakers had let this pass, rather than to fire them both and get someone else instead.

To Rome With Love

No I'm Not Famous

I've only started to follow the works of Woody Allen more closely when he brought his filmmaking out of New York and into Europe, where he had made a number of films in the UK, and continues his sojourn through the continent with odes to her major cities, from Barcelona to Paris and now Roma, or Rome. And true to Allen's form, this film was really done with love, about love, and with the usual self-deprecating humour each time Allen decides to go in front of the camera as well.

Fans will undoubtedly lap up his writing and characterization featured in the film, where he tackles no less than four separate storylines, making up a myriad of stories about love and relationships set in the eternal city. And all things interesting about the film really had Allen's writing strength to thank, to make up scenarios and situations so differently, revolving around the emotion's broad theme, coupled with his pull to get recognizable names attached to his project, as we gaze at the backgrounds of what the city had to offer, and do a little bit of star-gazing as well.

Starring in one of the roles himself, Allen plays Jerry, a retired music executive who is in town with his wife Phyllis (Judy Davis), who are there to celebrate their engagement of their daughter Hayley (Alison Pill) to Michelangelo (Flavio Parenti), an Italian lawyer with values quite unlike Jerry's, and threatens to tear everything apart. That, and coupled with Jerry's insistence in making a business out of the voice of Michelangelo's father, the mortician Giancarlo (Fabio Armiliato), after hearing the latter singing in his shower, meant a clash of values and an almost absurd, comedic take on desperate innovation of the opera. Allen though, didn't manage to break out of his usual mold in the characters that he play, and Judy Davis' sarcasm looked pretty much scripted and poorly delivered, but fortunately Armiliato steals the show with his down to earth character.

Then we have Penelope Cruz barge into the scene, and pretty much stealing everyone's thunder in her segment, where she plays call girl Anna. Here, an Italian couple Antonio (Alessandro Tiberi) and Milly (Alessandra Mastronardi) are about to embark on a new life in the city, but their first experiences are separate, and we get two story arcs instead. Antonio gets tangled with Anna, who barges into his hotel room when Milly was away, mistaking him for someone else whom she has to service, while Milly's solo venture brings her onto a film set, where she gets to meet her film idol Luca Salta (Antonio Albanese), who turns out to be quite the slimy celebrity he is. Expect the unexpected here, with the primary couple being faced with temptation just when they least expect it!

And celebrity is a theme explored in the segment headlined by Roberto Benigni, who plays an everyday, average Joe, leading an unspectacular life, until he finds himself suddenly, and inexplicably, thrust into the limelight of celebrity, living it up, and lapping at all the attention showered upon him. In some ways this is quite the surreal story arc that doesn't really fit too well with the others, since it's fantastical, but has a degree of examination into how fleeting fame can be, and how fickle are those who put you on a pedestal, only for it to be yanked away once someone else rolls along who provides a different, more popular appeal. It's easy come, and easy go.

The fantastical also had a place in the final story arc, that deals with reminiscence and memory, reliving one's regrets. Alec Baldwin stars as a famous architect who may have sold out in his trade, and is in Rome on vacation, trying to retrace the familiar locales he had once come across. He meets Jack (Jesse Eisenberg), an architect student who is living with his girlfriend Sally (Greta Gerwig), whose best friend Monica (Ellen Page) is also bunking in on a post-breakup vacation. The three way relationship between Jack, Sally and Monica is what makes this particular arc stand out, dealing with how sometimes we get enamored by another, and are willing to risk it all to try and make things work, but sometimes reality and expectation are moving in vastly different directions, despite warning sites that we may choose to ignore, and are most likely ignoring.

The ensemble cast should just about excite any moviegoer to give this Allen movie a go, and to watch how he weaves the narrative in and around the different stories so effortlessly. At the same time, he creates a character out of Rome, that goes beyond the usual sights and sounds of the city all captured into more than just a background for this film, drawing a fine balance to prevent going overboard with the very touristy moments. It's pretty amazing how Allen has a knack in crafting all the characters for the film, since it is no mean feat to have them all distinct, with purpose.

One should expect the usual from a Woody Allen movie, and To Rome With Love bears all the usual hallmarks of the director, as he celebrates Rome's allure. Recommended!

Friday, September 21, 2012


We Are The Law!

Dredd is to Judge Dredd what Punisher: War Zone is to Punisher - vastly superior films than their predecessors, in keeping to the source comic book material, and wiping the stench that permeated from the previous movie versions. OK, granted Punisher wasn't that bad with Thomas Jane in the leading role, but when placed side by side, War Zone triumphed because Jane's Punisher lacked an edge that the character possessed, and this was fixed in what would neither be a reboot or a remake, but just is. And Dredd takes on the same concept, neither a reboot or a remake, and becomes THE Judge Dredd film to date, with more respect paid to the comic strip version that I grew up with, featured in the Sunday papers at one point in time, in just the way I remembered, and without breaking the cardinal rule of removing his helmet, which Stallone did as an ego trip in his Judge Dredd movie, drawing much irk from fans everywhere that the star is bigger than the persona he's playing.

