Sunday, March 31, 2013

The Host

There Can Be Only One

This is Stephenie Meyer's other book outside of her Twilight series, and what makes it a tad interesting is the science fictional element which is a spin out of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, combined with romance that only Meyer knows how to get through its convoluted best with love triangles, or rectangles now. It's a fairly troubled film project with directors coming and going, until Andrew Niccol, famed for Gattaca and In Time, came to seal the deal at the helm. Having responsibility to adapt Meyer's story for the screen, this and Saoirse Ronan's participation as the lead, will pique interest, at least at first.

What gave this film a leg up, is its science fiction premise. The resources of Earth are now being used wisely and perfectly, and voila, the planet is thriving once again, reversing the pollution and muck that us humans have been responsible for. Homo-sapiens are still around though, but now our consciousness have been replaced by "Souls", alien lifeforms who thrive by co-opting the bodies of the planetary hosts, and given that they're peace loving, and scientifically more advanced with a penchant for all things chrome, and for standardization to cut waste - all cars are Ferraris and bikes are Ducatis - they are now rulers of the planet, with all that's left is to eradicate the remaining human beings.

Wait a minute, peace loving, and yet annihilation (through pain free means no doubt) going hand in hand? Yes, something's basically wrong here, but the narrative doesn't dwell too much on this. The aliens come with different roles and names that suit their functions, so it's left to Seekers (Diane Kruger) to weed out the remaining pockets of resistance, and in doing so we begin with the capture of Melanie (Ronan), whose almost dying body in a desperate suicide attempt meant the assimilation of the Wanderer/Wanda Soul into her body, only for Melanie to prove to have a stronger mind that first though, and so two minds inhabit the same body, leading to, well, as much cliches as possible.

Ronan probably have her work cut out for her, and she excels in her role of split personality really well. It's like Gollum talking to himself, except that here we're reliant on voice overs and her deadpan expression when Melanie becomes the one who's talking/thinking/directing the body's actions. Adversary is set up with The Seeker wanting Wanderer to dig deep into the recesses of Melanie's memory to fish out the hiding place of her rebel friends and family, while Melanie plays hard ball in trying to block those images out. As it progresses, having two minds sharing the same body meant something going to give, and in this case, it's basically schizophrenia as the two ladies for quite the perfect sisterhood in due course.

But to get there, here's where Meyer brings out the gravy train for her Twilight fan base. It's not enough to have two hot guys falling in love with one girl now, but having two hot guys falling in love with one girl possessing two minds. The conundrum here is of course the sharing of one single body, and like Siamese Twins, you really can't separate one consciousness from the other when things get a little bit frisky. While this may be a little bit of a situation to handle both emotionally and physically, how it played out tend to be unintentionally comedic, and this meant losing impact to the entire relationship between the characters, whom you won't feel much for, and only made worse.

The strengths of the film lay in its premise, but unfortunately that wasn't exploited much to build up the world that it's now is. Its focus on romance was inevitable, but this became the lowest denominator without real depth, and hankered much of the plot with cheesy dialogue and situations that bordered on the absurd, sometimes conveniently writing out the Melanie consciousness without any attempt at explanation, sort of like a light switch that can be turned on or off, with the switch controls being lip locks and plenty of caressing to elicit a response.

If only the same can be said of the film's less interesting bits. Max Irons and Jake Abel as the male lovers now become the rare flower vase whose presence were really rote and as superficial as can be, while Emily Browning's uncredited star appearance only pointed to the promise of a sequel if this could make decent amounts at the box office should Meyer's fan base turn up for the party. Even if Andrew Niccol was at his best, which he was not, couldn't have saved this one.

Saturday, March 30, 2013

Ip Man: The Final Fight (叶问:终极一战 / Ye Wen: Zhong Ji Yi Zhan)

Unlikely Grandmasters

It looks like the Ip Man wave isn't quite over in Cinema yet, with Wong Kar-Wai's The Grandmasters finally making its debut earlier this year, and now Herman Yau continuing from where he left off with creating the bookends of the series, which started with The Legend is Born. If you were to put every Ip Man film together, they don't really make much sense now especially on the life and times of the Wing Chun grandmaster, with timelines very much convoluted, and events blurred with fictional elements. With no less than 4 different actors now taking on the role and exhibiting variations to Wing Chun, you've probably begun to take sides as to which interpretation you'd have a preference for.

But Herman Yau's films have got its bragging rights, having Ip Man's own son Ip Chun involved with the production, not only in making cameo appearances, but providing story input to paint a more dramatic picture of the subject. And it couldn't get more authentic than this, even with artistic license obviously taken at some points. And if you were to extrapolate them, then you'd see shades of the rest of the other films that seem to tangent off important plot points. Things such as underground fighting rings, corrupt cops, battling with other grandmasters, setting up shop, and tales of rash disciples all have its air time here as well, and this one offered a lot more than the others because it's now a snapshot of a time that the rest hasn't, and probably will not, cover. This is Ip Man in his later days when Bruce Lee was beginning to make a name for himself in the USA, and chronicles the life and times, filled with its fair share of ups, downs, moments of pride and that tragic sense of loss, that comes with ageing, with a lot more focus on his group of disciples as much as it is about Ip Man's personal life.

The surprise is of course Yau teaming up with his long time collaborator Anthony Wong, who together have made iconic Category III films in The Untold Story and Ebola Syndrome. Here, they reunite to bring a kung fu master to life, and a biographical one at that, and going by the trailers, Wong is no pushover as he executes the Wing Chun moves with grace and ferocity, with little that betrays the use of a stuntperson or wires to help make his a lot more graceful. What works here in the fight department is the awesome choreography that does justice to both the martial arts and the actor, obviously having trained for it, to execute the moves with as much authenticity as possible.

Action sequences may be limited in quantity given Herman Yau's and Erica Lee's story focused on the more dramatic moments, and relationships that Ip Man has with his wife (Anita Yuen), a songstress (Zhou Chu Chu) and his many disciples, but more than made up for it in terms of quality. Cinematography in action films are key in either wanting to play the cheat sheet with quick cuts and edits, with either faraway or tight shots to hide the stuntperson, but this one is done perfectly well to show off the cast members' moves and intensity of their blows, and does its action choreography justice, which for a martial arts film, matters most. Besides some speeding up detected, it doesn't have over the top style, but kept things as simple as Wing Chun's philosophy, and that battle between Ip Man and Master Ng (Eric Tsang) remains one of the best in this movie, and dare I mention also ranks as one of the best amongst the rest of the Ip Man films put together.

If there's a downside to this, it's the issue of having too many characters jam packed into this less than two hour story. There's a whole host of disciples that Ip Man had recruited, and while screen time is dedicated to these characters, their development was fleeting at best. Headlining the disciples were the likes of Gillian Chung chalking up her resume in her recent comeback, but her role was rote at best, with her relatively less well known stars given more screen time instead. Jordan Chan is the other famous headliner for the film, starring as Ip Man's disciple and a policeman, caught up with moral issues as his profession brings about opportunities for corruption at the time, and how he struggled with this moral dilemma. But it's not much of a struggle as it turned out, although the narrative steered clear on passing any judgement or ending on the character, except to remind that he was an important source of income to keep things going. Zhou Chu Chu as the songstress provided a promise of a romance that wasn't much, but this love story has its shades in Wong Kar-Wai's epic in being a love that could have been, told in a very different fashion here.

The opening film of this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival, with that territory comes a certain guarantee that this has to live up to its honor with high production values, which was a plus point as the 50s and 60s Hong Kong got recreated both in terms of external sets and interior art direction and production to transport the audience into an era long gone. Giving it some artistic credibility is how the narrative blended with the history of Hong Kong as a background, making it as much of a historical epic of the colony at the time as it is about the story of Ip Man's advancing years in life. Still, as part of the Ip Man movie canon, The Final Fight has its moments, and even if you're jaded from too many films about the grandmaster in such a short duration of time, this movie still has what it takes to offer audiences a different aspect yet to be seen of Ip Man, with its Wing Chun moves and fights being the icing on the cake. Recommended!


No Rooms Available

Written by the Coen brothers Joel and Ethan, Gambit is the remake of the 1966 heist comedy of the same name starring Shirley MacLaine and Michael Caine, which this film had borrowed its base premise from in having what's expected played out in the mind of one of its protagonist, before having its actual execution go completely and hilariously wrong. And once this had started off as a troubled production with cast and crew suffered from a revolving doors syndrome, it finally nailed its key casting of Colin Firth, Cameron Diaz and Alan Rickman, all of whom prove to be what made Gambit an engaging movie to sit through and effortlessly hitting all the sweet spots that a heist comedy should hit.

Colin Firth plays Harry Deane, an art curator working for Lionel Shahbandar (Alan Rickman), a mean and scrooge like businessman who doesn't think twice in hurling insults of all shapes and form at his employee base should they get in his way, in any way. Clearly unliked by many, and by Harry of course, who hatches a plot to skim millions off his employer as revenge. To do so meant to come up with an elaborate plot involving Monet's Haystacks series of paintings, and travelling the world in search of a possible bait to play along and boost the credibility of the story he concocts. This brings together The Major (Tom Courtenay), a master forger, and P.J. Puznowski (Cameron Diaz), a ditzy cowgirl from the USA to bolster his plot for a cool promise of a half a million sterling pound reward for basically sealing the deal.

