Thursday, April 25, 2013

Iron Man 3

Just Chillin'

Iron Man 3 opens up the first chapter in the run up to the next Avengers movie in 2015, with Thor set to return later this year, Cap in the summer of next together with the members of SHIELD, with you-know-who already primed to give them all a run for their money. Shane Black takes over the helm of the Iron Man films from Jon Favreau, and in some ways it's quite timely, given the post-Avengers Marvel cinematic world which has just woken up to a new reality that they're not quite alone out there, and an opportunity for a fresh new direction and perspective to the character, following to some degree the Extremis storyline from the comic books.

In this world that's newly aware of its place in the universe, Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr,) now experiences some serious anxiety attacks with a hit to his ego that he's just a man in a tin can amongst the rest of his super-powered friends. This has caused somewhat of a strain on his relationship with Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), who still continues as CEO of Stark Industries, leaving Tony plenty of time to continue tinkering with his toys, building up to the Mark 42 variation of his metal armoured suits. The threat this time comes from The Mandarin (Ben Kingsley), a global terrorist hell bent on creating chaos ala Batman Begin's League of Shadows, while new characters who hark from Tony's wayward past in one night stand victim Maya Hansen (Rebecca Hall) and another person he stood up, Aldrich Killian (Guy Pearce) of A.I.M, all come back to haunt him, with a variation to the super-soldier serum.

To tell you more about the story will be a great disservice, because whoever cut the trailers, did the perfect misdirection, with what you think you know from the trailer, being very much farther away from the real truth. So that's that. What was expected though, was how closely this narrative ties in as post-events to the Avengers, with Tony Stark now elevated to more than a hero status, instantly recognizable amongst plenty of geeks, and with countless of references back to his exploits in the finale of that movie. It's one thing being recognized, and another thing having to grapple with the reality that there are threats larger than life now, which is Tony Stark's perennial bug bear in this installment. A pity of course, since it's supposed to be the parallel of his pain and addiction to the bottle, which will never see the light of day with Disney as owner.

Fans of Robert Downey Jr, will rejoice with this better than expected installment, since he spends most of the time outside the suit as Tony Stark, battered, bruised and worn out, no thanks to the reckless stunt he pulls as part of personal vendetta, but putting his loved ones at risk and under fire. One cannot get enough of the actor's charisma on screen, and at this point, it's inconceivable to think of any other actor stepping into the role other than Downey Jr, who owns the role, and makes his "I am Iron Man" declaration all the more a truth. There are franchises that get tired after a while, but in Downey Jr, who is portraying Tony Stark/Iron Man in no less than 4 feature films already, there's no lack of enthusiasm, and it shows. Having him outside of the suit for the most parts, is also that breath of fresh air, especially well when it got written into the plot with his tinkering having brought him to a stage where he can be inside, or outside the suit, remote controlling portions of it, and having both an arsenal to count on, plus his street smarts when backed to a corner, and having to design really rudimentary weapons with items from a hardware store.

Jon Favreau continues his role as Happy Hogan, given a lot more to do this time round since he's given up the director's chair, while Gwyneth Paltrow will be that Pepper Potts we have all yet to see. The appeal of Iron Man 3 is how it takes apart the status quo without feeling like it needed to just to stand out from the crowd, but doing so in a fashion that makes it seem like natural progression. Even Don Cheadle as Colonel James Rhodes / War Machine / Iron Patriot also had the character pick up pace from the midway point, combining once again with Tony Stark / Iron Man as an effective team. Paul Bettany remains the unseen but often heard voice of Jarvis, although I thought this time he sounded a little more baritone than in the earlier films. And the standout amongst the supporting cast would be Ty Simpkins whose Harley, a kid whom Tony Stark befriends, plays something of a pivotal role, which once again brings back a little bit of the sharp wit that the previous Iron Man film seemed to lack.

The action here's slicker than what we've already seen from the earlier movies, from its large set action pieces as already seen in the trailer set to pump up some adrenaline, while Iron Man 3 pretty much showed that Tony Stark had put in dutiful hours in the gym and picking up a slew of martial arts along the way. Especially useful since he spends quite a significant amount of time outside of the suit. And the CG got kicked into high gear especially when the arsenal of Iron Men came out to the open, which is fun to watch, but ultimately really cursory and brief, which was my main gripe about it. And it's no surprise too that humour was well placed throughout the film, even when this was darker in tone amongst its predecessors.

Those of you who have been up in arms about this film's kowtow to the Chinese studios, may want to take note that the scenes involving the Chinese actors Wang Xueqi, and Fan Bingbing, were nothing more than a glorified blink-and-you-miss cameo for the former, and a non-appearance by the latter. While there exists an alternate, longer cut of their scenes for the China market, I doubt their characters were written with that much depth to have caused any real impact to the narrative, since they can be so cleanly shaven off from the international release. I am curious however, as to what those scenes exactly were, so I guess one can wait for the discs to find out how, if their scenes get re-entered as deleted ones.

We see more of Tony Stark in this Iron Man film, which is a good thing, but one which also bode some closure to the franchise if it show chooses to end on a high note at this point, no thanks to the finale in having a key cause removed. Something like The Dark Knight Rises having to come full circle with its characters. But it's really never-say-never since Avengers 2 is a go, so there's one more real outing before anyone can call it quits to bidding RDJ and the rest of the cast farewell for starting what had snowballed into the definitive Marvel cinematic universe. Stay tuned, as you would already know by now, until the end of the credits for a scene that neatly bookends this movie, since it began with a narration, and would reveal that bit of a surprise with the post credits stinger. A no-brainer recommendation for Iron Man / Avengers fans everywhere.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

ILO ILO (爸妈不在家 / Ba Ma Bu Zai Jia) to World Premiere in Cannes!

Duration: 99 mins   
Written & Directed by Anthony Chen   
Starring:  Yeo Yann Yann, Chen Tian Wen, Angeli Bayani, Koh Jia Ler

It's been some time since a Singapore film found its way to the prestigious Cannes Film Festival, and now, it's none other than Anthony Chen's debut feature film ILO ILO (爸妈不在家 / Ba Ma Bu Zai Jia) making its world premiere in the prestigious Directors' Fortnight section in Cannes next month. Anthony is no stranger to Cannes, having previous won a Special Mention for this short film Ah Ma, back in 2007. This movie's participation qualifies it to compete for the Caméra d'Or award, so it's indeed an exciting time ahead for the filmmaker, who had drawn inspiration for the film from personal experience.

Set in Singapore, ILO ILO chronicles the relationship between the Lim family and their newly arrived maid, Teresa. Like many other Filipino women, she has come to this city in search of a better life. Her presence in the family worsens their already strained relationship. Jiale, the young and troublesome son start to form a unique bond with Teresa, who soon becomes an unspoken part of the family.

But this is 1997 and the Asian Financial Crisis is starting to be felt in the region… 

Unless you have a ticket to Cannes, you'd have to twiddle your thumbs while waiting for the local premiere later this year. In the meantime, you can check out the movie's official website here.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

AV Idol

Lap Dancing Queens

This is probably one of the rarest occasions where you can watch something mainstream that's as close to a real AV film as possible on the big screen, and not feel too embarrassed being caught in, say, one of the more infamous cinemas here that has selections like this one as a staple. In fact, AV Idol even has a real life AV idol as a leading star in the film, which means there's absolutely no qualms with the actress in shedding her clothes for scenes, and whatever's being done here also a mere fraction of how far she would have gone.