And fans can take heart that Alex Garland's screenplay, together with Pete Travis' direction, makes this a worthy Dredd film. There's no need to dwell in unnecessary back stories, or go beyond the fleeting introduction to the state of the World in this universe, the rule of the Judges, and the concepts in Mega-City One. It dives straight into the thick of the action, fast forwarding to the main plot of having Dredd (Karl Urban) assigned to assess rookie Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), who is on the fail end of borderline to become a Judge, by throwing her into the deep end of the pool and seeing if she would sink or swim, with a chance given because she's a powerful psychic who can hone her abilities, which naturally come advantageous in a fire fight. Their enemy is Ma Ma (Lena Headey), a prostitute turned drug dealer, buckled down in the Peach Trees Block of 200 floors filled with thugs at every level who do her bidding, whose narcotic Slo-Mo allows a high that's pretty much an opportunity of the filmmakers to experiment with psychedelic slow motion effects that are primed to exploit the 3D version. Drugs, and three skinned, drug pumped bodies thrown over a parapet, goes onto Dredd and Anderson's radar, and with their entrapment in the building during their investigations mean a fight for their way out.

Wait a minute! For those who have watched the trailer, admit it, we all thought this was going to be a knock off of The Raid: Redemption's plot. On the surface, yes it does seem so, with highly trained police officers squaring off with thugs at every floor in order to survive and escape a building ruled by a ruthless drug lord, complete with personal quarters and a factory that churns out the narcotic. And what's with those loudspeakers for threat making, and the level of violence in both films? Yes they're fairly similar, and it's fair that one can expect a copy, but by the time Dredd rolls about in his Lawmaster cycle, and fire countless of rounds from his Lawgiver handgun, all notions of a knock off goes flying out the window, because this essentially developed into a Dredd movie, with deadpan humour that you know may be funny, but won't laugh because it's delivered in such grim fashion, and the level of visceral violence in the film makes it one that's rooted in science fiction fantasy, instead of martial arts credibility.

And credit to that is Karl Urban's performance, with the actor seeing absolutely no need to lift that helmet like what Stallone did, and delivered a worthy Dredd performance that's a million times better than what Stallone can muster in a lifetime. He's a true badass who suffer no fools, cuts a bad mofo figure, and inhibits the spirit of the character through his ultra-serious performance, making you quake if you ever go head up with this judge, jury, and executioner. Stallone had to scream "I AM THE LAW" just to make himself heard, but Urban just has to whisper it in a calm and steady tone, and that's enough for one to piss in the pants, as he mows down anyone standing in his way with extreme prejudice, and chalks up the body count.

Surprisingly Olivia Thirlby became an essential part of the narrative, as it provided a buddy cop movie perspective in Dredd, but without needless comedy. Put into the film to contrast not only in gender terms but the level of experience besides Dredd, she holds her own against Urban, and formed what would be the quintessential partnership that is truly memorable, and worked very well in the film. Lena Headey didn't have much to do here except snarl behind her made up, heavily scarred face, but had enough venom in her performance to make her Ma Ma convincing as the woman who managed to climb her way to the top of the thug food chain.

While the Judges' uniform had its details trimmed down for functional purposes, take heart that the details put into the Lawgiver handgun, is something that will delight fans, together with CG and art direction that combined well to bring out the degree of glean, and rot on both the macro Mega-City One level, and indoors of the Peach Trees block. The soundtrack by Paul Leonard-Morgan also provided an additional punctuation for the set action sequences, as its hard industrial sounds fit right in to the attitude of Dredd, and provided a dark soul for the visuals on screen. It's been quite a while that I've been impressed by a film's score, and Leonard-Morgan's fit right into this movie's like hand in glove.

Hopefully this British-South African production would be a sufficient hit at the box office to green light a sequel, because the good work had been set up and it's a pretty shame if it stops here, just like how Punisher: War Zone grounded to a halt with the lack of a box office response. These films are options for more adult fare in the action genre complete with in your face violence and gore extremities, yet sticking true to and not insulting their roots by needlessly dumbing them down for a wider audience. For the action junkie in you that is not squeamish when heads get blown off, this is highly recommended!

My Dog Dou Dou (我的狗蚪蚪 / Wo De Gou Dou Dou)

Taking Five

This month alone sees two first time feature filmmakers tackle genre films that haven't been done before in Singapore's short filmography, and the results are as expected, drastically different given the level of experience going into production, and how indie filmmakers pale in comparison to a proper studio backed and funded product, complete with support from the Singapore Film Commission. Gary Ow's clueless zombie-comedy film Hsien of the Dead became an insult to the genre, while Ng Say Yong's inspirational dog drama My Dog Dou Dou attempted to take on the formula that's been perfected by the industries in Japan and the USA, that it was a film just waiting to be made, once the right dog can be found. I guess this is it.

However, My Dog Dou Dou suffered a little from what I call the unfortunate plot elements that have been synonymous with local films of late - gambling, gangs and plenty of family bickering. Outside of the horror and/or comedy genre, it's quite tough for a film to peel away from the temptation to add these into the narrative, and this film is no exception, especially when it's thought to be safer to stick to norms and formula, than to try something bolder.

