Showing posts with label review. Show all posts
Showing posts with label review. Show all posts

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Review: King Hu's Dragon Gate Inn / Come Drink With Me / A Touch of Zen

Chinese film director King Hu made three "wuxia" (or the adventures of Chinese swordsmen/martial artists) movies that became very influential in the making of future wuxia movies. They are "Come Drink With Me", "Dragon Gate Inn" and "A Touch of Zen".  I think Ang Lee said that his Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon took a lot of inspiration from King Hu's films. The famous bamboo swordfight obviously pays homage to the one in A Touch of Zen.

It was very difficult to find and pricey to buy King Hu's films despite their huge stature in Chinese cinema, so I have never been exposed to any of his works until now. Below are my thoughts about his revered masterpieces.

Dragon Gate Inn (1967)
Dragon Gate Inn is probably his most famous work with Chinese mass audiences, popular enough to inspire two remakes, the latest one released just last year, directed by Tsui Hark. It has a very classic tale of good guys and bad guys gathering in a remote location (the titular inn), biding their time and trying not to get killed while waiting for their "target" to appear. And when said target finally does, hell will break loose in its entirety in Dragon Gate Inn.

The movie may be one of the classics and pioneers, but far better wuxia films have already been made since. The storyline is a lot more simplistic than I expected. The characters are the usual wuxia archetypes: the heroic swordsman in white, the woman warrior disguised as a man, her hot tempered brother, the innkeeper with a past, the evil eunuch kungfu master and his ever loyal right hand man. These characters are never explored further than their basic functions in the plot. For example, it is taken as a given that they must risk lives and limbs to protect the family of a wrongfully accused man, even though they hardly knew the guy, because, you know, they're the good guys. You can find more characterisation in the "inferior" 1992 remake, which stars Maggie Cheung (Hero), Tony Leung Ka-Fai (Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame), Brigitte Lin (Swordsman II), Lawrence Ng (Sex and Zen), and Hung Yan-yan (Once Upon A Time in China III), with Donnie Yen (Ip Man) playing the evil eunuch. (Holy crap!)

The biggest surprise was to find wall-to-wall non-stop action in this oldie, especially in the last hour. I love that King Hu's swordsmen fighting style is more Japanese samurai than the dance-like kungfu we're more accustomed to. King Hu's style was refreshing and imaginative in Come Drink With Me, but here it feels a tad too hack-and-slash repetitive. All the best scenes in the movie happen inside the inn, with people sneaking around candlelit rooms, flinging daggers, hatching plans, and poisoning drinks.

Come Drink With Me (1966)
Personally, this is King Hu's best. The characters in this one are still pretty flat, except for one, the titular "drunken swordsman" (the literal translation of the Chinese title). Haunted, conflicted, cunning, wise, honourable, there's some meat on these bones. Cheng Pei Pei, who was in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon plays the pretend male swordsman, Golden Swallow, who is tasked to locate and rescue the kidnapped son of a government official. On the way, she bumps into helpful village drunk Fan Da-Pei, who harbours a secret past.

All the King Hu trademarks are here: corrupt villains, samurai action, girl in disguise, and yes, there's an inn too! There are some marked differences compared to Dragon Gate Inn and A Touch of Zen. Arguably, the story here is more intriguing, as it slowly unravels the motivations and backstories of some of the characters. The characters are better: Cheng Pei Pei has a standout screen presence and beauty that transcended her rote role unlike the female leads in the other two movies. The effeminate and vicious Jade Faced Tiger (played by TV veteran Chan Hung-lit) is probably the most memorable and scene-stealing King Hu villain. And the action sequences are more meticulously thought out and executed. I like that the kungfu here is more "mystical," where kungfu masters can stop waterfalls with their "qigong" or "life energy".

(Interesting tidbit: Yueh Hua (the drunken swordsman) and Chan Hung-lit became prolific TV actors later in life, even facing off each other once again in hit series "The Gem of Life". Sadly, Chan passed away suddenly and too soon in 2009, at the age of 66.)

I enjoyed it so much that I've watched it numerous times, and it was the impetus in my quest to find and watch King Hu's other films. Which finally brings us to...