Face it, nobody's really here to admire the production values, be mesmerized by the sheer acting abilities, or get engaged by its storyline. As some characters quip in the film, these bits get fast forwarded, so there're really there just to make this movie, a movie with a proper narrative structure. In fact, one can just about predict how its target audience would likely turn up in droves to support the film, and for something that doesn't take itself too seriously, why should you too in getting too hot and stuffy about this movie being part of the film release landscape? The production is indeed budget, and the acting quite artificial, and it's really reliant on its irreverent moments to bring on the laughs, as well as bumbling characters put into predictable scenarios that worked some of the time.

The two leading female characters champion this Japanese-Korean production, where AV star Yui Tatsumi plays Ryoko, almost like a caricature of herself, as an AV Idol who has seen better days, but now with her fame a little waning. Her small production company, consisting of a director, cameraman and make up artist, decide to embark on a new adventure, so off they go to Korea to try and make a "documentary", where unsuccessful attempts become fodder for comedy that tried a bit too hard.

The other leading female character is Yeo Min Jeong's Yuna, a K-idol wannabe who takes in Ryoko after the latter got harrassed by fans, and thinks that her chance to stardom would be to follow in Ryoko's footsteps, without realizing her stardom is via the adult channel. So they strike a friendship that grew into a bond, while Yuna enrolls herself with Ryoko's production team to make their "Winter Smata" movie a reality. Thinking that art equals sacrifice, Yuna gets put into a spot where all in the audience will be left guessing whether she would, or wouldn't, immerse herself fully into the AV world.

The story has plenty of scenes that allowed for the supporting act to steal the thunder for the most parts from both actresses, with the bumbling and comical crew having to battle language and cultural barriers, in trying their best to make a movie that would end all AV movies, one with story, art, and of course, sex. And then there are the two AV fan boys who continuously stake out the production venues to catch a glimpse of the stars getting naked. The narrative somewhat faltered toward the final 20 minutes when it couldn't decide how to end it, and did it through a convenient fast forward, but not after a brush with some gangsters whom the troupe encountered rather forgetably, midway through the movie.

You'll learn of some of the examples why people fall into this side of entertainment, but this is hardly detailed, or documentary like. All in, it served to tell a romantic tale, and one of contrast between the romantic fortunes of the two girls, where one is resigned to her profession, and the other, an opportunity to keep her love and sex life private, compared to having to make it public in a trade-off for fame and money. It's rather deliberate how this aspect gets juxtaposed in editing the way it got presented, so that's a bit of care going into the production for you, before delivering the payload that would delight the umbrella wielding uncle brigade.

So for the curious and the uninitiated, AV Idol is perhaps your ticket to get introduced quite superficially into the behind the scenes look at the Japanese adult video industry, get comfortable with its style and star, and to do so on the big screen here before the censors decide to change their mind, as history has already proven.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Dark Skies

Did You Do That?

Can a science fiction film be given the horror treatment? This isn't something new, like The Fourth Kind, but unlike that film, this one is truly terrifying, especially when you least expect it to be. Granted its credits never fail to remind you that the producers here were also behind Paranormal Activity and Insidious, but look hard for that ghoul set to spook, and you'll never find it. Instead it deals with alien abduction, and boy, has it never been delivered this good, and scary.

Written and directed by Scott Stewart, this is a definite improvement from his earlier efforts with Legion and Priest. Dark Skies lulls you into some complacency, introducing the audience to the Barrett family, who may seem like the typical all American one living in the suburbs, where dad Daniel (Josh Hamilton) is in between jobs, and mom Lacy (Keri Russell) supports the household for the time being as a realtor to keep the mounting bills at bay. Sons Jesse (Dakota Goyo) and Sam (Kadan Rockett) are the typical teenager and toddler growing up, with a little bit more focus on the former as he hangs out with relative geek company, and is on his first romantic brush with the daughter of his mom's best friend.

Then things start to go all strange, and at times begin to feel like Paranormal Activity in treatment for just a bit. Lacy finds herself inexplicably waking up in the middle of the night to encounter things like having her fridge raided by someone unknown, or seeing her kitchen wares and containers stacked in a geometric pattern. These are the more benign encounters, until flocks of migrating birds start to violently converge at their house, and each family member start to behave as if possessed, losing track of time, and being subconsciously unaware during their awake hours. Worse, they also seem to bear the marks of physical harm, and it's not long after that CCTV cameras got placed around the house.

But no, we're not given any found footage treatment or first person perspective, because that would be pushing the envelope of familiarity. Instead, Dark Skies relies on good old fashioned storytelling, with a fair bit of conventional devices, techniques and styles to amplify key moments in the narrative that will make you cringe at your seat, or be tightly grabbing onto that armrest when Stewart deftly builds suspense. The horror imagery got strongly built into carefully crafted scenes, which made this many times more effective than the average horror film that had blood, gore and makeup as part of its arsenal, something conspicuously absent in Dark Skies, but demonstrating that it could do a lot more with less.

The narrative was kept simple enough to revolve only around a handful of chracters, and firmly around the family that allows it to be easily identifiable under a What If scenario, while building one's affiliation with them as they seem nice enough not to be suffering under such inexplicable terms. But what worked wonders here are the technical aspects, from its steady cinematography which is minus all the trappings of badly formed habits that would have made this a blur to follow, and solid editing that instills fear especially when transitioning between lost time. What stood out will be the brilliant sound design of course, adding that layer to bring that shiver down your spine. Watching this with the volume turned off would have neutered the film, and that's testament to how important, and effective this aspect was to the movie.

The finale is set to ruff a few feathers, although it may be a stretch to suggest that there would be doors left open for a follow up film. The cast delivered top performances, augmented by technical competency to make this the perfect blend of science fiction with horror sensibilities that puts many contemporary horror films of late to shame. A definite recommendation if you're looking for that heart-thumping thrill ride that's lacking in recent times for the genre fans.

Drug War (毒战 / Du Zhan)

Drug Lord

This year we have two Johnnie To films hitting our screen - well at least I'm hoping Blind Detective does so soon after its bow in Cannes - and what would be striking in Drug War is that it's done with Chinese collaboration. After all, being shot in the Mainland, with a production partner and a majority of the cast hailing from China, it's a trend that won't see itself buckling anytime soon, and even Hollywood sees China as unexplored territory for opportunities from production right down to distribution. But the murmuring about having different versions for the Chinese audience, or self-censoring, cannot be more pronounced, so how does that affect Johnnie To's crime flicks?

Quite a bit I must say, with pros and cons which Drug War seem to be caught under that crossfire. There are a few rules that the Chinese play by, and chief to that is the morals imposed where the bad guys cannot go scot free. So even without stepping into the cinema, or hear what this film is about, the ending is already cast in stone, which takes a little shine off the fun in being able to follow through the story, and waiting to be surprised at the finale. No matter how tight one's writing can be, it leads to that inevitable finish, so that expectation is quite the bitch.