There's a need to make the dog special? Well, let's have it predict 4D numbers naturally. Need a family squabble? Make a family member a gambling addict, and for the mom to walk out because of condition. Need to induce some tear jerking moments? Well, let's put in a kid, and have him bond with the titular dog, with the inevitable to happen to wrench at the hearts. No less than three script writers got involved to craft the storyline, and one can probably ask for a little more variation and freshness put into the tale, rather than for one of the writers to sneak in a 2359 inside joke. And for a dog movie, the dog's really quite peripheral, which is a pity.

That said, My Dog Dou Dou can still lift its head high up amongst its peers, since it contained a well thought through story despite the genre cliches it can't rid itself of, or worst, relied on the antics of the dog to carry it through. The main characters are Ming (Jason Wong), a single parent forced to bring up his kid Xing (Ivan Lo, last seen in Jack Neo's We Not Naughty and continues his good performance here), because his wife left no thanks to his gambling habit. That vice is still not kicked, and father and son spend occasional days on the run from loan sharks. Serendipity strikes when the runaway Dou Dou (Flapper the dog) gets rescued by Xing, and despite his dad's disdain for canines, brings him home, and through a series of oh-so-cute-inducing scenes, finally gets to keep his current best friend.

Not before long, it's soon discovered that Dou Dou can predict 4D lottery numbers, and Ming gets on the act to coax the dog for more, becoming the family's golden goose, much to the unhappiness of Xing to support his father's vice. Then there's Ming's long time acquaintance Ginny (Malaysian actress Cathryn Lee) the reporter who provides an unauthorized expose on the fantastical abilities of the dog, leading to the primary loan shark of the movie (played by television actor Zhu Houren) wanting the dog for his own money making needs. There's a little twist in the tale that you can see coming that provides that emotional sucker punch for the finale, but otherwise the narrative is peppered by perfunctory supporting characters with the likes of Henry Thia as Dou Dou's original owner, Liu Ling Ling as Ming's car workshop employer, and Yvonne Lim, who plays Xing's mom, with the story shifting toward family reconciliation, thanks in part to how everyone had been affected positively by the dog.

And the story did show flashes of brilliance, especially when, again, for a local film, it becomes almost a necessity to have subtle subtexts criticizing the social landscape. There's foreign talent/workers in the country engaged in vice activities (with some attempt at comedy here), under the payroll of rich locals no less whom the law cannot touch, a commentary on big brother's compulsory savings schemes and preachy talk about productivity and bonus, the shift to the service industry, and the vacuousness of reporters in state run print media where broadsheets are actually as good as their tabloid counterparts in thrashy news coverage. Or how about the mentioning of floating corpses that have been the talk of the town of late? These hot topic issues date the film to this era, and one surely didn't expect them to creep into a family film.

It's understood that for a family friendly film, the villains can't pose any clear and present danger that's really threatening, and censorship worries see how certain scenes have to be reined in. It could have offered a more sinister villain, since it there was potential in Zhu Horen's character to be a little bit more menacing, and even bordering on the psychotic. And Karma, while obvious as closure for the villain, could have been better developed and pronounced, rather than to have it end too abruptly, since by then, audiences would have been worked up.

But as mentioned, it's kid friendly, so as long as good things happen to good folks, we can't really show much of the just desserts that the villains are deserving of. My Dog Dou Dou has elements that makes it a safe family movie, even if it's cliched with its sub plots and television melodrama, but at least it didn't botch it up.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

[In Flight] Being Elmo: A Puppeteer's Journey

Free Hugs!

I grew up with Sesame Street, and probably watched each episode on television quite religiously until about 12. Not only because I was simply just a kid, but I was more curious about how the muppets come to life, whether there's someone beneath them, for those muppets whose lower bodies are always at the base of the television screen, with a human hand inserted and tackling limbs with a rod, or inside them since they're full sized, such as the likes of Big Bird and Snuffleupagus who are usually seen full-bodied.

But there wasn't any Elmo, who came onto the scene just as I got weaned off Sesame Street. That didn't mean I didn't check in once in a while, and clearly the Elmo character caught on, and exploded into an icon. This documentary goes behind the scenes a little bit further to check in on the man responsible for creating, building and maintaining the Elmo persona, giving him voice, personality and just about managing his every appearance as the character grew a legion of fans who love it for the sole reason that Elmo is really about love regardless.

It didn't start out that way of course, with the character almost slated for relegation, until Kevin Clash came to its rescue. It's a journey of opportunities, chances, timing, just as it's about talent, and the hard work that goes with it to ensure that the talent gets honed to perfection, and not laid to waste. This documentary charts Clash's life as a boy who found his calling, and who had developed his own series of puppet characters before the bigger leagues came calling, and as the adage goes, the rest is history.

It's about a boy who had worked on his dreams, and for life to throw at him some serious chances to work with the legendary Jim Henson and his many close collaborators, from Frank Oz to Kermit Love, in various film and television projects, until he got himself to the Sesame Street gig. And even then, it's a lesson in humility and constant education and improvement, never to be satisfied with one's current level of success, but to constantly work towards another peak in one's profession.

But it's not all technical in the documentary, as the Elmo persona, a persona of heart, has plenty of heart wrenching moments as well, from the sacrifices Clash has to put in, at the expense of family time to bring the joy of Elmo to those who needed it most, and not only in the USA but probably every corner of the globe that has a Sesame Street reach. As Kevin rises into the ranks of peers, teaching others the craft of puppetry, inspiring the young and talented at the same time, so too does the reach of Elmo become what it is today, a recognizable icon amongst the young and old, and the many outreach programmes it actually finds itself in.