A Touch of Zen (1971)
The first Chinese action movie to win a Cannes Film Festival award, lauded by filmmakers, studied by scholars, loved by... none? For a film of such stature, you would expect at least a Criterion Collection DVD. I couldn't even find the VCD edition. Someone was selling the out-of-print DVD on in the vicinity of USD$40, which was pricey even for a Criterion Blu-ray. I would expect someone prominent like Ang Lee or Zhang Yimou, who obviously respected King Hu's work, to champion the restoration of his most famous masterpiece.

I bring out this point because, had King Hu shot his movie entirely in daylight, the substandard DVD quality would have sufficed. But there is one long action sequence shot at night and in the dark that is nearly unwatchable because the video was too murky and dark. It definitely ruins the movie because the sequence involves a pivotal showdown among key characters. You may wish to wait for a remastered Blu-ray edition, but it may take a while, or possibly never.

Screencap of A Touch of Zen night action sequence. You can clearly see three Chinese swordsmen fighting each other.

Still, A Touch of Zen is not your usual "wuxia pian". Imagine the "2001 A.D.: A Space Odyssey" of wuxia pian, or a wuxia pian directed by David Lynch. I believe King Hu is trying to create a more artistic and abstract form of wuxia pian. It begins from the point of view of lowly village scholar Ku Shen-chai (Shih Jun, who also played the hero from Dragon Gate Inn), who gets entangled with fugitives on the run from - you guessed it - an evil, corrupt eunuch. Ku does not have a secret past, double life or even kungfu skills, so the first hour is just him poking his nose into the affairs of new arrivals in his village, and being constantly bugged by his mother to take the "government exam". It takes quite a while before the first fight scene arrives, and the action in this movie is more bloody massacre than graceful techniques. Later, the movie abandons Ku on the sidelines and takes a turn for the surreal, and concludes with an open-ended finale consisting of mindboggling Buddhist imagery. I guess its message is that vengeance is a never-ending cycle of violence that corrupts the soul, but admittedly I was actually hoping to see some kickass action.

Missing in action: An inn.

I can appreciate A Touch of Zen for showing the world that a kungfu movie can have artistry and become more than just mere crowdpleasing fares. It's definitely a unique movie worth watching once. But if you're expecting Come Drink With Me Part II, you'd be sorely disappointed. It's hard for me to recommend this movie other than as a required viewing for film students and movie aficionados. The unavailability of the VCDs/DVDs and substandard picture quality do not help either.

Dragon Gate Inn - Watch it if you're curious about how the "original" is like.
Come Drink With Me - Highly recommended for casual and serious movie lovers alike.
A Touch of Zen - Important landmark for serious movie freaks only.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Review: Sucker Punch

Sucker Punch is a live-action anime with pretty actresses in sexy cosplay taking down samurai monsters, dragons, robots, medieval knights and even the Nazis. It has most of the right elements to indicate a fun time at the movies, but all it got were lacklustre reception at the box office and poor reviews from a majority of critics instead.

As a movie for the masses, it is a failure, primarily because the filmmakers opted for a tone that is a little too bleak and depressing, despite its PG rating. The lead, played by Emily Browning, who starred in Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, goes through another series of unfortunate events in Sucker Punch. She escapes the clutches of an abusive stepfather, only to accidentally kill her own sister, which lands her in a nightmarish asylum surrounded by constant threats of sexual abuse or lobotomy, which she re-imagines in her mind as a brothel-cum-burlesque-club. Not exactly the kind of stuff you expect in a blockbuster movie.

Wait a second, you say. How exactly does all the crazy anime stuff come in? In order to "escape" some of her sordid predicaments, she dreams up an elaborate fantasy world where she and her asylum inmates are mercenaries with exceptional skills in gunplay and martial arts; at times a combination of both. It is in these sequences where the movie really shines, as director Zack Snyder shows great relish in mimicking John Woo's gun-fu without constantly shaking the camera. (There was one particularly noteworthy awesome use of an assault rifle.) Such qualities are so rare in action sequences nowadays that I easily soften up to any movies with great action, even if they don't deliver quality stories. See Mortal Kombat, Dead or Alive, the Resident Evil movies, etc.