Otherwise, China presents itself a new playground in which filmmakers can go and get their vision presented through landscapes yet to be familiar playgrounds. The filmmakers here have ventured beyond the bigger and well known cities, and opted for smaller second tier ones to present that small town, rustic look where one supposes a crime syndicate could thrive under, and operate without too much attention being paid to it. Until Louis Koo's Cai is seen driving a car in haphazard fashion, suffering from injuries yet to be explained, and setting the stage for something special from the imagination of To and long time collaborator Wai Ka-Fai. That, and a trailer that's making its rounds for a delivery of its cargo, made up of ingredients necessary for the big time production of ketamine.

Then we must be introduced to the cops, where the anti-narcotic department is given the spotlight for the film's focus on a drug syndicate. Chinese actor Sun Honglei leads the charge here as the division chief Inspector Zhang, getting introduced as a no-nonsense, hands off type of leader who walks the talk, and never shying away from being in the thick of the action when the need calls for it. In many scenes, it is Sun Honglei's charismatic presence and superb acting that made this watchable, since his character dabbles in a little bit of role play while undercover, utilizing a vast array of skills within his ability to make it convincing not only to the other characters he deals with, but to the audience as well.

The crux of the story lies in the power and cat and mouse play that both Zhang and Cai engage in, with the latter under the former's custody, and facing the mandatory death sentence if convicted. Wanting to survive, he strikes a deal with Zhang to allow him access to the bigger fish in the pond, and for Zhang, this is too big an opportunity in his career, and for the wider group of population he serves, to give up. So together with his team, they form an uneasy partnership with Cai, since trust is yet to be earned, suspicion always round the corner that Cai will bolt, and whether they're walking into a known trap set up by him. The story's kept at a steady pace by Johnnie To, keeping things quite cerebral in leaving you wondering about Cai's motivation for the most parts, especially since having to reveal that Cai is quite the slimy, street smart person going all out to ensure his survival.

And I suppose a Milkyway crime thriller isn't a Milkyway crime thriller if the usual suspects don't turn up in any capacity. With a relatively fresh faced cast from the Mainland, and with recognizable faces such as Huang Yi playing Sun Honglei's able deputy, it never really feels quite right without To's stable of actors tossed into the mix, and thankfully this is one formula that's being kept. Better yet, this version screened here kept their Cantonese dialogue intact - even Louis Koo was undubbed - and that serves as a more authentic presentation. There's Lam Suet, Eddie Cheung, Lo Hoi Pang, and Lam Ka Tung amongst others who make an appearance, and contribute where it mattered most, allowing reason for fan boys to cheer.

There's a wider subtext in the film though, dealing with Hong Kong and China, where the former group sees opportunities in making money in the Mainland, but the message is that collaboration and mutual trust is key. Should one group try to breakaway from an alliance, it serves nobody any advantage, and the outcome may be dire straits. It's an unfair alliance to begin with since there's a larger body involved compared to the smaller partner who's not given a level playing field or too much of a bargaining power, but to play within the rules set will ensure survival.

Not since Election 2 has a Johnnie To film been so direct with its metaphors and allegories, and this is what sets Drug War apart from other run of the mill crime thrillers done by other filmmakers. The Milkyway team has ventured into China with their romantic comedy to some degree of success, and they've now shown the way that crime capers also have an avenue in the mainland despite having to play by the rules set by others. This is well worth a watch despite an extended sequence that vaguely resembled something out of MI:4 Ghost Protocol, which is just as gripping as it was opportunity for Sun Honglei to showoff some acting chops, and the expected moans and groans about the ending where To delivers his usual shoot out spectacle to outgun and outlast any John Woo picture. Recommended!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Judgment Day (世界末日 / Shi Jie Mo Ri)

This is the breath of fresh air injected into the mainstream Singapore film line up in many years, with that constant barrage of not so good horror films, and mediocre comedies finding their way to the big screen, some of which are so badly made you'd wonder what exactly were the merits that found them distribution, doing nothing but damage in perpetuating the supposition that local movies are indeed all bad. Judgment Day shows that a film well made, with a solid story and premise, can indeed be something different, resonating easily with emotions while providing entertainment.

With the screenplay written, and directed by Ong Kuo Sin, Judgment Day follows films like Melancholia, and Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, in presenting a What If Armageddon scenario in Singapore, where a meteorite finds itself on a collision course for Earth, with that ground zero targeted straight at our sunny little island in 72 hours. This would either mean mass panic and lawlessness, as everyone goes out to do exactly what they want to do, without a care in the world. Or in the Singapore context, we listen to the all forms of authority as led by the Prime Minister (Adrian Pang, with gaffes often heard in the media) and behave civilly, going about our own business without resorting to looting or taking to the streets. And most folks would consider having that final family meal important.

But there's a twist to all these which is best kept under wraps, with a surprise in store right in the final act as well. In between we're subject to vignettes of story arcs focused on different characters, families and aspects in facing up to the impending calamity that will wipe out existence as we know it. These little stories are lightweight without being too heavy, allowing an exploration of themes and scenarios centered around the film's large ensemble characters, albeit with punches pulled to leave you room to ponder and think through should you find yourself in similar shoes.

Couples seem to fall out during this time as they embark to face up to regrets, or deciding to move on from their unhappy state. There's Rebecca Lim and Chua En Lai playing yuppies who can't seem to want to be together, with the former's character heading to Cambodia to find that spark that they had lost, and the latter following suit days later, only to have his anal self experience the simpler life. This arc is the only one that develops outside of the country, with the rest firmly being quintessentially Singaporean. Then there's a the messy relationship woes created by news anchor (Alice Ko) who decides to see through her infatuation with her station manager (Guo Liang), breaking up with her husband (Tender Huang) and forcing him to roam the streets and into the arms of a prostitute (Julie Tan).

The story arcs are treated with different weight, with some being quite small, such as the late John Cheng's turn as a bogus medium whose followers naturally seek for assurances that the afterlife is actually quite alright, Mark Lee and Wang Yu Qing playing cops with the latter's confession causing a rift in their professional relationship, with the former (also executive producer) engaged in an intertwined case involving a Mini-Cooper and an ex-convict's benefactor, while others take on the dynamics within the family, such as Henry Thia's coming out of the closet as a transsexual and pursuing a sex change operation, leaving wife (Alice Lim) and son (Edwin Goh) perplexed and confused. And others in the supporting cast, such as Sebastian Tan, Richard Low, and Mark Chin et al, play characters that lend a little light heartedness to the heavier moments in the movie.

Judgment Day says a lot on the Singapore psyche with scenes that contain veiled though sharp criticisms, and is introspective of today's society. It also doesn't mince its set up, with a slew of foreigners in our midst too. The narrative deals with our fears and aspirations, plus those insecurities that plague most of us living on this little island. It touches upon themes like religion in an entertaining fashion, with subtle comedy that had me in stitches nonetheless - the Lau & Lau episode was hilarious, despite it being a commentary on employment discrimination woes.

What made the film work is the very good work in casting, and the actor's delivery of their characters, which were outside of their comfort zone. Never will you have seen Henry Thia take on such a serious role and never betraying his comedic background, or Mark Lee as well, giving them opportunity to perform and shine in dramatic roles, rather than their usual madcap, slapstick personas. And similarly, the late John Cheng also plays it down a notch, but was a giant in his role as the scheming though confused medium, in what would be a really fitting and memorable send off role in his film career spanning multiple films where he's usually the uncouth ruffian / gangster / loanshark. And despite having dialogues mostly in Mandarin, Rebecca Lim and En Lai's roles in speaking predominantly in English, didn't sound artificial, but very at home, which is music to the ears, since local English dialogue have so far been cringeworthy when up on the big screen.