The world may miss the creative brilliance of Jim Henson, but so long as there are those, like Clash, who are able to fill the void that's left behind, bringing joy and cheer to millions of children worldwide, and inspiring many with their stories and puppet persona, then the art form is in good hands to find itself new audiences everyday who will also experience the joys and laughter that we grew up with. And who would have thought that Elmo, one that was almost discarded, is at the forefront of leading the charge.

Monday, September 17, 2012

[In Flight] The People vs. George Lucas

Nuff Said

Star Wars has become more than a film. Like it or not, it is a phenomenon, it launched a series of toys and merchandize and brought new meaning to marketing of a film, it brought about technological creativity with the founding of Industrial Light and Magic, created a religion amongst the most fanatical of fans, and of course, all these made George Lucas an extremely wealthy man. The question then is, have all these corrupted the filmmaker in his storytelling integrity, such that he can afford to piss in the face of his fans, and probably even at his cast and crew?

For the longest time I had resisted getting any Star Wars related films on home video, laser discs, DVDs and Blu Ray, no matter how enticing it is currently with the latter format in its latest, probably definitive release in a box set. But to get there, you would already know about the letterbox versus widescreen versions, the proper sound encoding being absent in some releases, extra features, and the uproar against the special editions. We can choose to ignore these changes, but they don't seem to end do they, with the latest announcement being the theatrical release of all the six films in 3D no less.

But why do we fret so much when George is basically doing what he can do in his power, since he's creator of this galaxy, far far away once upon a time? This documentary charts the rise of Star Wars as a phenomenon, and touches on almost all of the films, the original trilogy, the prequels, and the highly embarrassing Holiday Special, and speak to a whole host of fans, non-fans, and notable guests such as Neil Gaiman, about what made them love, and loathe the monolith that is Star Wars. And it also charts the rise of George Lucas' film career, and that this sheer arrogance not only affected the Star Wars franchise, but that of Indiana Jones, with the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull being something that even long time collaborator and director Steven Spielberg tried to distance himself from, pointing the finger clearly at George Lucas for silly scenes and happenings such as the survival of a nuclear attack by hiding in a refrigerator, the tarzan inspired tree vine swinging moments, and the inexplicable alien ending.

The mantra would of course be, because he can. If he can change things like Han Shot First, or replaced little known actors in the original trilogy with the more illustratrous actors from the prequels, and throw in so many childish moments in the Star Wars films in the pretext of appealing to children, he can, and will do it. Probably dictated by the money in the sale of toys and merchandise, or probably under the influence of his children. Fans can go up in arms about who shot first, and to others it seems like a silly thing to be upset about, but such is the power of pop culture, where the ownership of property cuts deep into the hearts of fans, that repercussions can be keenly felt especially when the creator decides to do something drastically different with what we have been familiar with. Midichlorians? Sure.

What I enjoyed about this documentary, besides those unflattering recorded interviews with George Lucas himself, is how it pointed out that we're essentially playing in the big man's sandbox. He had created a world on film, and a flourishing, have it all sandbox, where anyone can roam in it and have fun. From cos-playing to following in the ways of the Jedi, this world had expanded beyond celluloid, and over the years had built expectations that any film, under any director, would have fallen short of expectations. It tried its best to present a balanced viewpoint and approach, but ultimately skewed to the dark side of those disappointed, especially with the time dedicated to slamming George Lucas, through a series of interviews with those who had given up and pitched vocally in ridiculing the man himself. I would suppose that anyone who is oblivious to the fray, would see that he had taken it all in his stride, and continued to allow anyone to partake in expanding the universe created in any other way, so long as his canon is left untouched.

With plenty of footage of the fanaticism, and influence of the Star Wars film carefully stitched together, it provides a nice jumping point for anyone interesting in researching the love hate relationship that fans have with Star Wars, and the pertinent issues that will irate the fan boys and bring about endless points for discussion. For me, I'm still reining the urge to get the Blu-Ray box set to rewatch the two trilogies at home, and fighting that inner fanboy from purchasing a force-FX lightsabre. May the Force be with me indeed!

Temporary Hiatus

Leaving on a jet plane, by the time you read this. SQ 777-200, something like that above.

Back this Thursday evening! Hopeful that the inflight entertainment system has something interesting for the 3.5 hour flight.

Saturday, September 15, 2012


King of the World

Ranbir Kapoor's career is about 5 years old, but he has in recent years been extremely selective about his roles. And this meticulousness perhaps stemmed from his modest Saawariya debut which didn't garner as much acclaim as, say the rest of Bollywood's stars in his generation such as Deepika Padukone, Anushka Sharma, and Ranveer Singh. So while his career may not have started off with a bang, his roles to date have always been roles that make you sit up and take notice. Other than Anjaana Anjaani which also co-starred Priyanka Chopra, his scheming politician in Raajneeti, his bearded salesman in Rocket Singh, and of course, his Rockstar turn, have all been powerhouses, and goes to show he's tops amongst his peers in the industry in constantly reinventing himself and breathing life to the characters he plays.