And true to the original work, we get to see how the perfect heist plays out in perfect terms, as would any heist film in laying out the challenge, and the objective, with a quick run of the process and the plan in order to fulfill what the motley crew got assembled for. But when things start to swing into action, this means Murphy's Law being applied liberally by the Coen Brothers, and makes for a hilarious film with excellent comic timing brought on by all three leads. Classical moments include the entire sequence at the Savoy hotel as Harry got sidetracked into trying to go for a Ming vase, and of course, the inevitable twist within the twist as its crescendo that makes this very much fulfilling and less empty had this been nothing more than a straight-forward narrative.

Colin Firth proved to be more than capable in being the gentleman's gentleman with an axe to grind with his employer, and getting back through the only means he knows how, being surprisingly quick thinking especially toward the end. Stanley Tucci makes a small supporting appearance as his professional adversary, while over the top, does suggest a thought about how we tend to think that foreign experts are the best, often overlooking equally capable, or in some instances, more than capable, locals for the job. Firth's comic timing is impeccable, and is primarily responsible for holding the narrative together. Diaz goes back to what she does best as the ditzy blonde with her own street smarts to get out of sticky situations, who is aware that she holds the key to the success of Harry's absurd plan, while Alan Rickman shows what it takes to be a fiend, and yet a likeable one whose presence and background may draw a sympathetic eye or two.

Like almost all heist films, the payload is toward the end where things get revealed for what they truly are. Gambit has more than its fair share of surprises, reaffirming some plot points brought up but debunked early, and red herrings galore that got closed off. This is probably the Coen Brother's most accessible story to date, playing it in straightforward fashion, and while it's no insult to director Michael Hoffman, perhaps the film may be more interesting if we got to see the Coen Brothers' take on this. Still, for what it's worth, Gambit is recommended for the performance of its cast who delivered as expected without playing against type.

Friday, March 29, 2013

[Southeast Asian Film Festival] Liberta

One of the most fascinating local independent filmmakers today, Kan Lume continues to show why he's also one of the most prolific, with stories that tell of the human condition being made not only in Singapore, but across the Causeway, and now in Australia as well, where he was residing for a period of time recently. A confluence of opportunity and factors came together that made Liberta possible, arising from tragedy that had hit the filmmaker personally, but like a phoenix came this film that seemingly brought him almost full circle to when he made waves with his first feature film The Art of Flirting.

Kan's films are always known for its edge, and this also meant ruffling a few feathers that had seen a couple of restrictions, to put it lightly, being imposed on his films. Solos was banned locally, as was Female Games, both for its homosexual content, with the latter film being recut and slapped with an R21 rating for a limited commercial run in Sinema, but to frame and box those films under that theme is not doing the movies any favour, because they are more than that. Out of his frustration came Dreams From the Third World, pushing the filmmaker into creative spaces outside of geographical boundaries, and as if this was also a contributing factor to having Liberta made from Down Under.

Like his first film, Liberta is shot under the simplest of terms, with the writer-director at the helm of a creative process that blurs the line between documentary and drama, exploring issues that push a person over the edge of suicide contemplation, and its two outcomes of whether to go along with it, or to junk the idea altogether. With the latter comes a deep dive into the factors behind it, serving as a carthathic process for the filmmaker and his cast of one to iron out their internal demons through the character they co-create, who is on a road trip of self-exploration, and confessional in some sense, to the fabled Ayers Rock.

Split into three distinct chapters, the film is plenty of talk from a single source, almost interview style, of Faye (Faye Kingslee), with the interviewer (Kan Lume) muted and unseen the whole time, but whom we know is behind the camera and chief instigator with his questions, probing for answers and seeking clarification during Faye's long monologues on topics that contains everything under the sun, and then more. Anecdotes, stories, philosophy and experiences got retold on camera, which will engage you as you get drawn into the world of a woman facing issues that will resonate with many who have faced, or are facing something similar. And these are not far-fetched, as they draw upon common life experiences of love, loss, and the likes, basic human emotions that everyone would have gone through at one stage of their lives of another.

What made this film work, like all of his others, is Kan's incredible ability to draw natural performances from his cast, whether they be rookies in the field, or experienced practitioners. There's always a strong personality associated with the characters of Kan Lume's cinematic world, and this will set you to either root for, or against them, in their struggles. In this film, it's back to guerilla basics with a cast of one that the director draws an extremely effective performance out of as she rambles on about her life primarily, with monologues that do not seem out of place if in a Tarantino or Linklater film, that may have its own licence to go everywhere, but yet clearly calculated with reason and purpose. Everything got worked in for that final act, with the children, the life affirming experience, and a step out from the dark after being moved by something majestic that life has to offer.

Perhaps much can be said about Kan's interest on women issues having them feature heavily in almost all his works - Marilyn Lee's protagonist in The Art of Flirting, the mom in Solos, that Dreams From the Third World was about the wife character as much as it was about the male filmmaker protagonist, in Female Games about two model-actress wannabes, and now with Faye presenting his strongest female character yet amongst them all. It'll probably be as absorbing if someone was to do an analysis of all the female characters in Kan Lume's films, and I'm sure it may turn up a surprise or two. Kan's wife and co-founder of his independent Chapterfree studio was editor of this film, and this would also likely be key in presenting a very strong female perspective for this movie.

There may not be word on another screening yet, but do keep your eyes peeled to catch this gem should it be screened on another festival platform here, or abroad. It isn't everyday that you'd get to witness a courageous effort in filmmaking working within monumental constraints, yet coming on top with what would be Kan's finest film to date.

You can also view the companion piece known as Libertas, which is a gorgeously done short animation film:

G.I. Joe: Retaliation IMAX 3D

We're All New To This

This was a film slated for release last Summer, before it was unceremoniously pulled out with some controversy surrounding the decision of post-converting it to 3D. Was it for an increase in box office revenue? Was it because Channing Tatum was such a star that limiting his role in this film will spell disaster? Theories are abound and only time will tell whether this move into the 3D format will result in a decent box office return, but as far as giving Tatum's rising star an acknowledgement, well, that didn't happen. Which is a pity because he would have served as one of the few who had remained from the Joe's first cinematic outing, but perhaps had smelt a stinker that he wanted out from, pronto.

This time round, like what the Fast and Furious franchise did in introducing a heavy-weight character with Dwayne Johnson's presence, GI Joe had decided it will now pass the baton given its exodus of stars, and have The Rock carry the film on his broad shoulders. As Roadblock, he plays the reluctant leader, preferring to let Tatum's Duke continue in taking the lead, until he had to step up with two other remaining survivors Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Flint (D.J. Cotrona) into wondering just who had sucker punched the entire elite force. They're up against Cobra Commander - a pity that Joseph Gordon Levitt is no longer involved, but face it, with his entire face covered even I could have played the role - Firefly (Ray Stevenson) and Zartan (Arnold Vosloo), the usual Cobra suspects who now have control over the White House and the Presidency (Jonathan Pryce) thanks to nano-technology boosted face masks, and the heroes have to seek out old timer and the original Joe (Bruce Willis) whose retirement plan granted him a house full of weaponry that would make him a grade A terrorist should he go rogue.

Then it dawned upon you that this film could have had its plug pulled, in order to give more air time to Lee Byung-Hun as Storm Shadow, because out of the blue you suddenly have the Storm Shadow-Snake Eyes (Ray Park) arc thrust to the forefront as the second parallel narrative, and naturally an increase in Lee's minutes in the film in order to boost the movie's standing in the Asian territories. Smart move by scribes Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick in linking the two GI Joe movies through the two character's rivalry, and offering that chance of redemption, sort of like giving one side the advantage since he's having a bigger fan base that can be milked.

So while it's practical and pragmatic, in comes the usual formula of set action pieces that look great, but didn't offer much, since it's nothing more than the usual fire fight, sword fight, and plenty of shoot-em-up accuracy issues that plague cartoons from time immemorial. Granted that part of the fun is to witness the GI Joes and Cobra sides go at each other with weapons uninvented and near impossible even in today's context, it turned out to be nothing more than a live action film of the cartoon it is based on, with an eye out for revenue through its merchandising and toys. You can just about predict everything from start to end since there's little story, and the dramatic moments were so painful to watch that you'd wish things start blowing up on screen just to keep the narrative going.

And while it had an ensemble cast to boast of, comparable to the first film, everyone seemed to be sleepwalking their way to their paycheck. Bruce Willis plays Bruce Willis, smirking his presence as the General retired from active duty to make menial contribution to the plot, if not to boost the star power for the film. Adrianne Palicki and D.J. Cotrona were forgettable as well, while The Rock thankfully had that final fisticuffs scene that wowed a little as Roadblock and Firefly go up against each other in close quartered combat with fists and firearms, which was a lift from its immediate preceding sequence involving his piloting a pumped up tank-busting buggy.