And it's not just the performances that were excellent, but the technical and production aspects that were competent and top quality as well, from sound design (listen up for those intricately crafted background noises), to awesome cinematography with art house sensibilities, a soundtrack that hits all the right notes throughout the film, and good special effects to boot, making this film the complete package in story-telling. If there's a gripe about the film, is that it should have been a little more courageous in its characterization, since there is a distinct lack of non-Chinese representation in a movie set in Singapore, where our multi-cultural heritage and make up, is sorely missed to be archetypal of our society.

Still, Judgment Day more than makes up for the void that is the need for variety in Singapore's film landscape, and I dare say it's one of the best Singapore films this year, setting the standard and raising the bar for others in the horizon to follow suit. Not since Singapore Dreaming have I been so moved by a local film, and Judgment Day was well worth the wait, coming out from almost nowhere, to take over the mantle. A definite recommend with potential to be shortlisted as amongst the best this year, and if you see only one Singapore film a year, Judgment Day would be it!

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Masquerade (광해: 왕이 된 남자 / Gwanghae: Wang-i Doen Namja)


A critical and commercial success in South Korea, and that's really no surprise. For a period drama, Masquerade contains plenty in its formula that made it so, from a premise that piqued curiosity, an A-list cast, and really solid production values with attention paid to detail, recreating the Joseon period under the reign of the 15th emperor Gwanghae, giving its interpretation to a missing 15 days in the documented Annals of the Joseon Dynasty journals, which writer Hwang Jo-yoon took the liberty to introduce a tale similar to The King and the Pauper, played out with full palace intrigue.

King Gwanghae (Lee Byung-hun), like most kings when being unpopular, fears for his life, and instructs his Chief Secretary Heo Gyun (Ryoo Seung-ryong) to find a doppelganger. After a search, a bawdy comedian Ha-sun (also played by Lee) was found, and brought to the palace to be groomed as a stand-in, with this secret only made known to Heo Gyun, and Chief Eunuch (Jang Gwang) only, given that there are enemies of the state even in the courts, and nobody can be trusted with the secret except for the inner circle. Sure enough King Gwanghae got poisoned, and in his absence, Ha-sun has got to step up into the regal role, opening doors to light comedy, and the raising of eyebrows amongst those intent on committing treason as they slow sense some characteristics in their king that didn't seem quite right.

Director Choo Chang-min had a solid hand at the helm of this production, never scrimping on the opulence of how courts and palaces function, with its legion of servants and court officials, while drawing out excellent performances from the cast at his disposal. There's enough in the film to make anyone sit up and take note of the intricacies of political maneuvering, especially when there are vultures swirling around and ever ready to swoop in to take advantage of any perceived weakness. The story here ranks up there with just about any palace drama anywhere in the world, with loose ends opened during the narrative all neatly tied up, with strong emotions to boot.

Lee Byung-hyun is possibly in his finest role(s) yet playing the two different characters of one having the highest office in the land, while the other a poor nobody plucked from obscurity to assume a role he would have never dreamed of. As King Gwanghae, he plays him ruthless and not very well liked, but as Ha-sun, Lee shows off his acting chops in varying his styles as the need and narrative called for it, being goofy when required, or with all regal pomp when in the open with many eyes and ears. He straddles the roles quite effortlessly, which is a good dramatic break for the actor, who is probably better known for his dumbed down Hollywood exploits that prefer his rock solid abs than to his acting ability, which will convince naysayers that this man can truly act.

The supporting cast also put in top notch performances to play off Lee, especially when the narrative fleshes them out in three dimensions rather than to pass them off as caricatures. Top of the list goes to Heo Gyun as the main executer of the plot, installing Ha-sun as the King while waiting for his real master to awaken from poisoned slumber, and teaching his puppet to wise up, only to be surprised by the man's humanity, which set out to touch the lives of many others, and with it came new found respect. Jang Gwang as the Chief Eunuch was excellent too in being one of two in the scheme of things, and serves as Ha-sun's confidante, and observer during non-official periods.

And others in the story include Captain Do (Kim In-kwon), as the King's royal bodyguard who begins to suspect something's amiss, the young food taster Sa-wol (Shim Eun-kyung) who brings him his meals, and the Queen Consort Joong Jun (Han Hyo-joo) herself, all who slowly benefit from what they thought was a profound change in heart of a man whom they never would have thought to change for the better with new found humanity and grace on display, and each story arc contributing to the breadth of the story, keeping it moving at fast pace, as well as keeping audiences on their feet with each dangerously close shaves of potential exposure of plot and identity.

It's been some time since I had last enjoyed a Korean period film, so this came as a pleasant surprise. It's that kind of production that's big in scale and ambition, and delivered on all counts. Masquerade deserves all the critical and commercial success gone its way and more, and it qualifies itself into my shortlist as one of the best this year has to offer. A definite recommend!

Conspirators (同谋 / Tong Mou)

To Malaysia

This could have been labelled A+ Detective, but I suppose the filmmakers here didn't want to sound too pompous in what would be a logical title in their Chen Tam detective series of films, with Conspirators being the third film, and possibly primed for more. But even if director Oxide Pang stops here with what would be his best creation, this would already be one hell of a memorable trilogy that ended on a high note, with Aaron Kwok to thank for fleshing out the protagonist with gravitas and emotion, engaging audiences on such a roller coaster ride through investigations that have finally touched on a more personal account.

Gone are the supernatural elements, violence and gore, but in their place is a solid back story of Chin Tam's origins, and written in a smart way to avoid being labelled a prequel, or rebooted into a parallel universe. It's still moving in real time from where we last left off with B+ Detective, with the skeletal remains of Chen Tam's parents being the catalyst and premise in which this movie takes off from. After all, Chen Tam's profession of choice came from their disappearance, and what now than to demonstrate his detective skills than to hunt down the mastermind being his parent's disappearance and murder. But he can't do it alone as the case brings him across borders to unfamiliar territory, so he enlists, in quite random fashion, the help of a Chinese private eye in Malaysia, Zheng Fung Hei (Nick Cheung).

The partnership isn't easy from the get go, since both parties have their respective, duplicated skill sets, coupled with Fung Hei's fees that remain quite the stickler, but as the plot wore on, their partnership is set to grow on you, albeit spending quite a duration of the film apart, following their respective leads, rather than together. But when they do, both actors show why they have in recent years been winning acting awards, as their chemistry is ace. Their investigations bring them both deep into the rabbit hole of a major drug cartel operating in Malaysia, who want them to stay quiet and preferably dead, which opens up the narrative to a number of impressive action sequences that combined practical stunts and CG really well, such as that fantastic explosion and leap by Chen Tam through a glass window, and a more than usual number of car crashes that didn't seem to bother the Malaysian police. But I digress.

The look and feel of the film is kept consistent with that of the earlier films with its gritty look, and while some scenes involving Chen Tam may seem a little bit at odds at time, take my word that they will be fully explained and you will tip your hat at the director's, and possibly editor's, directions. Red herrings, conjectures and hypotheses get played out, and the fun is to follow the private investigators as they systematically close them out. It makes for an engaging viewing, and especially so when time got invested in the narrative to allow us to understand the leading characters a little further. While Chen Tam is already a veteran character at this point, now haunted with his causing of a good friend's death, we get a little bit more of Fung Hei as we learn his twin brother was set up by the same cartel and got sent to jail, so this also provides for that little bit of a personal agenda as the two detectives expend effort, and work on trusting each other's professionalism a lot more.