I think what Snyder was trying to do here is to create an action movie with hot chicks and a little bit more substance than is usually associated with the genre. However, I don't think the seriousness and dark elements go well with the Hong Kong-anime-hybrid-style, but it's no more subversive than any Quentin Tarantino films. The problem lies in the management of expectations. If Snyder had marketed his movie as a homage to exploitation flicks or even as an unapologetic action flick, I believe the backlash wouldn't have been as bad. Personally, I would have dumped the "real world" elements entirely and go for an all-out fantasy setting, throw in some much-missed humour, and the traditional action flick one-liners, of course.

Great if you have a predisposition towards action chicks.
Better, if you're a fan of Jena Malone (a.k.a. "Rocket").
Not so great if you hate dark, depressing movies.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Review: Source Code

Source Code is the kind of brainy science fiction movie that is best enjoyed while knowing as little as possible about the movie. Directed by Duncan Jones, who did another good sci-fi, Moon, Source Code is about a man who finds himself waking in a body of another man and reliving the man's last eight minutes of his life, over and over again. The plot involves finding out why this is all happening. If you have seen Groundhog Day, this movie is similar to that one, but with more explosions. Though that usually means the movie has been "dumbed down" for the masses who can't take anything more intellectually challenging than Transformers 3, thankfully it isn't. A good thriller with a fairly smart and emotional story, supported by a good cast of actors. I truly enjoyed this one. Recommended.

Format: DVD, anamorphic widescreen.
Source: Rental (Arts Brother, Jurong Point 1 Level 3)

Experience: Home, 47-inch LCD with home theatre surround system
Cost: FREE (a reward from Arts Brother's prepaid rental package)

Friday, August 26, 2011

Review: Rise of the Planet of the Apes

I had no hope that this movie would work, until I saw the reviews, which were unexpectedly very positive. Like X-Men: First Class, Rise of the Planet of the Apes (ROTPOTA) is a 'prequel' to the 40-plus-year-old Planet of the Apes. Not a familiar movie to these parts of the world, but familiar with most Americans and considered a science fiction milestone by some. A prequel of a decades-old movie that lacks familiarity, ROTPOTA was destined to fail. Thus, it was a pleasant surprise to find a rousing (no pun intended), heartwarming tale of a genetically intelligent simian who would eventually become the catalyst to the events in the original movie. It's a simple story that relies a lot on performance and direction, and here all of it worked amazingly, even the ape CG. A little bit of Lassie, King Kong 2005, 28 Days Later, and The Great Escape (or Prison Break for you young fellas), the best big movie of 2011 so far. Really!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Review: Cowboys and Aliens

An OK Western science fiction hybrid from the director of Iron Man and Zathura, the best thing about it is having James Bond and Indiana Jones occupying the screen together. The title suggests a gimmicky, pandering-to-the-masses type of movie, but instead surprises with its serious tone and gritty, sweaty portrayal of the American Old West. This is one instance where a movie could have done with a little more humour and cheese. Nevertheless, the movie still manages to squeeze in cowboys, aliens, spaceships, ray guns, Paul Dano and Sam Rockwell. The story is also rather vanilla and straight. I would have preferred a "what if The Man With No Name fought aliens" movie where bounty hunters actually hunts aliens in the Old West. Cowboys and Aliens played it a bit too safe, I felt.
Violence: A bit too much blood and bludgeoning for the kids.
Sex: None, unless a brief shot of someone's buttocks counts.

Saw it at: Golden Village Jurong Point on a weekday
Cost: $8 for two tix, using GV's Buy 1 Get 1 Free member's birthday special

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Review: Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, The Movie is brilliant - brilliant in squeezing every last cent out of fans and moviegoers by splitting into two parts. I can't think of another good reason for doing that. I have not read the book, which is supposed to be the last chapter in the series, but judging from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part I (or Harry Potter #7.1), the split is highly unnecessary. Part I meanders after the events in The Half Blood Prince (Harry Potter #6) where a key character is killed and the three witchy heroes, the titular Harry (Daniel Radcliffe), smart and resourceful Hermione (Emma Watson) and near-pointless Ron (Rupert Grint) are off to find lost artefacts that could help them defeat the evil wizard Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). Instead of hurrying on a quest full of adventure and thrill to save the world, the kids mope, quarrel and brood across gloomy wintery landscapes for almost the entire running time. Add gratuitous bloodletting for flavour.