It may have been a tad interesting if Cobra's threat in the trailer was right from the onset, rather than a passing thought for the finale - it was a maniacal and implausible doomsday scenario - and like most American action blockbusters, perhaps offensive as well in giving the middle finger to other countries through its use of technology to annihilate rival cities. Paris got chomped down by the nanomites in the first film, and now London got obliterated without emotion. Take your pick in which other global city will be next in going down the CG way when the GI Joes return for another outing, if the box office return permits it.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Temporary Hiatus

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

Back this Good Friday morning! Likely to be snoozing over both legs of the red eye flights...

Monday, March 25, 2013

10th Italian Film Festival

Date: 18th-24th April 2013
Venue: Cathay Cineplexes, 2 Handy Road, Singapore
Admission: $ 12 ($11 for Italian Cultural Institute and Singapore Film Society Members)

Presented by: The Italian Cultural Institute Singapore, in partnership with Cathay Cineplexes Pte Ltd, supported by the Singapore Film Society.

This year, the Italian Film Festival celebrates its 10th anniversary and will present a selection of 7 films from the best Italian movies featured in 2011 and 2012. The Festival opens with the latest film Me and You by international acclaimed director Bernardo Bertolucci. With his storytelling wisdom, Maestro Bertolucci, in his first Italian movie in thirty years, presents the gripping story of two estranged and quirky siblings. He has chosen two unknown and talented actors (Jacopo Olmo Antinori and Tea Folco). The screening of Me and You will be preceded by a video message to the Singaporean audience by Bernardo Bertolucci himself.

The Festival will continue with a mix of comedies and dramas. Each movie gives a different perspective of Italy and all together they build an interesting mosaic representing the country’s contemporary life. This year’s selection features movies that have obtained international rewards such as the David di Donatello (Basilicata Coast to Coast by Rocco Papaleo) and the Jury Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival (Reality by Matteo Garrone).

The movies will give the audience an opportunity to get a glimpse of today’s Italy, its evolving society and creativity. The Italian Film Festival will provide the Singaporean audience with an opportunity to see Italy through the movie-camera and get acquainted with its best and most recent film production.

18th April 730pm - Me and You (Io E Te) (2011), Director: Bernardo Bertolucci

19th April 715pm - Kryptonite! (La Kryptonite Nella Borsa) (2011), Director: Ivano Contronco

20th April 715pm - Reality (2011), Director: Matteo Garrone

21st April 715pm - The Commander and the Stork (Il Comandante E La Cicogna) (2012), Director: Silvio Soldini

22nd April 730pm - The Salt of Life (Gianni E Le Donne) (2011), Director: Gianni Di Gregorio

23rd April 715pm - Basilicata Coast to Coast (2010), Director: Rocco Papalco

24th April 715pm - Balancing Act (Gli Equilibristi) (2012), Director: Ivano De Matteo

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Django Unchained


Quentin Tarantino, by now, will be synonymous with taking genres and giving them his unique spin that blends pop and cinematic culture with vulgarity laced dialogue and plenty of blood spurting action. It's almost as if he started out wanting to pay homage to his favourite genres, only to find himself adding a new and separate dimension to those films with his trademark signature style. And with each film he now commands bigger and better known stars to draw crowds to the Tarantino-verse that seemed to bear no limits, as the writer-director-part-time-actor had now gone on to pick up his second screenplay Oscar in recognition of his writing.

But Django Unchained would probably be his most straight-forward narrative yet, without genre-bending nor adapting vastly different styles in his film, playing it very straight and to the point. In his earlier films, his most engaging scenes tend to be the ones that is dialogue or monologue laden, where characters banter incessantly, and most times irreverently to what is the situation at hand, and this not only draws plenty of attention, but are extremely engaging to sit through. countless of gems have been introduced in this fashion, which sadly this one didn't have many of. That's not to say that it's notches down, but is an element that's sorely missed.

While many will go on about how violent the gun-play in Django Unchained is with its bucketloads of exaggerated blood spills and splashes, and over the top gun wounds when lead rips apart flesh and bone, what made this close to three hour film work, lies in the characterization, especially with many playing against type. And it doesn't hurt to have Christoph Waltz in your corner as well, and making an entrance that's as chilling as that in his debut Tarantino work Inglourious Basterds. Here, Waltz plays Dr. King Schultz, a dentist turned bounty hunter, and a damn effective one at that, with his surprises and relentless ability to smell out opportunities. He plays mentor of sorts to Jamie Foxx's Django, a slave whom Schultz set free, and partners with, much to the chagrin of the Southern community at large, to go after a slew of wanted men, raking in the cash as well as getting closer to Django's sole objective at this point, to rescue his wife Broomhilda von Schaft (Kerry Washington) from the clutches of the egomaniac Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio).

The plot's easy to follow given Django's prime objective, that's paved with bounty hunter adventures through set action pieces, and comedic moments, such as Tarantino's making fun of the early version of the Ku Klux Klan, and the plenty of cameos such as Jonah Hill, and Franco Nero of the original Django fame, amongst others. These action sequences are effectively done to a perfect blend of blood, gore, and comedy rolled together. There's no question that these are elements that gone honed over the years from Reservoir Dogs right down to this film, with the filmmaker being unapologetic with his defined style, and being very comfortable with it. Those stand offs in the film are probably the best that Tarantino had tackled, and are well worth the price of an admission ticket. The writing continues to be impeccable as Tarantino develops his scenes and how his characters interact with one another, making each episode incredibly engaging and filled with high tension, especially from the last act when everything comes together in a volatile melting pot.

While Jamie Foxx makes an excellent Django with the silent D in his fish out of water ways who discovers he's a crack shot, it's quite clear that Leonardo DiCaprio stole the latter half of the film with his rare villanous turn as the Southern plantation owner who couldn't care less of his slaves, enjoying the high life with that sadistic streak of always wanting to win. Samuel L. Jackson was also a delight, being probably the only actor to date to have worked in the most number of Tarantino films, to stamp his presence as Candie's trusted man servant who at times seem to call the most shots. It's L. Jackson like we've probably never seen him before, and in a role that's on par with some of the best he had played throughout his career thus far, with unbelievable dialogue being spit out from his mouth, and sharing some excellent moments opposite DiCaprio.

Some may have lambasted Tarantino about how racist this film is, but after sitting through it, you can't help but feel they're a little jealous in not having been there first. A solid story, a great cast, and plenty of stuff to engage a variety of audience demographics make Django Unchained probably the most accessible Quentin Tarantino film to date, and I'd highly recommend it for what it achieved, a tribute to chop-slock entertainment that continues in the same vein as his grindhouse features.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

[Southeast Asian Film Festival] The Great North Korean Picture Show Q&A


[Southeast Asian Film Festival] The Great North Korean Picture Show


As with all good things, this was something well worth the wait. It was in 2008 where documentary filmmakers James Leong and Lynn Lee presented Homeless FC during that year's Singapore International Film Festival, and since then a number of film projects have surfaced, including their first narrative feature length film Camera, amongst other documentaries, but nothing had been put up on the big screen until now. The Great North Korean Picture Show made its debut late last year at the Dubai International Film Festival, and others abroad, before finally coming home to screen in front of a full house. There could be more screenings given the overwhelming response and subject matter that piques one's curiosity, so stay tuned for an encore either under this festival, or one of many to come this year.

Shot in four separate trips to the reclusive state and given unprecedented access behind the iron curtain, The Great North Korean Picture Show, as a title, plays on the phrase in two ways, that the subject matter was primarily about the state of filmmaking in North Korea given that it was widely known that the late Kim Jong Il was a fanatical film buff, while on the other hand suggests that everything our documentary filmmakers had captured, had been fabricated from the onset, that despite being on the ground, there's nothing that's already vetted and approved by the powers that be. You're left to your own devices to figure things out, whether some scenes and interaction with the North Koreans may be too rote, or articifical for your liking, but really it's anyone's guess.

The central plot, if I may call it that in a documentary, follows 2 actors and 1 apparently famous North Korean director, where we get to see glimpses of some of their personal, and professional moments. While you may come to expect the usual pro-country, nationalistic views that everyone seems to be wearing on their sleeves, especially since the actors hail from the elite acting academy and may be just putting on a facade their acting skills have already honed over the years, it's a tad unique to hear their views about films and filmmaking, where they deem it as a high honour to be able to make propaganda films, seeing it as a social responsibility rather than doing it for fame and other capitalist gains. Things are really cleanly divided into two hear, that if you're not with us, you're against us type of argument, and I suppose there's no other way to achieve these thoughts other than conditioning since young.

What was more interesting, was when James Leong and Lynn Lee were allowed access to a film set where the director Pyo Hang was working on a film project in production, and being the personality that he is, makes it compelling viewing that perhaps in some aspects still, the human spirit and its playfulness are hard to suppress. There's a scene that spoke volumes, where Pyo Hang was trying his best to get a shot of soldiers who had to weep and display exaggerated actions of anguish at defeat, but what he got was a bunch of giggling extras who found it difficult to get into the mood for the sombre scene. And these are not actors mind you, but real soldiers from the North Korean army being seen to monkey around for a bit on set, outside of the tight discipline that we'd see in many precision marches or display of military might..