Shot in Thailand, Malaysia and China, it is the human emotions on display here that makes Conspirators well worth the watch. At times you may find certain elements being a tad convenient, but it's all good by the time the final, poignant scene rolls in. With excellent cinematography despite being handheld and shifting to highlight the urgency and mean streets that the characters inhabit, and that unforgettable Mi Panda Thai song that comes on as the credits roll – this bookends the trilogy – that this installment ends the three films on a high, and dare I say the best entry in the franchise too, while leaving the door wide open for continuation, and possibly a spin off. A definite recommend!

I Give It A Year

Happy Together

The trailer alas put in all the best comical bits from the film, so if you haven't seen the trailer yet, don't. Otherwise all that's left in this romantic comedy, is the romance portion only, which begins with the marriage between the leading characters, and I suppose we can agree that sometimes that will suck all romanticism from the film. Which it clearly did.

It's quite an unconventional tale of romance given the leading characters Josh (Rafe Spall) and Nat (Rose Byrne) having taken their vows of matrimony early on, before slowly finding out that their seven month whirlwind romance was clearly insufficient to weather the storm in their relationship any further. Just as how films featuring plane crashes won't make for comfortable viewing for inflight entertainment, so does this film for anyone intending to get hitched anytime soon. It's a film that shows how a marriage can just deteriorate from the lack of communication and honesty, when the initial spark of romance and lust wear out, and what's left is the sinking feeling that you're going to be with someone forever. And forever as it turns out, is an incredibly long time.

Written and directed by Dan Mazer, I Give It a Year began brightly with all the typical trappings of an English film, with plenty of wit on display, and the title coming from expectations that the marriage between the newlyweds wouldn't last more than a year. And we're taken on a trip both down memory lane to examine just how the flashing warning lights and alarm bells have been sounded, before taking stock on what the couple needed to do to salvage their marriage, if they truly want to, though more importantly whether they are with the right person - the one they couldn't live without. And things aren't easy when

It's easy to lay blame in relationships that don't work out, when there are opportunities that are always readily available for that quick flirt, or fling. So you the audience are given that opportunity to exercise and pass judgement, which would make for interesting post-show conversations with anyone you're watching this with, perhaps just to see where the moral lines get drawn. For Josh, there's his ex girlfriend Chloe (Anna Farris, who looked really aged here) with whom he never really had a clean break before meeting his wife, and together they still have that emotional attachment that's yet to be severed. When they each face issues both professionally and personally, they know who to turn to automatically. And having to confess feelings to Chloe and not his wife, is something that's not quite right.

And in the other corner, Nat listens to her colleagues' goading to remove her wedding ring when delivering their sales pitch to an American scion Guy (Simon Baker), an easy qualification for any eligible bachelor's list, and true to form, Guy sees Nat as someone with whom he can connect to both professionally and personally as well. The deception here was something one can easily frown upon, but as the narrative goes, again there's no black and white in issues like these, only shades of grey which you can use to decide one's personal limits and values. Rafe Spall and Rose Byrne play their roles with aplomb, especially in scenes together that highlight more of their differences than similarities, making it obviously clear that they're both heading toward more disasters as the story wore on.

Some of the best scenes in the film happen to be the highlight of the negativity within ourselves, dealing with deceit and hypocrisy, playing foolish games and denying ourselves of our true feelings, often with casualties. Scenes in which all four characters of Josh, Nat, Chloe and Guy coming together are filled with awkwardness and hidden intentions and meaning, that makes it engaging in a What If scenario. Otherwise, if you're tired with the games these adults play, there's always the support caricatures to look forward to, such as those played by Minnie Driver, Jason Flemying, and especially Stephen Merchant, whose role is to prop up the film's comedic department with tons of bawdy jokes, some of which fall flat to keep in line with his character.

I Give It a Year is the anti-thesis of marriage, so you have been warned that this romantic comedy does seem a little bit twisted with its unconventional take on a tale about forcing a romance with the wrong person, while failing to recognize one's happiness truly lies somewhere else. How it all plays out toward the end may be a little bit unrealistic and a tad too inconvenient, but by that time you'd realize Mazer was grasping for anything that can bring this story to a close.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Oblivion in IMAX

What Do You See?

I came out of the screening with a grin. Oblivion was good. So good, I was mesmerized from start to end, and was rooted to my seat throughout. I didn't want it to end, and dreaded as the minutes ticked by to the inevitable finale. It had everything I hoped for in a science fiction film, and more. There was of course the genre elements, a steeped emotional and romantic core, plus a mystery that played out without having to spell everything verbatim in chronological fashion, keeping you wondering just what had happened to give it its premise.

Written by Joseph Kosinski, Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt, and directed by the Kasinski, who was also responsible for bringing a new spin to the TRON: Legacy, Kasinski traded the dark settings of that film for the light and bright, minimalist and futuristic look at Earth some 60 years after 2017, where unknown alien forces had taken out Earth's moon, and plunging the planet into chaos with its unpredictable forces of mother nature ravaging it, followed by an invasion that took out most of the human population. The war was won, but at the expense of the planet since the nuclear fallout made it uninhabitable. So the survivors made that interplanetary migration to Saturn's moon Titan, leaving behind a skeletal crew of two - Jack (Tom Cruise) and Victoria (Andrea Riseborough) - some drones, and a forward base controller (Melissa Leo) to harness energy from the oceans. And of course to mop up what's left of the alien race still down on earth.

However, that's what we're lulled to believe, as we follow the typical day of Jack and Victoria, who wake up, get to work, with Jack essentially being a human Wall.E, repairing broken down drones, and patrolling their assigned territory from the skies. Jack and Victoria enjoy life as per any typical couple with not much for recreation at night, but there's something niggling in Jack's mind, being haunted by memories of a strange, beautiful female (Olga Kurylenko), something that shouldn't happen given their mind wipe, and whose unannounced, surprising presence threatens to upset their entire couple harmony, and their effectiveness as a team. Three's a crowd and making things worse is when jealousy enters the picture.

To say any more would be to ruin the many surprises in store, which lead to the many revelations that when pieced together will make perfect sense, since the writers kept the cards close to their chests, revealing crucial plot points at intervals, which is frustrating yet satisfying, and well worth the wait, although sometimes at the expense of pace, or editing continuity that wasn't as smooth as it would have liked to be. But no matter. Granted that the expositions won't be anything new, with genre cliches abound that the fans amongst us would be able to predict, but it's how these elements come together so perfect that makes Oblivion such a worthwhile watch. Yes there are the sleekly designed vehicles befitting a sci-fi flick here, with the necessary attention to detail and explanation to make everything seem plausible for this apocalyptic vision of the future.

But I love the emotional core that anchored the film a hell lot more, so much so that I dare say not a lot of films, and a science fiction one at that, managed to move. It deals with the longing of a normal life, which Jack had desired as he slips off the radar now and then to build that illusion of an idyllic life in a pocket of paradise he found, with reason of course to come later in the narrative. And the love triangle was well played out, where its beginnings couldn't come any simpler than a brush, a touch and a photograph, all very fleeting, to sucker punch it through to your heart. And just how all these humanity blends so well with the CG-ed technology on display, that made it unbelievably solid.