In Barfi!, he challenges himself with the role of a deaf mute, as the titular character whom his parents named after the Murphy Radio set, but for his condition, he only managed something like the title when asked of his name. But he endears himself to the townsfolk with his antics, which has shades of being Tati-esque and Chaplin-ish, and Ranbir does what would be his best impressions and homage to those two great comic greats with his role. But in true Bollywood fashion, writer-director Anurag Basu, like his previous film Kites, are never just steeped in one genre, and Barfi! actually contained two extraordinary romances, with all round great performances undoubtedly with Ranbir stepping up his act. The physical comedy gets balanced with rich emotions, and similar to Rockstar in certain shades, Barfi starts off in very sprightly fashion, before darker emotions come into play. And without the use of his voice, Ranbir has to very much exercise his facial muscles and physical presence, to bring the character to life.

And also stepping up is Priyanka Chopra, who is a much better actress than most people would give her credit for. She had shown her versatility in 2 films, playing 12 characters in What's Your Rashee, and up to 7 more challenging ones in 7 Khoon Maaf, but nothing she had done had ever prepare her for this role as Jhilmil, the autistic child in a rich landowning family in Darjeeling. Dropping her usual glamourous self, she tones it really down to play a woman-child afflicted of the condition, and yet making it endearing and very much her own, without going overboard in her portrayal. It's as vividly true as can be, and becomes the fulcrum in which the story revolves around. The role called for some wide-eyed innocence, vulnerability and some fearlessness rolled into one, and she conquered this role quite effortlessly. Her initial pairing with Ranbir Kapoor in Anjaana Anjaani didn't produce the necessary sparks given that both were playing very tired modern roles, but here, both showed why they are currently at the top of their game.

And added to the fray as narrator, Barfi's first love and third cog in the Barfi-Jhimil relationship is Bollywood newcomer Ileana D'cruz as Shruti. The first half of the film centered upon Barfi's love for this beauty who had just arrived in town, but lo and behold, in this 70s era, she's already betrothed to someone else, and in Darjeeling to enter into marriage. For what it's worth, societal norms had dictated she see through an arranged marriage rather than to accept Barfi's advances, but bookending this film, is how Fate decided to constantly put them in each other's paths, with fairly different outcomes. But Ileana is not flower vase here, and as if challenged by the other two leads, also had to up the ante in her delivery, making it quite a memorable debut

Anurag Basu's story took on more complex proportions to tell a simple tale of romance, and the narrative at points also became like a docu-drama, where key characters in Barfi's life gets interviewed, and forms the narrative when it flashes back to key incidents, told in non-linear style. This works very well, especially when wrapped within, there's a crime mystery that centers around a kidnapping, with three ransoms, and a cliffhanger of sorts that would leave you guessing. It allowed all characters to have screen time to show what they can do, and most would been tickled pink with Barfi's delivery of amusement and fun for the girl of his dreams, before events start to really go south for the titular character. The quality in the production values show, especially with the 70s era that blended CG and production sets quite seamlessly.

This heartwarming tale is set to move and touch, because it deals with the notion of choices in life, and how sometimes these choices would have varying repercussions that we will not know their impact, until much later. I can't harp enough on all the actor's delivery, because they are what made Barfi! very much what it was - cute, touching and romantic, all at the same time, with tinges of sadness that depicts what's life. I guarantee the final few scenes in the film will make one's heart ache, because it bordered on selfishness and magnanimity, and surely you wouldn't want to be in anyone's shoes when faced with such a decision.

Anurag Basu has a winner in his hands, and that's without resorting to sex or violence, but a healthy dose of charm instead. And Barfi! will charm your socks off. A definite contender amongst the best this year has to offer!

The Thieves (도둑들 / Dodookdeul)

Asian Ten

The Thieves may look like Ocean's Eleven from the onset, with its star studded ensemble cast from South Korea and Hong Kong combining forces for the most parts in what would be a casino and jewel caper. But instead of having one primary heist as the central focus for all the characters, The Thieves present a whole lot more, used to introduce the different team's capabilities, and providing plenty of twists and turns as the story progressed. In short, it was a real treat and a wild ride to have the usual plot developments of the genre, with the betrayals and conflicting motivations all clashing together, and delivered with pin point perfection.

In the South Korean camp, there's Lee Jung-Jae as Popie, de-facto leader, who had assembled his team consisting of slinky cat burglar Yenicall (Jeon Ji-Hyun), veteran and linguist Chewingum (Kim Hae-Suk), and cable operator Zampano (Kim Soo-Hyun), to fleece a rich curator. They get contacted by Macao Park (Kim Yun-Seok), one time ex-partner of Popie, who had dangled an opportunity for a casino and jewel raid, and for the job, Popie brings along Pepsee (Kim Hye-Soo), recently out on parole, much to Macao Park's displeasure. The complex job also requires the team work with the Hong Kong camp, whom Macao contacted for assistance, which means an expanded motley crew comprising of leader Chen (Simon Yam), safe-cracker Julie (Angelica Lee), and regular goons in Andrew (Oh Dai-Su) and Johnny (Kwok Cheung Tsang). But there's enough to go around, since the plan is to rob a jewel in the premises of a casino in Macau, then sell it back to its original owner, the mysterious Wei Hong (Ki Guk-Seo).