It is subtle scenes like this, that made The Great North Korean Picture Show such a compelling film to watch, to be on the constant lookout for clues to a seemingly more normal life than one under oppression. And while it's rare that the filmmakers' camera was allowed to pan wider and linger around longer in many scenes - there were many tight shots that made it to the film - you'll always appreciate once it does, to gaze at everything in background just to catch up on a little bit more on what things actually look like inside the reclusive country. Sans any voiceovers, James and Lynn utilize subtitles to narrate happenings and issues they had faced, for instance, in needing to reshoot some scenes inside the film museum because of innate rules pertaining to shots of the Kims, and their framed sayings. There's really no better way than to watch this film with the filmmakers' attendance.

One may think that in exchange for permission to shoot where they had shot in North Korea, or Pyongyang specifically, may mean that the filmmakers had traded their filmmaking integrity for it. The good thing is that the filmmakers didn't have to resort to that, and neither was the intention. From the onset, there were clear rules, as expected, to adhere to, and I suppose it was plain human condition that respect cuts both ways, and with each agreement to keep within the rules, greater access was granted. And what was more of a surprise, as Lynn Lee explained during a post-screening Question and Answer Session, was that no footage got confiscated, but returned with an advisory on what cannot be used. There was absolutely no interference in the final cut of the film, and in some ways, I felt that it demonstrated the censors in country were surprisingly more trusting than even those back home. And that coming from a country where communications and media are even more highly regulated and controlled.

Arguably Singapore's most successful documentary filmmakers today, James Leong and Lynn Lee once again have a gem in their hands, and with the film travelling the festival circuit, do keep a look out for it, to peer into footage never seen before, and access to a unique filmmaking process.

Promised Land

I am the Messenger

Director Gus Van Sant reunites with actor Matt Damon once again after their award winning film Good Will Hunting, but this time with actor John Krasinski filling in for Ben Affleck as part of the writing-acting equation in a film that combines a big bad natural gas mining corporation, sales pitches by its sales people and elements of environmental protection all rolled into one. The result is an engaging and reflective look at people who have to lie outright in order to do their jobs, or to rely on half truths repeated enough times to be convincingly real, and that prick of conscience should that day arise.

Damon plays the lead role of Steve Butler, whose stellar track record of closing more land deals at rock bottom prices puts him in pole position for that cushy headquarters promotion, in a company that deals with natural gas mining, moving like a juggernaut and buying up plenty of agricultural farm land that are sitting on valuable shoal. And the game plan used by Steve is deceptively simple – to position himself as one of the town's own, having grown up on a farm, and transforming himself from corporate bigwig wannabe, to the trusted neighbour down the street. All he has to do is to close another deal to move into the corporate boardroom, which would be a piece of cake, except for a school science teacher to derail his seemingly smooth plan, and getting the townsfolk to decide based on a majority vote.

Written by Damon-Krasinski, the story is a fairly interesting one that takes on both a macro look at the problem at hand, where clean energy sources may not be as clean as it's made out to be, especially in the exploiting process, while on the micro level, has plenty of carefully crafted characters to carry the narrative through. For those of us who do not understand the environmental impact of wasteful clean energy production, this film has enough time dedicated so that you'll gather the gist of it, then use new information against what Steve has to present, in the name of very real corporate offers that's one time only, with pressure tactics employed once the feel good option of thinking about one's children and their education get exhausted.

On a micro level, we learn more about, and almost sympathize with Steve, who truly believes in the good that his company is doing in offering a bail out for farmers whose livelihood comes under threat of inevitable change brought about by big money, and genuine concern about those who rescind such offers only to be seen blown away by the winds of change when it comes. If one is skeptical about Damon's dramatic ability then this film may make you change your mind given his nuanced performance. Help of course comes in the form of veteran Frances McDormand, who plays his colleague and partner in crime to fast track their offer, and stands for that check in progress whenever Steve uncharacteristically falters in his usual smooth talking ways. Rounding up the main leads come writer Krasinski himself, as a small time environmentalist out to tell people about the truth to reject big money, because it is unsafe, using personal anecdotes to push his point through. It's small time activist versus big time corporation with legal and marketing teams, so it's anyone's guess how this would pan out.

And the outcome is nothing short of brilliance from the story, especially in its build up in presenting the case from both sides, with space for some romance thrown in for good measure as both camps slug it out for mind-share and heart-share using compelling arguments and guerrilla strategies, up until the final act where the true theme reveals itself – about lies and their impact. There are those in the world who can lie straight into your face without batting an eyelid, or write a report with malicious intent just because they can and are in a questionable state of mind thinking that their lies won't be seen through with a thorough enough research. It hits the mark squarely on the head as well on sales folks and their pitches, that once the deal is done you're never about to see them ever again, since they've already moved on, and the fine print in contracts would be what's governing your life henceforth.

There are those who base their arguments on compelling merits of their own, and there are those who base it on lies created to belittle others in an effort to paint a negative picture, hoping that the people you want to convince buys into your tirade against something. This film does all it can in having these points hammered by the narrative, until a scene that had struck me, involving the honesty of simple folk, who wants nothing but to carry on their simple, honest existence without the introduction of big money and its corrupting influence come put everything into a bind.

Gus Van Sant has made a film with Matt Damon, with Damon giving up what would be his directorial effort, that's a cold hard look at the power corporations wield over the little guy, about the truth in controlling stakes and outcomes, and sets you thinking about this gulf of equality that never was to begin with. A thought provoking, highly recommended film that deserves a repeat viewing!

Warm Bodies

New Friends

With werewolves and vampires hogging the cinema screens in the last few years under romantic genres, perhaps it is timely now to explore if zombies can fit into the same picture as well, and being a more interesting prospect at that since there's no icky bestiality involved, nor necessary have to be uber-sexy and charming like a vampire should be. Zombies are basically rotten walking corpses of the undead, lumbering – or in recent times, running - around seeking out humans for food, with a preference to feast on human brains as a delicacy. They're easy to put away with conventional rounds into the head, unlike werewolves and vampires that require specialized skills and weapons, so they go around in hordes where strength in numbers tend to overwhelm.

Then came writer Isaac Mario and his idea for his novel, to get into the shoes of the other side, and walk around in them for a little. As far as I recall, not since Fido had we a cinematic zombie who tried his darnedest best to assimilate back into the life of a human, with thoughts still lingering about filling an intense void in the unbeating heart of his. Zombies can hardly talk, save for the occasional grunts, and what director Jonathan Levine managed to do, is to have the film's narration peek into the thinking head of R (Nicholas Hoult), a zombie who is experiencing existentialism issues, and providing us a quick update into the rules of the game in which Warm Bodies operate under.

And no, there's no sparkling nonsense under sunlight. What was proposed were highly feasible and worthy addition to the zombie canon, where the first person perspective here provides us with that up close and personal look at the dilemma of being an undead, where the feasting of humans, and their brains specifically, allows for the zombies to momentarily adopt the memories of those they are consuming, and allowing them that slightest chance to feel alive again. If that's the case, then I don't see why they behave the way they do, with that dietary preference. And for those who are zombies for long, they eventually lose all sense of humanity and become skeletons, whose sole objective is to feast. And there were a number of essential presentations that just serve to enhance those parameters the narrative has to operate within.

The story truly begins when R, on a feasting hunt, meets up with a surviving bunch of humans outside of their walled city to look for medicine, and smitten by Julie (Teresa Palmer), takes her under his wing to keep her safe, as well as the ulterior motive of romancing the girl. Conveniently living aboard a jetliner at the airport, which provides that airtight condition to keep her human scent from other zombies, close proximity with only each other meant plenty of opportunities to get to know the other party, and who would have known, fall in love. It's a modern day Romeo & Juliet story set against a zombie apocalypse backdrop, with that instantly recognizable token balcony scene to boot, that would set the hearts of romantic die-hards aflutter, since adversary comes in the form of Julie's dad Colonel Grigio (John Malkovich).

In this love conquering all tale, Levine perhaps wanted to tell the tale of how love provides the key to what would be a seemingly hopeless situation, especially amongst those "Zombiefied" amongst us who live life as soulless routines. There never was any attempts so far to suggest how zombies could revert to human form, and this story had the audacity to do just that, making that bold statement to set it apart from the competition. Between the two leads of Nicholas Hoult and Teresa Palmer, clearly Hoult is now seeing his star shining brighter, with lead roles here and in other blockbusters like Jack the Giant Slayer, cementing his status to heartthrob levels with his boyish charm on the big screen. With the material, he did his best rendition of the lumbering, awkward zombie R who finds his heart getting warmer and his mannerisms slowly giving way to become more human like. Palmer didn't have much to do as the damsel usually in distress, though having moments to show she's no pushover as well. But ultimately it's a role that could have been played by any other starlet, save for her solid chemistry opposite Hoult.

As far as romantic stories go that has classical monsters as one of the other significant half, Warm Bodies proves to be a sheer winner for its romance and comedy, together with its eclectic selection of pop tunes that make up its soundtrack. As a fan of Rob Corddry, I have to make note of his supporting role here that came as a surprise to have been a little bit more than expected, but I'm not complaining. Warm Bodies has enough heart that makes this a zombie love story like none other. Fans of the romance genre should lap this one up as well, as it comes with that stamp of recommended approval!