Tom Cruise is a very different animal here altogether, without his usual toothy grin (save for one involving skinny dipping - who wouldn't?), and being a lot more serious, sombre and contemplative with his character, that worked wonders. No doubt the obvious hero in the film, many elements of heroism got played down to make it a simple fight for the survival of a loved one, without grandeur plans of needing to save the day at the forefront. Olga Kurylenko may be the flower vase here, but what an effective one playing opposite Cruise for the first time, with her sheer presence making it believable the extent a man would go out for her. Andrea Riseborough, being the relative rookie amongst the three, also stood her own, playing what would be a tragic character seeing her blissful future snatched from under her feet. Her subtleness in her final scene in the film, spoke volumes of her ability to say so much with so little.

A couple of scenes that stood out for me, such as the black and white flashback scene involving Jack and Julia (Kurylenko) when they meet before going up the Empire State Building, communications between Victoria and Jack when their perfect teaming started to give way, together with just above every revelation that had Jack flabergasted, and those sweeping cinematography of landscapes of a broken Earth. And what provided this film that extra dimension, is the excellent and hauntingly beautiful score by M83 that lifts this film into another emotional stratosphere altogether, that without which, the movie isn't likely going to be as memorable, or emotional, as it got made out to be.

Watch Oblivion on the IMAX screen no less, for those awesome visuals to envelope right up to the peripherals of your vision, and for that crystal clear pounding of the soundscapes and soundtrack right into your aural senses. This is the modern day treatment of The Wachowski's The Matrix in a certain way without the philosophical babble, but my, I'd give it five stars and a perfect ten! A definite recommendation, and a firm entry into my shortlist as one of the best films this year so far!

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Olympus Has Fallen

Your Appearance Fee is What?!

The release timing cannot be more coincidental than it already is, with the movie's marketers quickly jumping onto the bandwagon to link this to a potential what if given the current North Korean crisis, with the hypothetical scenario of their clandestine forces somehow making its way into the USA, and doing the audacious with the taking over of the White House, with no less than the President (Aaron Eckhart), amongst other political stakeholders being hostages.

Can this really happen? I suppose it's only possible in Hollywood, with writers Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt taking plenty of artistic and dramatic license to craft something remotely possible through well orchestrated attacks that must be completed within 13 minutes, coupled with plot elements contributing to the loopholes, which you must suspend disbelief with in order for it to work, consisting of a combination of suicide bombers, swarmed armed assaults, a large cargo plane, and inside jobs turned ugly. Gone were the days of the Russians and the Arabs as enemies on the silver screen, with the North Koreans making the ultimate jump from one of the Bond installments, to the reboot of Red Dawn, and now this.

So in true action-adventure fashion, a hero must rise from his rut, given a second chance which he will take to prove himself once again that he's the nation's only hope. But this is not John McClane's show, although director Antoine Fuqua's film could have been positioned as the next Die Hard installment set within Washington, D.C. and the White House. Similar to Wolfgang Petersen's In the Line of Fire, the film's protagonist is Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), the US President's chief detail Secret Service agent until the incident seen in the trailer had him step down from his position, to serve in a desk position in the Treasury. Like all heroes, he's never far away from the action, misses it in his life, and gets thrown the opportunity to take it back again by the horns.

As much as this film featured its fair share of blood and violence, with the North Koreans led by international fugitive Kang (Rick Yune), a sadistic killer who doesn't flinch from executing his threats, there really isn't much of a danger posed toward Mike. There's the requisite wife Leah (Radha Mitchell) to provided narrative pause in the action sequences for Mike's extremely little bit of a human connection to a loved one, and with enemies never really threatening when getting in the way of our hero. Sure, Fuqua does design and shoot some intense battle sequences, but nothing was left remotely memorable as Butler huffs and puffs his way too easily through the long corridors and secret passages of the centuries old presidential quarters.

Some simple twists and turns got utilized to spice up what would be an average plot with piqued interests because of the effort gone to recreate both interiors and exteriors of the iconic White House, and see it getting damaged on a scale and level yet to be seen before (Independence Day's single, thick laser beam obliteration is no count). In fact, the White House itself is a character with its nooks and crannies, real or otherwise, put into the film to become that edged advantage for our hero, and the President's young son Connor (Finley Jacobsen). Music by Trevor Morris keeps the tempo urgent, but relies probably on the same consistent bars for the main theme to be running almost forever.

Perhaps what made Olympus Has Fallen a little bit more fun, is its star studded cast. Gerard Butler proves once again he's action hero material, although too cool and hardly breaking into a sweat as he takes his orders and executes them with brutal efficiency, that you'd stop caring after a while since he's perpetually indestructible. Aaron Eckhart graduates from District Attorney to bland US President whose job is actually to give that rousing speech at the end, while Morgan Freeman strolls his way through yet another Presidency role, albeit an acting one here, since his Deep Impact days. Dylan McDermott and Angela Bassett were grossly underused as a mercenary bodyguard and Secret Service Director respectively, with the latter being nothing more than Ms Stating-the-Obvious, while Melissa Leo had a bit role as the needlessly gutsy Secretary of Defense. Rick Yune as the villain was as bland as Butler was the hero, and like all action films, the story's usually as good as how evil the antagonist is, which fell a little bit short on both counts.

It does seem that 2013 is the year for White House being under attack in the cinemas, with another film lined up with Channing Tatum and Jamie Foxx headlining the Roland Emmerich film. So while waiting for that to arrive, it's still quite the action-adventure fun witnessing Gerard Butler complete his no-nonsense tour of duty with the Secret Service, before Tatum arrives reporting for active duty, and hopefully emerges as the stronger film between the two, since this one didn't set the bar too high.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

The Place Beyond The Pines


Written and directed by Derek Cianfrance, The Place Beyond the Pines is that ambitious dramatic epic that tried, but failed to reach its lofty peaks. It had moments mostly brought out by superb casting, but bogged down by an average father and sons tale that didn't have much emotional punch, sagging toward the end when it failed to pull out all its stops. Which is a pity, given the talent at the filmmaker's disposal, only to get caught up in its moralistic and karmic focus.

The star of the show from the get go Is non other than Ryan Gosling, who plays Handsome Luke, a stunt motorcycle rider whose troupe travelling career brought him back to Schenectady, New York, where old flame Romina (a very anorexic looking Eva Mendes) to come visit, and learn that he's now the father of their relatively new born son. Suddenly the weight of the world comes crashing down onto his carefree days, and pangs of guilt and fatherhood responsibilities begin to fester, leading him to stay in town, and turning to crime as the quick way to provide for his family. A combination of his motorcycle skills, plenty of guts and an accomplice prove to be fruitful, until the second act that comes rolling around that turned his fortune another way.

The narrative then shifts to the heroic cop Avery (Bradley Cooper looking really old fashioned), whose exploits have brought him fame, and ill gotten fortune no thanks to corrupt forces in his chosen profession. Here is where the drama gives way to heavier examination of is themes, and looks at moral corruption straight in the eye. We get introduced to Avery, and become witnesses to the crime that took place, and the crime of who actually shot first, coupled with the incentive to cover one's tracks. The narrative here is the richest of the lot as it combines Bradley Cooper's acting chops, with the strength of the material at hand, where his Avery twists circumstances around to maximize personal benefit and opportunity. What started out as good intentions, actually had a different spin and motivation to it altogether.