I'm not sure if it was the original intention of the book to drag out events that transpired in Part I. Intended or not, it doesn't work onscreen. You don't do "character development" for the sake of doing it if the material is lacking punch (the good stuff all went to Part II, I heard), or that the young cast is not capable of handling the acting baggage (Part I devotes most of its time to melodramatic, talky scenes). Basically, they just didn't have enough interesting material for two movies to share. I also missed the whimsical tone and melodic score of past Potter movies. This darker, violent, gloomy, dull sequel just doesn't feel like a Harry Potter movie.

Regardless, you'll need to watch this anyway if you have been following the series up till now. Good luck to Part II.

Definitely not for newcomers.

Not cool: The amped up violence; one nude scene that felt a little inappropriate.

Saw it at: Golden Village Jurong Point, weekend morning show.

Cost: Free (courtesy of HSBC Reward Programme)

Review: Moon

If you like your science fiction smart, you can't go wrong with "Moon". In the near future, when mankind has depleted all sources of fuel and energy and put the world in turmoil, The Lunar Corporation concocts a brilliant solution - harvest the untapped source of Helium 3 from the surface of the moon. One brave astronaut miner Sam Bell (Sam Rockwell) has the unenviable task of running the mining facility all alone for three years straight. Not very cost effective to be shuttling back and forth Earth and the moon, you see. When his contract is about to expire, strange things start to happen. These events threaten to ruin his long-anticipated family reunion on Earth.

"Moon" borrows ideas from other science fiction stories, and doesn't really have anything groundbreaking to offer except that it is executed really well. It's also a great demonstration of what you could accomplish with just a $5 million budget and one really good actor. The entire movie is held up by Rockwell's central performance. If it were another actor of lesser talent, the whole movie would have faltered. Worth a watch.

Format: DVD, anamorphic widescreen.
Source: Rental (Arts Brother, Jurong Point 1 Level 3)

Experience: Home, 47-inch LCD with home theatre surround system
Cost: SGD $4

Review: The Detective

A good take on the well-worn detective genre, brought to you by the people behind the Hong Kong horror hit, "The Eye". Following very closely to formula, the movie starts off with an odd character named Lung (Shing Fui-On) who engages the help of private investigator Tam (Aaron Kwok) to find a mysterious woman named Sum, who may be trying to kill Lung. Typically, the P.I. follows a trail that leads to one dead body after another before the horrific truth is unveiled.

There is nothing much here that you couldn't find in another detective story, but the movie is visually intriguing, and entertains with the central relationship between Tam and his Thai police connection, played with great relish by prolific Hong Kong supporting actor Liu Kai-Chi. There's also a rogue's gallery of TVB familiars taking up various supporting roles.

Frankly, I'm surprised the whole endeavour holds up so well. The direct Cantonese translation of the title is "C-plus Detective", which is a word play on the Cantonese equivalent of "Private Investigator". The movie is easily a "B+". Recommended.

Format: DVD, looks like a 2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen.
Source: Belongs to my brother.
Experience: Home, 47-inch LCD with home theatre surround system
Cost: Apart from electricity and hardware depreciation, none.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Review: The Expendables

For those who are born after 1990, you may not be familiar with Sylvester Stallone, who was one of the action movie kings of the Eighties, along with Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Van Damme, etc. Stallone was most famous for playing slow-witted pugilist Rocky Balboa in the Oscar-winning movie, Rocky, and its five sequels. His other famous role is John Rambo, whose name is now synonymous with reckless, gung-ho behaviours. You've probably seen this image somewhere before:

Quite a sight, huh? Believe it or not, at 64 years of age, he's actually BIGGER now. Anyway, one day he decides to make a movie called The Expendables, about the titular team of mercenaries who gets personal dealing with a South American dictator-cum-drug lord. This would be the one that would bring all his former competitors together in the same film, and lets them kick ass like they used to twenty years ago.

Think of it like the Justice League or the Ocean's Eleven of Pixar's Up. But it's not really that, because most of the big stars only guest appears, while the team of Expendables only consist of a balanced mix of old and young stars. Well, if you consider Jason Statham, Jet Li, "Stone Cold" Steve Austin and Randy Couture to be "young". You'd be sorely disappointed if you expected to see the action gods trade one-liners with each other while mowing down hordes of bad guys with submachine guns in unison. The movie is supposed to be a throwback to action movies of the Eighties, but it's not even that either, because of the frequent use of "shaky cam" that is uncharacteristic of those types of movies.