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Side Effects

Love is a Drug

It's been quite some time since we last had a medical thriller, and Steven Soderbergh presents a tight thriller worthy of being one of the best in recent years, revisiting his usual themes of morality and lying, with writer Scott Z. Burns crafting an absolutely layered story that worked on multiple levels, dealing with the triviality in prescription medicine being dispensed with strings attached. If at first you had thought only the software industry is licensed in releasing buggy products that may manifest anomalies in certain situations, you'd start pondering about that of the pharmaceuticals as well, with side effects being something part and parcel to the unfortunate few whose DNA disagrees with what's generally accepted by critical mass.

But this is never that boring medical movie with heavy courtroom themes or one that's spewing plenty of medical mumbo jargon that would overwhelm you. The brilliance of the story was in how it will bring it down to a level that's identifiable to the layman, and presented that clear and present danger that any of us could be susceptible to, especially with the rather option-less situation of having believe the professional sitting across you is having your best interests at heart. Medical science is still a science, with its own risks, warts and all, and that little indemnity form still carries weight, especially when agreeing to be guinea pigs for something new in the market.

And there are plenty of bits and pieces shrewdly introduced that contains criticism of the state of industry, hinting at the undue influence through the wheelings and dealings that are part of the sales representative arsenal, and those responsible for prescription who has to face rich perks being dangled, besides that ultimate look at how businesses are still businesses, with economics 101 very much over-ruling ethics, since ethics become quite cumbersome to translate into a healthy balance sheet.

Enveloping these issues that will set you pondering, is that whodunnit mystery thriller that's the obvious facade in the film. Rooney Mara plays Emily, a woman suffering from depression, manifesting itself violently when she rams her car straight on into a concrete wall. Treating her is psychiatrist Jonathan Banks (Jude Law), who becomes her shrink and soon finds his professional and personal life turned upside down in the aftermath of Emily's apparently crime that was committed under the state induced by prescriptive medicine. But this is just the tip of the iceberg, with the story delving very much deeper into the rabbit hole when Banks starts to discover that everything is more than what meets the eye, turning the entire story upside down from what we're lulled into believing from the onset. It has all the trappings of an incredibly well crafted thriller and Burns deserves all accolades to have made this happen.

Truth be told I wasn't very impressed with Rooney Mara's turn as Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, given that it was nothing but a relatively poorer version of Noomi Rapace's interpretation of the same iconic character. In Side Effects Mara demonstrates why she's the actress that I had failed to see in that mentioned film, since here she had presented a lot of facets to an unassuming character, leaving you wondering if she's crazy or not, depressed or not, or being that actress within that actress that poses the most danger through playacting.

Jude Law also pulled in an intense performance as the professional caught with his pants down professionally and personally, and finding it a challenge to fight the system, and obstacles in his way, fairly alone. It's that everyday, working man role under extraordinary circumstances that would make you sympathetic to the slime being levelled at him, although what he does also threads that moral shade of grey, that makes it all the more engaging. Fans of Catherine Zeta-Jones would welcome her more substantial role of hers in recent years here as Emily's previous psychiatrist whose payload would cement this film as

Steven Soderbergh presents Side Effects effectively low key, but packing a powerful punch in all aspects of production. The cinematography has this distinct, clean look and feel to it, and most times giving you the feeling that the characters were truly alone in facing up to their respective situations, lensed devoid of emotion to prevent a sequence of events that's stark, serious, and without a hint of sympathy.

Soderbergh's direction in what is reportedly his final film, is again non intrusive, leading the movie like an invisible hand without the necessity of gimmick shocks, twists and turns, but presenting these elements in very slick, sophisticated terms that you're hardly aware of their presence until you stop to think about them. It is this quality that paces the film in clockwork like, efficient fashion against a commendable score by Thomas Newman, making it one of the best films of the year to date. A definite recommend!

Monday, March 18, 2013


Use Your Brains Before You Ban

The feeling of being short-changed. MDA should have stuck to its guns and kept the film banned, because that will save the good cinema going public from forking out good money to go watch a film that had neither sex nor violence, and seriously, what family values are you talking about here? Your cock tease in banning, then unbanning this film with that cheap muting and bleeping gimmick requirements, had only resulted in one thing - more people flocking to its screenings than it would ever have had it been screened quietly last year, proof being sold out sessions in its limited one week run now, to witness first hand at what the commotion is all about, then coming away with nowhere being near of getting a hard on.

Lasting about 50 minutes for 3 shots (quite bang for the buck either way you look at it), writer Ken Kwek takes on directing responsibilities for the first time, having contributed to Kelvin Tong and Glen Goei's movies in a writing capacity. And what better way to make a breakthrough than to tackle taboo subjects that the prudes with power will balk at, and typically form committees and panels to try and delegate responsibility in jointly evaluating whether smut like this can be released on screen and corrupting the morals of the innocent and docile movie going public. With special abilities in zapping audio and introducing sounds from Looney Tunes, it radically took the shine off the second shot, where it could have spiced up the narrative a lot more in the first and last as well, given its happy ending.

Featuring a bevy of brave stars and new faces to the big screen, credit has to go where credit is due, and that has to be the language. English language films are always hard in Singapore, with our box office successes coming from predominantly Chinese language based ones. This one went the whole nine yards with less than polished English, and came off sounding really natural and close to the soundscapes that you can tell is most authentic here, which is almost quite the rare thing in Singapore's filmography. That it took this while to get here, only bodes well for inspired artist in the future and grant them confidence to dabble with more English language films.

Narratively, the first shot was a little short, about a mother (Serene Chen) being summoned to meet her son's school teacher (Susan Tordoff) because of something disturbing exhibited in the son's behaviour through his drawings. One can see where things are coming from after a while, confirming it when the paddle got wielded. It suffered from telling rather than showing, with its main punchline being delivered orally when the gag was already out of the bag, probably because of the kids on set. In foreplay terms, this one did a lot, but ultimately didn't quite matter at the end.

The second was of course the highlight, with Adrian Pang playing the sleazy, racist director making his first porno with wife (Pam Oei) as his solo crew member/producer, with Vivian (Vadi PVSS) and student Susie (Lez Ann Chong) as his leads who have hidden secrets that may derail his production dreams. This is the film that was found objectionable, but it's almost akin to pimping it for being a lot more than it is, then when delivered, you wonder just what the hype was all about. Sure, Adrian Pang plays a disgustingly funny character, with twists that you can see coming from miles away. But other than that, it wasn't as entertaining as thought it would be, and was quite the downer to have suffered for those miserly seconds that drew too much attention for things unsaid. And MDA's pretty cool about the racist joke here involving teeth, where the same one got told in Red Numbers, so the air got cleared that their OK with it since it's PG-13 material only.

The final one was probably the longest of the lot, requiring a bit of endurance to finally reach its climax. Amongst the three, it had a lot more flesh, with more characters and bore a lot more skin than the earlier two put together. But somehow, the pole dancing sequences needed a lot more work. I can rattle off a few routines in films like Dancing at the Blue Iguana with Darryl Hannah and a whole host of other anonymous doing a better job in their pole and stripper routines, as does Lindsay Lohan in I Know Who Killed Me and Rose McGowan in Planet Terror, to name the few at the top of my head. The ones here by Sylvia Ratonel and Vanessa Vanderstraaten hardly oozed any sensuality or sexuality, so to that neighbouring Ah Pek, sorry ah, you came to the wrong film.

But alas whether this film is ultimately good or bad or rake in a million bucks from the box office, forever will it be remembered as the one that went down to wishy-washy decisions by the powers that be, which helped in raising curiosity even amongst the least interested, to want to sneak a peek. And what better way, in the Singapore film landscape, than to earn one's directing stripes, than to have one's film banned. Eric Khoo got banned, Royston Tan too, as did Kan Lume. Now add Ken Kwek amongst that esteemed company.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Confession of Murder (내가 살인범이다 / Naega Salinbeomida)

It's Over

There are no lack of examples when it comes to very sterling specimens of solid psychological crime thrillers to come out of South Korean cinema in recent years, and it's no different that Confession of Murder also belongs up there with one of the best the country has to offer in the genre. Written and directed by Jung Byoung-Gil, whose earlier film was the documentary Action Boys, he has shown that he's not all just about action, but has the knack in crafting a taut thriller with its fair share of twists, turns, and more importantly, providing it with such a tormented soul that will allow you to feel sympathetic for the victims involved, and root for retribution on the culprit. If that can be found out.

At first glance, the story seems simple enough, with Detective Choi Hyung-Goo (Jung Jae-Young) losing his opportunity to nab a masked serial killer who had claimed more than 10 victims in a random killing spree, with that obsession spiralling his life downwards with the ultimate insult added to injury when his mouth got slit by the killer's knife, leaving a deep scar he bears as a symbol to his failure. Fast forward to some 15 years, and with the Statute of Limitations expired, Lee Doo-Suk (Park Si-Hoo) comes out in the open to admit he is the killer responsible for the spate of deaths, and now releasing a book as a memoir and confession to his dasterdly deeds. A little bit of an artistic license here I believe, since the Statute of Limitations is only for civil cases and not criminal ones like this, but let's not quibble and accept that it does pose an intriguing proposition, something like double jeopardy.