The story by Choi Dong-Hun and Lee Gi-Cheol is kept extremely tight despite the myriad of characters involved, with director Choi expertly cutting through characters and their respective story arcs, with flashbacks used to introduce each and every one of them, coupled with surprises that throw up individual character motivations. This adds an extra spice to the proceedings, because like a poker game, we are the only ones who had a sneak peek into their respective roles, and what their intent is from the get go, with an expectation that things aren't always what they seem. We're lulled into complacency that we know it all, until another surprise gets thrown up to knock us off our balance. And doing so without cheating - which involves randomly or forcefully including unbelievable or illogical moments - was something of a feat.

Which is pretty amazing, because the pace of the narrative is never let down, interspersing adrenaline pumping moments with quieter scenes, and the usual heist film montage expectation where the Plan gets played out as the team embarks on their surveillance and preparation work, before the real thing. And that only covers less than half the film, with the second half trading characters for more stunt work and action, and given that it's a Korean film after all, had its focus shifted back to the Korean actors. The way that characters come, go, and the narrative bringing up sub plots, work wonderfully well, especially in setting up what were to follow from surprising moments.

But in a cinematic world where there is no honour amongst thieves, a romance also got thrown in to shake things up a little, especially when emotions play a key role in the building of various alliances and plans that each individual sets in motion in pursuing their self interests. It plays with what you know and have established, feeding you with new facts that would make you change your opinion about someone or some situation, and then decide who you would root for in this bunch of ten skilled professionals. They slag each other when there's opportunity to, backstab and form new partnerships, some even quite moving, especially when you know that Trust amongst the players is really a rare commodity.

No effort got spared in designing the action and heist sequences in the movie, making it a delight to watch since things are kept relatively fresh. Tom Cruise's building climbing escapade is well documented in M:I: Ghost Protocol, and while they aren't scaling the highest building in the world here, the film more than made up for it in the frequency, number of people involved, and at a much faster pace thanks to technology being unavailable other than a strong cable, a threaded indication, and lots of guts.

It's no surprise that this film has so far been South Korea's box office champion, given the slick execution of its action, and an all round good story involving boring cops and sexy/suave robbers. The handling of the languages here - Cantonese and Korean - in the way the characters interact, is a definite draw, as something that was handled close to perfection, because in the real world accents will come to play, and this one had attention to detail.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Hsien of the Dead

The writing was on the wall, when the trailer came out, and tried to pass itself off as camp. But this is not camp. Hardly. In fact to try and label it as camp, or comedy, or a horror / black comedy, is to insult the genres themselves. In fact, to call it a movie is to insult all movies. Hsien of the Dead is a dead clueless in filmmaking, and at most, it's an experimental effort by first time filmmaker Gary Ow, who wrote, directed and co-produced the film, in finding out what works, and what doesn't, on film.

The miracle here though is how the cast and crew decided to stick around, and see how bad can this venture steer itself into. Think of the worst film you've seen, and multiply that by 10 times that same sickening experience. There's no semblance of a plot, no pace, no character development, no production values, with sheer neglect in aspects of acting which was non existent, sound which was atrociously bad, and all technicalities involved in camerawork and editing that even an amateur would have put in more effort. Basically if there was a real passion in sincerely making a film, that passion cannot be felt at all. It came across as a classroom effort, where students who have never dealt with film at all, decided to muck around with a camcorder, calling all friends and family, and perhaps friends of friends, to come together, conjure something out of convoluted imagination, and then laugh at the joint attempt that delivered a haphazardly assembled 72 minute concept of disparate scenes.

Opening with a cheesy credits sequence that doesn't set the premise, the story, if you can call it that, jumps straight into introducing the leading quartet of caricatures. There's Ah Huay (Vivienne Tseng) who had just lost her parents, and turns into a vengeful, swearing, laughably ass-kicking, cosplay warrior, the Ministry of Propaganda's censor board staff Edward (Ernest Seah) and gun-toting, bike-riding, tudung wearing clerk Hana (Nurhuda Choo), and the titular Hsien (Moses San Juan), a conscript in the Singapore army, an army where weapons are kept in unlocked wooden cabinets, and operating from the Goodman Arts Centre. Passing off as the chief villain is Mas Alamak (Darrell Britt), a knock off of the real life terrorist, complete with the iconic escape from toilet, and to "Johor", amongst plenty of recycled zombies starring the same non-actors you'll see pop up time and again, either in the same role, different make up and costume, or another throwaway caricature later in the film.

In case you're wondering, what I described as the background of the characters actually sounds more interesting that how the film introduced them in chop-socky scenes that would test the patience of the most forgiving, though curious, viewer, especially on how much lower the film can go after 10 minutes. Its attempts at jokes, satire, and funny scenes all fell flat. The forced laughter in the cinema amongst the small number of audience members, were clearly from friends, or friends of friends of those involved in production, tickled at the appearance of known people from within their own cliques.