And the final part of the three act structure fast forwards the story some 15 years into the future, where Avery is now running for political office, but is distracted on the side by his wayward son AJ (Emory Cohen), a good for nothing youth who, in what would be an encounter of karmic proportions, befriends Luke's son Jason (Dane DeHaan). This then turned into a classic father and son story, where the sins of the fathers, and that theme of guilt, befalls the next generation, and how they get to deal with it. It's the usual teenage stories of slacker-hood, friendship, fights, drugs, parties and so on, in direct contrast to the more adult moments the first two acts presented.

The Place Beyond the Pines becomes that intense character study piece that stayed engaging as long as the leading characters remained up on screen, but failed in its final act where the more lightweight, young actors took over the mantle that didn't seem to know which direction it wanted to go, mirroring their characters' aimlessness, and waste of time. Ryan Gosling did the best he could with limited screen time, and Bradley Cooper ably carried the film through to the finale. Eva Mendes was also grossly underutilized, disappearing for the most parts for more than half the film, making this quite the testosterone driven movie.

Some nifty cinematography and camera work – there were plenty of continuous shots in one take to make you sit up and take note of – and a wonderful score by Mike Patton propped the film up when the narrative failed to pick up speed in the final act, and the critical moment that will leave you pondering about is the turn in the film regarding who shot first. If only that was left a mystery, then perhaps it will provide more moral ambiguity, and forcing you to choose sides rather than to show-hand, and allow you to condemn from the get go.

The Last Exorcism Part II

With Great Power

This sequel will go down as one of those that have gone horribly off tangent to its source material and original, which is a pity because the first film had a solid finale which left it as a cliffhanger of sorts, but this direct follow up junked every good thing about the movie in no less than 5 minutes into the film, and had everything go downhill after that. For writer-director Ed Gass-Donnelly, I'm sorry to say that while you have had good intentions and decided to foward the story without the use of the found-footage gimmick, I wonder why you didn't choose to be less derivative from classics such as Carrie and Firestarter.

The first film worked because of a couple of reasons. First and foremost, it was a compelling premise, where a jaded pastor-conman decided to spill the beans in his profession, and herein lies the actual reason that it was found-footage because of an embedded documentary crew that followed him around while he exposed the secrets in his shady trade. Then there's proper character building, where we empathized with Cotton Marcus (Patrick Fabian), and understood why he decided to make good the wrongs in his life, and this worked into a tale of faith. Then the antagonist, spearheaded by Ashley Bell's wonderful portrayal as Nell, contained all ingredients necessary that blended horror and mystery together, plus her ability to contort herself in all angles imaginable. And who can forget that goosebumps raising finale.

Not a lot of people took to that film of course, but it worked well for me. Then came Gass-Donnelly and his idea of continuing directly where the first film left off, was quite brilliant. Naturally there isn't any reason to pursue this in found footage again, so the major decision was to come up with a straight narrative film, following Nell as she ends up in a girls' home, since she did not bear any memories on what had happened in the final few moments of the first film. And here is where everything turned south as far as the story went. We get introduced to characters who were as flimsy as they were cardboard, and a romance that was totally flat from the get go.

Yes we know that Nell is given every opportunity to assimilate back to normal society, but this was boring as hell when translated for the big screen, because there wasn't much emotions involved, and made it look very artificial, with scenes included because they just should. There were attempts to spook the audience, but even this relied on the tried and tested techniques which didn't offer anything new, especially when threats were issued usually through scratchy voices that may have come from imagination. To add further insult, there wasn't much of a "last" exorcism here, so the title was nothing more than to remotely link this film to the previous one, which had every reason to be "last", because well, that's what had happened. Here, while the exorcism performed was of a different style, it was so small a portion of screen time that it was quite negligible, especially its outcome.

What made it worthwhile was went Gass-Donnelly shifted gears to add a sense of urgency into the narrative in the final act, and things were really looking up especially when we had Nell confront her inner demons, and pick a side to root for. But then the brakes got applied again when you suddenly realize that the director had gone the direction of films such as Carrie and Firestarter, both written by Stephen King, and you wonder whether that's all that Gass-Donnelly can do, to become nothing more than a derivative of those two works. This film could have been labeled as "Nell" and perhaps it may win over some thought that it's about the misadventures of a possessed character, rather than the process to get her exorcised for good. Rewatching the first film will give you better value, and thrills.

Friday, April 05, 2013

In The House (Dans La Maison)

What Do You Want To Know Today?

Maybe it's just me, but there's something sexy with stories about writers and their writings making it onto film, with recent releases such as Ruby Sparks powering its way into my top film of last year. In The House looks set to do the same too, directed by Francois Ozon, well known for his feature film Swimming Pool (which was also centered around a writer played by Charlotte Rampling), and based on a play written by Juan Mayorga called The Boy in the Last Row. Words cannot deny the genius of both the screenplay and the film's direction in crafting a piece that draws and sucks you into its narrative, becoming what's akin to a page turner that captivates all the way to the finale.

Fabrice Luchini plays Mr Germain, a literature teacher in a school whose lofty ambitions of imparting his vast knowledge go up in smoke with the most uninspired students, until he latches upon the raw talent of Claude Garcia (Ernst Umhauer), which isn't hard since his homework submission on what happened over the weekend was two pages compared to his peers' two liners, and contained all ingredients necessary that would have caught any reader's attention with its yet to be verified autobiographical nature, a hook, and a cliffhanger. Soon Germain slowly discovers that he wanted more, and takes it upon himself to bring Claude under his personal tutelage so that Claude's creative output and juices can get to be nurtured by him.

Kristin Scott Thomas plays Germain's wife Jeanne, who partakes in the same, reading Claude's submissions as she struggles to get her professional art gallery in order, lest it be shut down for the lack of a good exhibition. And the interplay between husband and wife over Clude is something the film excelled in, presenting two sides to an argument whether Claude is imagining it, or telling it as it is experienced, about his near obsession with wanting and eventually getting into the house of his friend Rapha Artole (Bastien Ughetto), which soon evolves into becoming an integral part of the household with his presence on the pretext of tutoring his friend, but essentially being an outlet to get close to Rapha's mom Esther (Emmanuelle Seigner), an infatuation that will take on epic proportions.

Interesting enough, this film works if you'd participate in it just as how both Germain and Jeanne allowed their morbid curiosity to get the better of them. We become those characters personified, and one can imagine just how powerful this is in a staged production. But its effect and impact are not diminished on film, as you'll find yourself demanding more, with Ozon often pulling the plug leaving you wanting more, and lapping everything up with Claude submitting another chapter of sorts being played out on screen. We connect the dots, and partake in the lives of the Artole family, learning about their hopes, dreams, secrets, celebrate in their success, and sympathize when they hit a brick wall. And there are many relationship types in the film, from that of lustful ones, to father-son relations, mentor-mentee, best of friends, and even the recurring GLBT ones that Ozon's films tend to feature.