So begins the cat and mouse chase of trying to prove, or disprove that Lee was indeed that man more than a decade ago who had shattered the lives of many family members with his killings, and now arrogantly living the high life of a celebrity, no thanks to celebrity culture that we cannot understand fully, where cult followings grow out of the most bizzare of situations, and those who are good looking are automatically assumed improbable to doing the most wicked of deeds. With bodyguards in tow and the law shackled by its own statutes, there is little that Detective Choi can do except to sit back and witness media adoration, and rocket sales of a book that shouldn't have been published in the first place.

Similar to Park Chan Wook's Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, the events that unfold her include that of the impact to family, and how family decide to take it upon themselves in vigilante style to execute their brand of justice when the law gets paralyzed. In between the more emotional, dramatic moments where their pain get experienced with Lee's sheer audacity of a public appearance and confession, director Jung felt it was perhaps appropriate to inject extremely light comedy to diffuse heavier moments that were dangerously close to stagnating the narrative, with a wee bit of action for good measure as well. Something's not quite right, and there's more than meets the eye of course, when yet another man comes out to claim notoriety and responsibility to the serial killings, throwing everything you'd assume into disarray.

Which is a good thing of course, especially for the jaded amongst us who constantly think we have seen it all. What the story, also by Jung, did was not only to lapse into providing red herrings that were obvious, but to really invest an audience's time and emotions into the story. We learn about a select group of victims, and how their unnatural passing causes inexplicable pain to their closest ones, and the brilliance here is to make it really personal as well for Detective Choi, with vested interest to want to bring the murderer to justice, yet hampered by the same law he is sworn to uphold as an officer.

This primary dilemma, plus what I thought was the ultimate twist, followed by the obligatory finale pursuit, and emotional closure, was what made Confession of Murder a carefully thought out crime thriller, in a genre that's becoming increasingly challenging to have novelty and originality, but Jung showed there's still substance in the tank on top of having very polished and stylish production values rewarding the patient audience. Having the right cast was also half the battle won, with Jung Jae-Young as the detective and Park Si-Hoo the confessor sharing good chemistry opposite each other in this high stakes cat and mouse game. A definite recommendation!

Saturday, March 16, 2013

The Incredible Burt Wonderstone


This is a film about magic and magicians, and the last memorable big screen effort to have touched on this was Christopher Nolan's The Prestige, where two magicians develop an unhealthy rivalry with each other that had fatal consequences. Being a comedy, The Incredible Burt Wonderstone had those rivalry elements as well, though played more for laughs. But what's more interesting here to note is the changing fortunes of the characters, and how ti mirrors the real life situation of the actors who played them, and that itself is magic of sorts.

Back when Jim Carrey was at the top of the game and headlining Bruce Almighty, Steve Carell only had a bit role as a television anchor, but the impact of that role could not be understated because he literally blew away the competition with those limited minutes provided. Then fast forward to today in what would be their second live action collaboration, where Steve Carell had seen his stock rise while that of Jim had somewhat lost its shine through the years, although now, Steve's role as the titular magician character, comes under threat from a younger upstart played by Jim, with the latter now stealing the show with the limited minutes in the movie. It's gone past the half way mark, and whether it makes it full circle, remains to be seen.

What this film is about, if you can see past its magic, is that of something that can affect any one of us in our lives. It's about starting off with being passionate about something, and pursuing that passion wholeheartedly. But when passion has to give way to real world sensibilities, and trust me it will one day, then the crossroads will begin to challenge you, whether your passion is truly such, or will you compromise that with going through the motions, where you can begin to say hello to mediocrity. This is what the story deals with, whether passion can be sustainable for the long haul, or is it something that's valid only for a whimper.

But of course, growing up in the 80s being very much in tune to magic tricks myself, I see a lot of similarities in the fun, excitement and thrills that the movie covered, from hunting down books about tricks, getting one's hands on cheap props and naturally, performing in front of an audience, usually family and friends during gatherings, which were a blast. In Burt Wonderstone's case, it meant growing out of his nerdy shell, and becoming incredibly successful at his chosen career path, together with best pal Anton Marvelton (Steve Buscemi) they own the strip in Vegas with their magic acts, and with that comes big money, instant recognition, and alas, plenty of ego in Burt's case.

Which makes him a big A-hole character, and we're soon introduced to the fact that their partnership and friendship have become strained because success had gone to Burt's head, that he starts to treat people like dirt. And when this becomes the chink in their armour, especially with the latest sensation in street magic comes rolling into town in the form of Jim Carrey's Steven Gray and his extremely disgusting, in your face, illusions. And this is quite through though, because comparing those days of magic when growing up, with the cheesy sets, props, big costumes and hairdo, it's a far cry compared to that of today's acts, which are street-wise, with celebrity magicians sporting countless of tattoos, eyeliner and attitude. It's as if there's a general rejection of the saccharine sweet manner in which magic gets delivered, in favour of the marrying of magic with bikers from hell.

But I digress. Like most Hollywood films with its three act structure, director Don Scardino, in what would be his debut feature film project outside of his television work, most of the film deals with how Burt Wonderstone has to find his mojo back again. And this goes back, in quite serendipitous terms, to finding that one man (Alan Arkin) who had inspired him from the start. Plus that little bit of encouragement and requisite romantic interest in the form of Jane (Olivia Wilde), an aspiring magician herself, who finds the glass ceiling in her chosen profession limiting her ambitions to just being a magician's assistant.

While the middle sections may sag due to expected plot development, Don Scardino had wonderful bookends for the movie, with that almost complete sequence of A Magical Friendship that Burt and Anton performs with their music and chosen routines, and that in the finale which will, erm, knock your socks off with its sheer audacity, and of course with that tinge of slapstick comedy that runs through its end credits roll. Then there's Jim Carrey hamming it up as a renegade street magician, then you're all set for quite an enjoyable time with this film offering, that will work a lot more if you, like me, grew up being a fan of magic and shows of illusion. Recommended!

Friday, March 15, 2013


Stare Down

Dwayne Johnson has a rather busy film release schedule over the next few months, starting with Snitch as the appetizer, before the main courses of Hollywood blockbuster franchises with the Fast and the Furious 6 and the second film to the G.I. Joe series. His forte is action, and he's shown a knack for comedy, but drama is what he's dabbled in with Snitch, playing a father figure who has to risk everything in order to get his son out of trouble with the law.

Short of passing death sentences like we do here on drug offenders, Snitch introduces to the unenlightened, about the tough federal laws and measures taken in the USA against drug traffickers and the supply chain of cartels, with nothing short of at least 10 years for those who possess with the intent to distribute. But there seems to be a little bit of a flaw in their zeal to curtail drug offenses, and once you're caught, the only way to reduce your sentence, is to squeal on someone else. In other words, be a snitch, and doing at whatever the cost, depending on how much integrity's in your soul.

So the teenage Jason Collins (Rafi Gavron) was silly enough, pumped with curiosity, to accept a package sent by his friend that contains recreation drugs, only to be part of the trap set by the DEA and his so-called buddy who put Jason's name in the hat to get his sentence reduced. Not knowing anyone in this clandestine industry, he's staring at a mandatory 10 year imprisonment which everyone knows his pasty white behind cannot survive even a year behind bars. In comes the dad John Matthews (Dwayne Johnson), who has now moved on to a new life with a new wife and kid, feeling the anxiety of seeing his only son unfairly treated by the law and getting put behind bars under one of the most bewildering laws, and it's up to him to figure out how best to make a trade with ambitious District Attorney Joanne Keeghan (Susan Sarandon).

If this was a typical Dwayne The Rock Johnson film, the rest of the film will feature the wrestler turned actor in his typical go-get-them persona, exercising that bulky frame of his and those muscles to beat the living daylights out of every drug trafficker and dealer in the USA, just to prove a point and get his beloved son out of prison. But no, that cliche got thrown out the window, which was an excellent move to have him cast against type, being a typical businessman with a heart, whose large frame and bulging biceps got consciously hidden by wardrobe so that you'll not wonder why he doesn't just punch the lights out of adversaries he meets in the story.

And if you think Johnson can't do drama, his performance in this film may surprise you, as he plays that desperate dad role to perfection, straddling people on both sides of the law, without over-doing it. Director Ric Roman Waugh had crafted a tension filled story even without big action sequences, with real fear being successfully introduced each time Johnson's John Matthews have danger put in front of him, and he has to rely on his smarts to pull through each obstacle in his way to get his son freed from prison, especially when the authorities decide to go for the bigger fish in the pond, without regard to John's life as he gets exposed to bigger dangers that civilians volunteering their services shouldn't be given the higher stakes should things go wrong.

The depth of story comes from two separate families headed by John and his employee Daniel (Jon Bernthal) who becomes his conduit to the shady world of the underground drug industry no thanks to a past he's put aside, only for John utilizing every mens possible, including dangling a cash reward, to lure him back into the game very reluctantly to assist in coming up on top. The threats of going against cartels are real and fatal, and Waugh's script co-written by Justin Haythe, provided certain contrasts as faced by families in different socio-economic class.