And you can tell the lack of effort from the various distractions in the background of this movie where the rest of the world functioned normally, oblivious to the scattered numbers of "zombies" moving around, nor to this group of youngsters fighting for their dear lives, since after all, zombies are dispatched using CG gunfire, laughable blood effects, and amateurish martial arts moves, it's a surprise the cast don't end up laughing at the silliness they're put through. A better spot for filming could have been chosen, but I guess location scouting is a strange term to the filmmakers, if I can even call them that. The only saving grace is the makeup, but even that is confined to the face, and again, zero effort in making a zombie look more like a zombie in totality, rather than only having a zombified face.

Hsien of the Dead easily ranks as the worst Singapore film. Ever. It's one thing trying to be a B-movie, and another attempting to be so, but this doesn't even come close as it sure as hell tries very hard to come close. Don't waste your 72 minutes with this film; use it for some other purpose, anything such as watching paint dry, taking the dog for a walk, or even rewinding your grandfather's VHS tapes in his collection which will be a lot more pleasurable. The tagline reads Small Island, Big Problem. The chief problem I see is with filmmaker wannabes jumping onto the bandwagon with a fixation in wanting to be "first" in something, take on a never-been-done-before-here genre beyond their capability, just to be able to make a proclamation, publish credits in IMDb, and to pass off as a filmmaker, with total disregard to quality. If this was truly funny and satire, it would have been great, but it's a sad reflection especially if, like the end credits put it so seriously passing off as fact, this was supported by the Media Development Authority of Singapore.

It's better off being tagged with an advisory that this is strictly for cast and crew's private amusement only.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Resident Evil: Retribution in IMAX 3D

Come Out Come Out!

Is there really a need for another Resident Evil movie? Writer-director Paul W.S. Andersen had come out to categorically state the next film will probably be the final one, and the finale in Retribution is pointing straight at it, but whether or not it will be made will depend on how well this film does. It'll likely make a lot of money, or enough to warrant a green light, but what a chore it was to sit through this film, which I rank probably the second worst of the lot after Apocalypse.

It started off where we last left off, with Milla Jovovich's Alice losing her superhuman powers obtained in the last few films, and facing a full scale assault on board a ship, led by Jill Valentine (Sienna Guillory). There was some unnecessary time wasting to provide the opening credits in slow motion, played to tomandandy's score which will pepper the entire movie frequently, for obvious lack of aural creativity, but who knew that would be ominous to what's coming up ahead in this installment, which made it seem too generic, and an unnecessary addition to the mythos thus far. The opening credits gave way to Alice giving a quick lowdown summary of what had transpired since the first film, which was good given that it is now 10 years since the start.

But then it went downhill from there. It seems that Andersen ran into writer's block, and with shooting deadline looming, decided to bring us full circle thematically to Episode 1, with Alice waking up in captivity in similar skimpy, well, non-existent costume, before it becomes a mad escape from the confines of an Umbrella Corporation facility, this time a testing grounds for the development of the T-virus. Help comes in the most unlikely form of Albert Wesker (Shawn Roberts), and his trusted agent Ada Wong (Li Bingbing), with whom Alice must join forces in order to evade the clutches of The Red Queen (Megan Charpentier, voiced by Ave Merson-O'Brian), which had taken over Umbrella the time that Alice was knocked out.

Needless plot arcs that don't go anywhere involve the assembling of a motley crew of mercenaries, which included some characters from the past for a rescue and extraction mission, but you know it's all a smokescreen given that the Resident Evil films have always been girl power, so they were bound for the casualty list sooner or later. And gun fights are just plain ordinary again, ducking and shooting, and the planting of explosives just to pad the film out a little longer as they battle faceless, uniformed Umbrella foot soldiers, because the Alice-Ada half involved more CG creatures and environments that resemble modern day cities, and suburbia, which probably had cost more. And it's interesting that the Suburbia landscape was the most out of place, if only to allow Juvovich to celebrate her motherhood with Alice's daughter Becky(Aryana Engineer) thrown in for a small emotional arc, proclaiming something she would do in a real life parallel in never leaving a daughter behind no matter what.

Scenes seem to be haphazardly pasted together, with fight sequences done for the sake of, lest someone complains about the lack of action, especially involving Alice kicking serious ass. Scenes bring your attention to something, then get quickly forgotten or are inconsequential, such as the injury Alice sustained that got us looking at her blood stained palms, twice. The zombies here are few and far between, with one dedicated scene early on having Alice obliterating a Japanese zombie mob with chain and handgun, just for the sake of to prove she hasn't lost her edge, and probably to allow this film to world premiere in Tokyo. Fight sequences only picked up when they involve close quarter combat, and while the final big battle felt like an afterthought not to shortchange audiences given the rather plain and admittedly boring, stuffy moments, it was the best in the film, where Alice goes up against Jill Valentine, and Michelle Rodriguez's Rain, or one of many test clones imprinted with some basic memory, as explained in the film, going up against Leon Kennedy (Johann Urb) and Luther West (Boris Kodjoe). You'd have to last almost 80 minutes of mediocrity though, to get to this point.