In truth, watching this film becomes that guilty pleasure that is voyeur central, filled with comedy, drama, and wonderful acting that bring the characters to life, yet having the narrative mileage to pique and sustain one's interest from beginning to end by appealing to our primal curious nature, and really milking and manipulating it, with us allowing it to, and growing increasingly effective as we clamour for Claude to seek out even more intimate moments. It's a scary reflection of ourselves, yet an engagement by a film par none. A definite recommend!

Thursday, April 04, 2013

Saving General Yang (忠烈杨家将 / Zhong Lie Yang Jia Jiang)

Prepped for the Legendary Amazons

Chinese historical stories have no lack of its own heroes who display virtues of courage, and loyalty, and the Yang Family of the Song Dynasty has been celebrated in countless of books, plays, operas and of course, film. There are many variations to the adventures of General Yang (Adam Cheng) and his seven sons in the face of deadly adversary, and this Ronny Yu directed period action film is yet another take that's done right, wiping off the unworthy stink that Legendary Amazons in 2011 had laced upon the family of valour.

This production brings back the creative talents of those behind the scenes of the successful Ip Man movies starring Donnie Yen, such as Producer Raymond Wong, his son Edmond who served as one of three co-writers, and musician Kenji Kawai who provided the score, and you'll be assured for that attention to detail, and high production values put into this retelling. There's good balance between the more dramatic moments in the film and the requisite war action scenes, but it only did adequately enough without pushing boundaries to have made it from good, to instant classic.

Admitedly, there are many characters here in the story, given the General and his 7 young sons, in addition to the women in the film, primarily represented by the General's wife (Xu Fan), and the Helen of Troy equivalent Princess Chai (Ady An), who drives a rivalry between the Yang family and the Pan family further when Pan's son vies with Yang's seventh son (Fu Xinbo) for the Princess' affection, only for the former to perish, and sets in motion the Pan's patriarch (Leung Ka Ying), appointed supreme commander against the invading Khitan forces led by Yelu Yuan (Shao Bing), to betray his fellow Song citizen by feeding him to the wolves with a lack of backup, and rescue troops.

Cornered at the Wolf Mountain, this film then takes on 300 proportions, with soothsayers boldly predicting unfavourable outcomes, while the strengths of the few, in this case just seven and an assortment of a handful of loyal soldiers, venture out to rescue their father/leader from impending doom. While the opening big battle sequence involving all seven brothers was a treat, this soon gave way to a fight choreography that bordered on repetition, with shots on characters on horses wielding their weapons around, and because of their bring grossly outnumbered, finding themselves backpaddling and fleeing most of the time.

But Ronny Yu, knowing the constraints of the story he wanted to tell, which is for the seven brothers to bring their father back home to their mom, while under pursuit by the Khitan Yelu Yuan possessing a personal vendetta against the Yangs, managed to keep the narrative moving at breakneck speed, leaving you breathless for its continuous swarm attacks of many against a pitiful few. It's a challenge featuring an ensemble cast battling it out against a stunt team, but these were action scenes crafted that managed to convey the sense of claustrophobia, frenzy, panic, and at times, fear. There's also that art house sensibility that found its way into the story through some shots that lingered around for a tad too long, giving us that detailed glimpse into the production effort in recreating that era.

At times though you'd feel that you want to get to know more about the individuals in the story, rather than to just get acquainted for a short period through flashbacks that highlight the brothers' diverse characteristics. While that would likely stretch this to television series proportions, I thought it would provide some deeper understanding, at least of the characters played by headliners such as Ekin Cheng, Vic Zhou and Wu Chun. The villain Yelu Yuan is obviously of one track mind and objective, and it's a good thing that we didn't get superhuman with the Yang generals, which was quite the surprise with injuries sustained from the get go, once again keeping things real, with that element of danger lurking around.

It's been a long gestation period ever since the movie was introduced at last year's Hong Kong International Film Festival, while making its world premiere recently at this year's festival edition. It's as close to a Chinese blockbuster as can be with a lightweight narrative propped up by heavy duty battle scenes. Who would have thought though, that the more dramatic moments in the film, turned out to be its key strengths, together with Xu Fan's limited moments as the wife/mom who harboured as much hope as dread as she waits out the return of her husband/boys. Recommended!

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Lay the Favourite

Learning The Ropes

Bruce Willis is everywhere it seems, from reprising his iconic role in John McClane for the fifth time, to being called on as the Original Joe in the G.I. Joe franchise. Soon he will be seen in yet another follow up film to Red, inspired by the graphic novel, and that pretty much sums up a busy release schedule in 2013. But here comes Lay the Favourite where he plays a character that's uniquely different from all of the rest so far - he doesn't wield a gun, and gone are the wisecracks. Instead, he's a serious gambler, so serious that he's made a business out of his passion, and doing so legally in the state of Nevada, USA.

But this is not the story about Bruce Willis' Dink, but rather, one that's purportedly based on the memoirs of an exotic dancer who made good while working under the tutelage of Dink, but not before some shenanigans that expectedly occur along the way, pulling in some serious lessons in life about nursing an addiction, whether the thrill of the win, or for the affections of someone. It's about Beth (Rebecca Hall), a freelance exotic dancer who decides that it's times up for her current career, and decided to embark on a new one as a casino cocktail waitress in Las Vegas.

Stroke of luck would have her meet Dink, who runs his own company, getting revenues from making bets against the odds (hence the title) for every conceivable sport and for every conceivable play. If you, like me, think that this is one film that will reveal to you the secrets to sports betting and making a career out of it, well, think again, as these scenes really just gloss over the bare basics, lest it be known as an elementary 101 instructional manual for professional gaming. But it is through this premise that life lessons get imparted, from knowing when to quit, not be greedy, to knowing how to operate within set limits.

And it's about discovering one's talents too. For Beth, her uncanny skill with numbers, and being the only female operative in Dink Inc puts her in good steed amongst Dink's peers in the industy, and for a while she personified Dink's good luck charm, until Dink's wife Tulip (Catherine Zeta-Jones) comes frowning especially when being threatened by a nubile upstart whom she can feel starting to bear some pangs of infatuation for her husband, who had lifted her self esteem. This leads to another automatic rote expectation of how romance will figure into the plot, with Jeremy (Joshua Jackson) being the goody two shoes boyfriend that Beth hooks up with.

Lay the Favourites tend to go all over the place narratively, with director Stephen Frears unable to keep a solid grasp on the story to keep it focused. It developed much like Beth's scatterbrain, hitting multiple plot points at the same time, and didn't fully develop their potential. There were solid moments when the story angled into a lessons learnt in how we sometimes bite the hand that feeds us. Its romance didn't go beyond the perfunctory, while the comedy seemed to be reined in for the most parts instead of letting it rip. Having Vince Vaughn play the chief antagonist guaranteed a riot of a time, until you realize that he's somewhat restrained in delivery of some of the best lines in the film that belonged to his character.

While this may not be Stephen Frears' best work, it still contained little takeaways through its themes, of heeding advice from experienced hands, and not be seduced by things that are too good to be true, because it's a high chance that they are. Bruce Willis may be playing against type here, but he does seem a tad uncomfortable in the role. Rebecca Hall however was at her element here as the trashy girl discovering her talents and herself, making good of her potential, but the rest of the supporting cast, such as Zeta-Jones who was really pedestrian, failed to keep up with her energy. Lay the Favourite is a valiant attempt that ultimately proved that the odds were stacked against its favour from the start.
Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...