Supposedly inspired by true events, Snitch turns out to be that film which surprises on the strengths of its performances - Susan Sarandon really nailed it as the career ambitious DA looking for higher political office - and a story that really sets you thinking about the disparate levels of punishment against crime and victims caught up in a system that doesn't come with reprieve, but rewards behaviour that's none too honourable. Recommended!

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Princess & Seven Kung Fu Masters (笑功震武林 / Xiao Gong Zhen Wu Lin)

Heroic Trio

Earlier this year, prolific Hong Kong director Wong Jing showed that he's still capable of making films with a certain degree of sophistication and class with The Last Tycoon, but I suppose he's only at his element when he can be involved with movies that are within his comfort zone of mass market comedies. With a bevy of stars from Hong Kong and China at his disposal, Princess & Seven Kung Fu Masters may seem to pun on Snow White and the Seven Dwarves, though this spin off of sorts come with that distinct Hong Kong comedic flavour, with martial arts thrown into the mix.

The movie gets a little schizophrenic, with two very vastly different treatments rolled into one. There's the serious side of the film, which is set in China''s post Qing dynasty era of the Warlords rule, filled with Japanese infiltrators and clans who find no qualms in defecting to the enemy, and there's the funny side where Hong Kong comedy elements get significant airtime, thanks to regular comedians in the film such as Sandra Ng, Eric Tsang, Ronald Cheng and Wong Cho Lam lending star presence to join Yuen Wah, Natalie Meng and Xie Na as the titular seven martial arts exponents. Obviously they have to rely on plenty of special effects, stunt people and wire-fu to execute their moves.

As the story goes, it took a leaf out of Stephen Chow's Kung Fu, which also has expert exponents hiding out in an idyllic village. Here, the mentioned seven retired at Lucky Star Village, and occassionally get to demonstrate their prowess to protect the villagers from marauding bandits. But otherwise most of the comedy come from the various romantic entanglements between the characters, having to suppress their emotions for those that they're infatuated with. It did drag on for a bit, with The Little Tailor (Wong Cho Lam) trying to kill himself after failing to win over Cheryl (Kimmy Tong), the Priest (Yuen Wah) finding it difficult to woo brothel owner Maggie (Natalie Meng) because he has neither money nor looks, and the triangle between Little Trumpet (Ronald Cheng), Madonhung (Xie Na) and Madonna (Sandra Ng) that could have been better explored if expanded.

On the other hand, there's Sammo Hung's Generalissimo Warlord Lin character who dotes on his daughter Cheryl, while being threatened by Japanese secret agent and ninja Kiyoko Kurosawa (Monica Mok) and her clan of turncoats from the Tiger's Den Clan, and that of a bunch of revolutionaries whose leader is decked in Chen Zhen inspired garb, trying to get the Lucky Star village's exponents to join them in their fight against the enemy. But of course this is an outright comedy, so any heavy themes get thrown out the window as soon as they get introduced. And like most Hong Kong action blockbusters, the best bits got held up until the finale where it's pandemonium, all man for himself fisticuffs, with that all too familiar type of family friendly treatment.

Those who miss big budgeted Hong Kong action movie spectacles may find this film far more enjoyable than those who don't care much about this genre. With Wong Jing at the helm sharing co-director responsibilities, this is definitely one of the better Hong Kong comedies to have come from the territory this year, even if the gag reel got toned down from the usual sexual overtones that the director is well known for. Toilet humour though, is largely kept intact. Now if only we could have this in Cantonese...

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Croods 3D


Ice Age has recently spluttered with its latest effort, but animated films set in prehistoric times still have some legs so long as the story continues to have some novelty, and comes with plenty of heart. The Croods succeed in all counts, having possibly the best animated cavemen family since The Flintstones, where we can laugh at their primal ways, and be in awe at the numerous set action pieces that's designed with plenty of kinetic energy in mind.

With recognizable voices casted as the characters such as Nicolas Cage, Emma Stone, and Ryan Reynolds, The Croods deal with the usual family friendly themes of the importance of the bonds that bind, blood running thicker than water, and that of friendship. And it balances its emotional moments carefully with light hearted ones mostly brought about by the character of the primate Belt, as the characters journey to get themselves to new ground as the tectonic plates start to introduce gulfs as they shift.

What was really brilliant about the screenplay was that it didn't introduce things for the sake of, with every element playing a key role at one point of the narrative, or another. And with this being set in the days nobody knows much about, plenty of creative energy got put into this to make it as vibrant and colourful as it can be, which makes for an extremely pleasant viewing experience, even if it took a while for the relatively ugly mugs of The Croods to slowly grow on you. If the best animated film has got to be selected now, then The Croods will win this recognition hands down.

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


Monday, March 11, 2013

21 & Over

Absolutely Wasted

I guess the age of 21 is universally accepted that one turns into an adult, and there's nothing like celebrating this milestone with the wildest parties and the strongest booze, together with like-minded friends who are all out to have a great time. In many ways this is the lite version of The Hangover, with best of friends gathered round to celebrate a milestone in a friend's life, only for a series of madcap events that unfold, threatening the state of their friendship and revealing a lot more about those whom each thought they knew best.

In 21 & Over, three friends since their high school days form our protagonists, although from a narrative standpoint they are cookie-cut from the cliche mold of the loud-and-extremely-foul mouthed know-it-all, the calmer, self assured counterpart, and the wildcard. It's an exercise for writer-directing duo Jon Lucas and Scott Moore in character crafting and development, giving each lead a distinct personality, and to see how far they can push each without having to repeat themselves. And in some ways it succeeded, especially when the characters have backgrounds that are more than meets the eye, with the story teasing and slowly revealing just what they are, adding further dimensions to what may have been perceived as yet another average teenage sexual comedic romp, which this is not.

Miles Teller is Miller the default motor-mouth, looking to give Jonah Hill a run for his money, fleshing the character to exact proportions of vulgar verbosity, he inevitably becomes the life of the party, as will any character given the blessing to swear by the bucket-load. If there's a hare-brained idea stemming from the ridiculous, you'd know just who to look for, or where it's going to be spouted from. Fairly consistent in thought and schemes, Miller is the quintessential friend who will always get one into trouble, even if it began with the noblest of intention.

Skylar Astin plays Casey, the one amongst the three who was thought to be most successful, having snagged a high paying, high flying job that's waiting for him in Wall Street, New York. But he discovers, as do the others, that he's no longer amongst his friends' inner circle, and his living by the rules has stifled his inner creativity. The romantic angle of the story, to keep it from being too testosterone based, becomes this character's responsibility to shoulder, as he hooks up with Nicole (Sarah Wright), who pops into and out of the story at various points in its less than 24 hours timeline, and it's quite expected how this character would develop and turn out by the end of it.

Then there's the token Asian Jeff Chang (Justin Chon), the catalyst for everyone's problems as it is his 21st birthday that had caused his best friends to drop by and celebrate, much to his father's chagrin because of an important interview the next day. Still, going out, drinking and passing out meant he gets to bear the brunt of a lot of toilet humour – the one with the tampon takes the cake – and didn't call for a lot of acting chops since he's, well, passed out most of the time. But if anything his story arc does, is to reinforce the notion that Asian parenting is hard core, and quite patriarchal, with whatever the father figure says being cast in stone, leading to a lot of pressures on Jeff that we will learn together with Miller and Casey, from third party as the tale of crazy shenanigans wore on, which was just to get the drunk Jeff home safely.

Expect scenes with plenty of hard boozing, drugs and nudity of the male kind with socks used to preserve modesty, as the tale touches on the very primary theme of friendship, where it is always uncanny that good friends can call it a day, and yet when reunited can carry on as if there's no impact from the passage of time, where everyone can just carry on where they last left off. There's the obvious catching up to do, but what better than to unravel key changes through a series of crazy adventure spanning over night, rather than having no film if this was to be a chat over coffee in someone's cozy home. And then as a last minute throw-in, what it means to stand up for oneself and to pursue one's dreams, rather than the dreams of what others and society expects of you. Romantic notions, but real ones nonetheless that lifts this film above the average teenage comedy, into something with a little more depth. Recommended!

Sunday, March 10, 2013

The Attacks of 26/11

He Stinks

With the 9/11 attacks, it took a while before it was inevitable that filmmakers took to the series of events - and there were many - and started to adapt some for the big screen, from Paul Greengrass' United 93 and Oliver Stone's World Trade Center. Some quarters may call this insensitive, while others deem it no different from any other big screen treatment of real incidents, from wars to crime to just about any genre. And from the audacity of the type of attacks in 9/11, using commercial planes as projectiles and forever changing the endgame possibility of any aircraft hijacker, the Mumbai attacks also brought equal notoriety in the tactics used, something simple in utilizing a small group of armed men committing nothing but mass murder on the streets of the city.

If you had been glued to your screens during this extended series of shootings and bombings in real time, then the immediate assessment was that the city's police was grossly overwhelmed, being neither equipped nor trained to handle situations like these, because not only was it unprecedented - hearing the Joint Commissioner of Police (Nana Patekar) telling it as it is to a commissioned inquiry - but at the time nobody could have dreamed of how daring this plan could have been, which I suppose the simplicity of it all could have shocked any security force from their complacency.