Resident Evil is actually about ogling at Milla Jovovich for 90 minutes, and in the IMAX 3D version, if her complexion is left digitally untouched, it's almost flawless, proportional, and silky smooth beautiful. Kicking ass becomes secondary here since the actress has perfected it for five films already, although her Alice here somehow lacked the spunk found in the earlier versions, as if already tired from yet another installment that didn't seem to go anywhere, until the epilogue that teased of a more hopeful sequel / final installment. Li Bingbing was supposed to be the other highlight, being the first Asian female to grace the franchise, but having limited screen time, her role was only made memorable in being appointed the details spokesperson using almost halting English, and perfecting the Angelina Jolie inspired sticking-the-right-leg-out-of-her-dress look, with every scene always requiring that pose. It's also a nice welcome back for Michelle Rodriguez, but having nothing much to do, pretty much makes it a boring comeback.

Still, I don't see how this installment would deter its fan base, both from film and the video game. One can only hope that should another film be made, it'd be a lot more promising from where this movie left us off with a big setup for an all out war. To end the franchise here would make it incomplete, so hopefully Andersen can up his ante and deliver an ending worthy to sum up the franchise with. With a heavy heart, I'd say non fans may want to skip this movie because it doesn't add anything to the ongoing franchise, unless you'd like to watch Milla in action as her most enduring character yet.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


We're Cool Like That

Intense. That's about one word to sum up Oliver Stone's Savages, a tale dripping with sex, drugs and violence at a level that hasn't been seen since, probably, Natural Born Killers. Savages is perhaps also his most straight-forward film to date, that has his usual tirade against the establishment conspicuously absent, boasting an ensemble cast of fresh faces and veterans centered around drug cartels, mergers and acquisitions, and a warped yet strong, love story as its emotional centre.

Based upon the novel of the same name by Don Winslow, Savages aptly describes all the leading characters in this story, who are ruled by their primal instincts whether in their nature, or having the environment they're in forced unto them. The anti-heroes here are Chon (Taylor Kitsch) and Ben (Aaron Johnson), two high school buddies whose bromance had led them to a path of joint riches, with Chon's tour of duty in Afghanistan resulted in his smuggling of A-grade cannabis seeds for cultivation, combined with Ben's botanical know how and business acumen. They become well known as the go to people for their boutique concoction to get high, and soon their reputation precedes them, with interest coming from Mexican cartels to want to acquire their business and transfer of knowledge. Which of course they get the big middle finger.

So in true gangster fashion, you hit them where it hurts most, by kidnapping their joint squeeze O (Blake Lively), and blackmailing them for their cooperation and part of the business. But nobody will take this lying down, especially when one has power, money and the law on your side, crookedly of course, and the entire narrative shifts into turbo gear, gripping from that point on in a cat and mouse game played by three sides, Chon and Ben, the Mexicans led by Elena (Salma Hayek) and her main enforcer Lado (Benicio Del Toro), and a manipulative DEA agent Dennis (John Travolta), where trust becomes that scarce commodity, and everyone looking into preserving their interests when events escalate into full scale violence, and tit for tat retaliation.

You'll be forced to believe and go along with the explicit menage a trois relationship between O, Chon and Ben, in what would be an extremely open relationship where the two men take turns to physically share O, as well as each other when it comes to the running of their business. This is somewhat important as it seals the deal, to make it somewhat believable that they would risk everything just to ensure her safety and return into their arms when she gets taken, setting into motion every act of violence that Chon is very capable of, and dragging the fairly violence reluctant Ben along for an eye for an eye action. If this aspect of the men's relationship, and that with O, fail to engage, then this story would fall apart because the narrative will be riddled with too many what ifs, since what Ben and Chon would do, would run contrary to logic.

And in some strange coincidence, this was almost a three on three, with the younger cast members showing off what they can do, and the veterans holding their own and responding back, despite having more limited screentime, but nonetheless making full use of what's given to stem their mark. Taylor Kitsch turns in a steady performance after the rather bland outings as John Carter, and in Battleship. Although again cast as muscle in the film, he's made to look good thanks to Aaron Johnson sharing some pitch perfect chemistry as the blood brother, while Blake Lively had the rather surprising task of holding the entire story together, being the chief narrator from beginning to end.

Not to be outdone, Salma Hayek, so rarely seen on screen these days, sizzle as the drug cartel queen whose black heart is obscured by her well maintained figure, vicious and cunning, though not without a weakness that you'd come to expect some exploitation later in the tale. John Travolta probably has the least screen time here as the corrupt cop, but one who's somewhat necessary if not to isolate the law in the film, since it would be highly unrealistic to do so. Equipped with a motor mouth and loyalties that swing as fast as the outcome of the drug war, his role as master manipulator against Benicio Del Toro's Lado was one of the many highlights in the film. If I were to judge which actor did and had the best role, it would be Del Toro hands down, as the Mexican enforcer who is none too bright, but compensating that for a brand of uncompromising violence, and a behaviour that disgusts.

Full of scenes involving drug abuse, sex and plenty of gore filled violence that went for realism rather than designed to be over the top, Savages is one of a kind film about drug dealers involved in a mergers and acquisitions gone terribly wrong. It zips through its more than 2 hours sprawling narrative with wit and pomp, with breathtaking visuals and an eclectic choice of music scattered throughout. If only it did not flinch in it finale, and decided upon a single ending, rather than a choose your own adventure style that hinted at a cop out to please those who read about its level of blood. Still, this is an Oliver Stone film so why not an ending that's bound to create some controversy and buzz, and for fans of crime capers, this is a definite recommendation.
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