Ram Gopal Varma recreated most of the night's events, starting from the high seas with the hijack of an Indian fishing vessel used to transport the select group of murderers to within range of Mumbai, before setting off in a rubber boat to its shores, fanning out in different directions to inflict mass mayhem, using the element of surprise and confusion to great effect, not to mention being armed to the teeth with bombs, grenades, and countless of rounds for their rifles. Most of the first half of the film tracked various routes the murderers took, from the Leopold Cafe, to the Taj, and Cama Hospital, amongst others already rigged such as the explosives in a cab that they took, in addition to the Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus, with others such as the Oberoi and Nariman House being mentioned as targets.

As a film, there's a sense of urgency pulsating through the narrative, told through the perspective of the Joint Commissioner as he recounted events on that faithful day, with the necessary flashbacks to key events being played out by the director. I suppose RGV would have accessed plenty of archived footage and research to bring some authenticity to some of the violence on display here, at times using slow-motion to either focus on the zombie nonchalance of the killers, or for dramatic effect when showing some humanity exhibited by some who had also fallen victim.

While the film had no lack of showcasing the battle zones and senseless violence as inflicted on the entire city, the decision to keep this film to just about 2 hours meant plenty left on the cutting room floor. The Taj and the Oberoi, one of the longest stretches of battles between the police and eventual commandos sent from New Delhi, and that with the terrorists, were never featured, as are how the rest of the group never shown how they were subdued. From accounts of eyewitnesses, there were also enough tales of heroism shown by the Taj staff and many others, but this is not the film used to celebrate these selfless acts. Which is a bit unfortunate given that these acts probably saved countless of lives as the murderers went room to room in harrowing fashion. RGV captured the horror without a doubt, but for reasons unexplained, chose to leave out that of heroism.

Instead, what we got - and I'm not complaining - was the focus strictly on the Joint Commissioner, who had spent more than half the film rooted in his hot seat as he recounted what would be the worst day of his policing career, and that of the solo adversary who had been captured alive in Ajmal Kasab (Sanjiv Jaiswal). The attacks were quickly played out after a brilliant start, leaving resolution as nothing but a passing remark and footnote in the film, preferring to center itself on the ideological battle between the Joint Commissioner and Kasab, which culminated in yet another riveting scene constructed in a mortuary, with Nana Patekar delivering his best performance in the film here with a solo monologue, knowing that he's not able to knock any logical sense into his opponent, but still delivering successful blows nonetheless.

There's a void of characterization, obviously done without in an Us versus Them scenario, and at times it was difficult to watch the senselessness of how victims fall prey just because they were at the wrong place at the wrong time. If only this film decided to expand its runtime as per a typical Bollywood film, but include the many human stories of sacrifice, humanity and heroism that were abundant, that this film could be complete and definitive. As it is, it's probably leaving the doors open for some other filmmaker to construct a more inclusive picture.

Oz the Great and Powerful

No Yellow Brick Road to Follow

Bryan Singer left the superhero franchise and did an action-adventure-fantasy story with a twist in Jack the Giant Slayer, and it seems another superhero franchise alumni in Sam Raimi had opted to do the same, challenging himself with what would be an attempt to expand the Oz mythos written by L. Frank Baum, to include a suggested origin of the Wizard of Oz, a film that was done in MGM back in 1939 by Victor Fleming and is one of the all time classics in cinema starring Judy Garland in the role of Dorothy who had been swept away to the land of Oz and travelling on that yellow brick road in her search for the way home.

But this attempt at an origin turned out to be nothing great nor powerful, but falling back to the cliche of the prophesied chosen one who had descended upon a land, and hailed as its saviour. In this case, he's up against two evil witches in Theodora (Mila Kunis) and Evanora (Rachel Weisz) who are currently rulers of the Emerald City, and keenly looking out for that great magician who would be their undoing. The only twist to this tale is that Oscar (James Franco), or Oz, is nothing but a small town magician and con who has a womanizing streak, whose street smarts and ways to break one's heart turn out to be weapons in his arsenal when found to be stuck in this strange new world courtesy of that whirlwind which we know will also be Dorothy's gateway to this fantasy realm.

While this film has a story that ties in to that which Baum has created in his novels, there were a couple of legal wrangles or potential pitfalls that had prevented certain classical elements from appearing in this movie, which is quite a pity since the production took painstaking effort to try and create that look and feel quite like that which has so far been instantly recognizable by any who had seen Wizard of Oz the movie. Practical effects also had its place amongst the CG landscapes, which I thought had a colour palette similar to the earlier film. And if you've followed the troubles that had besieged this production, it's even more amazing that it finally pulled through to hit the big screens.

However, for all its acting talent and stars at its disposal, Sam Raimi somehow still managed to make this a tad boring, with a middle arc that sagged not thanks to very lacklustre romantic affairs that Oz has with Theodora, which proved to be that final straw that broke the camel's back in her transformation into wickedness, and green with envy, since Oz had broken her heart with his affections for Glinda (Michelle Williams), who bore some resemblance to his Kansas girlfriend Annie whom he had advised to marry a better suitor. Naturally the story had an original idea here in making the witches contempt a lot more personal, but somehow this didn't ring well and true, and this heartbreaking romance between Oz and Theodora wasn't as pronounced as it could have been.

James Franco though, did well as the titular character who is all flash and little substance, but having plenty of tricks up his sleeve to compensate for the lack of real magic. It's a tale about his transformation too, from cad to reliable schmuck, and the finale was nothing but a lot of nice touches that built up his Oz the Great persona, and what we have come to know of the magician. It's a wee bit unfortunate that Rachel Weisz and Michelle Williams were rather bland throughout, even with their final battle against each other, turned out to be nothing but the ability to float in the air coupled with basic level catfight.

But this film had laid the foundation for a sequel that's already green lit, since evil has just only relocated and not completely vanquished, and the manner which it ended that seemed to suggest Oz still had plenty more adventures in his new found home. It's not surprising too, given the appearance of allies such as the Quadlings and the Munchkins, amongst other inhabitants and friends such as Finley the Flying Monkey (Zach Braff), China Girl (Joey King), Master Tinkerer (Bill Cobbs) and Knuck (Tony Cox), some of whom were included for comedic effect to counter-balance the darker thematic elements from the witches.

Saturday, March 09, 2013

Stand Up Guys

Do You See What I See?

It looks like this is the season for comebacks, with old timers and veterans proving a point that they still have it in them to pull off a film, at least with their charisma being top draw, and a bonus if the story does justice to their big screen return. Christopher Walken may had made his mark this year with Seven Psychopaths, but it's not until Stand Up Guys playing opposite Al Pacino and Alan Arkin that truly brought out a finer performance, making this Fisher Stevens directed movie one of the best this year so far in a tale about what it means to be friends.

Written by Noah Haidle, the story centers around Doc (Walken) who becomes the only one to meet long time friend and collaborator Val (Pacino) when he comes out of prison after 28 years. And while you'd like to think that's what friends are for, there's another agenda to this almost three decade wait, that he's the appointed hit man by a cruel mob boss who wants to settle scores with Val for killing his only son. And to wait that long for revenge, is to ensure Val knows what's coming for him, after serving his long sentence. To spice things up in a diabolical way, why not threaten one's best friend to finish the job? Doc is given a deadline until 10am the next day, or face further consequences that don't need any spelling out.

So in what would be like a last hurrah to celebrate their friendship, reminisce about old times, and essentially complete one's last supper with meals, drugs, getting laid and the whole shenanigans, Stand Up Guys follow the duo, which became a trio once they pick up Alan Arkin's Hirsch, through a night filled with a series of random adventures, from stealing cars, to picking up girls, and spend what would be their best time together before the inevitable had to happen. And it was such a pleasant ride that you'd hope it would have moved in real time instead, and more, with regular pit stops made at different points in the narrative that was as funny as they were necessary, to move the plot forward.

The success of this movie came from the story by Haidle, who had created quality characters filled with humanity in them, that they become a lot more than just characters on screen, but closer to people you would truly and easily care for, especially as the clock goes ticking away towards the deadline. The script's witty, and comical when it wants to, providing Pacino's Val with some of the best lines in the film, sometimes tinged with melancholy especially his eulogy about death - which you would have heard over the trailer - and often times filled with wry humour as a dead man would in knowing that his end is near.

Christopher Walken, playing off opposite Pacino, was the relatively serious counterpoint to Val, and I felt he stole the show from the more showy Pacino character through quieter moments, with plenty of emotional baggage of his character being worn on his sleeve given Doc's family issues, and the weight and pressure of having been assigned to bump off a good friend, which is something nobody should be put through. Alan Arkin's role may be the relatively smaller one, but when these three veterans get together, it's nothing but pure magic in the way cinema lights up when well written and developed characters get fleshed out by A-list performances, making it almost direct itself - no intent meant to take the shine from director Stevens for a job well done.

And the expanded supporting characters also added a little something special, especially those that dealt with family, because after sitting through this, and being dispensed with plenty of words of wisdom about love and life, you can't help but to fall in love with a film that had plenty of heart and soul. I'm clearly going to get this on DVD at least, to relive the experience again and hopefully with a little bit more extras being packaged together. A definite recommend!
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