What we ended up having on the big screen is a fairly watchable, entertaining but unexpectedly goofy little movie, with more male-bonding awkwardness than there are badassery. You can find more badass moments in any single Tarantino movie. The movie it most resembles and reminded me of is The A-Team.

You can't blame poor Stallone for not trying. Apparently, making these sort of "ensemble" movies is really, really freakin' hard. Check out the stuff that went on behind the scenes here.

Rating: Average.

Saw it at: Golden Village Jurong Point, regular evening show.
Cost: SGD 10 (weekend rates) 

Review: Resident Evil (Part 1)

With a silly name like Resident Evil, it could not be anything else but the name of a Japanese video game. Ironically, the game is originally called "Biohazard" in Japan, which is significantly less silly. The game puts you in the roles of police officers investigating the source of a viral outbreak that turned the inhabitants of Raccoon City into reanimated corpses, also affectionately known as zombies. Armed with a vast array of modern weaponry, you explore a spooky mansion filled with a menagerie of zombies and strange creatures that escaped from the secret laboratory complex underneath the ground. The villain is a faceless global conglomerate known as the Umbrella Corporation, responsible for conducting illegal experiments that led to the outbreak.

The movie explores the same world but from the perspective of Umbrella employee Alice (Milla Jovovich), who lives in the aforementioned mansion. She is unconscious, alone and amnesiac when she first appears at the beginning of the outbreak. Circumstances forced her to join a group of mercenaries hired by Umbrella to investigate the sudden loss of communication from the secret laboratory. In tow are fellow amnesiac Spence (James Purefoy) who may be connected to Alice in some ways, and Matt (Ugly Betty's Eric Mabius), a cop looking for his sister who works in the lab. As with all "haunted house" movies, the assorted bunch of characters are stuck in the building, and must find a way to survive and escape the place. Most of them won't.

Like the game, Resident Evil is an amalgamation of horror, sci-fi and action that somehow works for me. Maybe it's the entertaining action/horror sequences, or Michelle Rodriguez wisecracking, or just Jovovich being such great eye candy. To her credit, Jovovich also brings some level of unexpected badassery to a female role that is always rare in movies. Like any good male action hero, she takes charge of bad situations, gets physically roughed up, and chambers a round in a shotgun like she means it. There are also some clever ideas to be found, like the way the character's amnesia is used to reveal key events.

You can say that Resident Evil is no different and no less sillier than movies like Clash of the Titans and The Mummy, except that its action sequences have a little more kick to it since the violence is not restrained by a family-friendly rating. Personally, I found it entertaining enough to rewatch numerous times on Blu-Ray. Others may wish to proceed cautiously, since enough critics have hated it.

Cautiously recommended!

The Blu-Ray: It's great to revisit the movie and find everything so sharp and detailed. I can finally read the small prints on the Red Queen cam. The disc also contains all of the special features from the special edition DVD, including the entertaining audio commentary by the cast. I didn't notice anything that is missing. The pop-up menu looks appropriately tech-y, but I've seen better. I'm no sound aficionado, but as long as there's some surround effects and strong bass for gunfire and explosions, I'm good.

The case is about as creative as any other Blu-Rays in the market, with nothing except the disc plus one promotional (and completely disposable) slip inside the case. Watch out for the spoiler-iffic picture at the back of the case.

Format: Blu-Ray, looks like 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen (First viewing was in a cinema.)

Source: Purchased

Experience: Home, 47-inch LCD with 5.1 home theatre surround system

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Review: Inception

Warning: There may be spoilers!

The moment I knew that it was all just a big fantasy was when I realised that a bunch of guys could earn tons of money just by sleeping all day long.

Perhaps only director-writer Christopher Nolan (The Dark Knight) could make such a snooze-worthy premise become a hugely entertaining movie. Inception is a sci-fi thriller about a bunch of people who possess the technology to infiltrate a person's mind when he or she is fast asleep and dreaming. At first glance, you wanted to pity the inventor of such a device because what practical use could anyone have with it except to check out another person's weird, wet and wild dreams? Apparently, these "extractors", led by expert extractor Dom Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio, The Departed) found a lucrative use for such a device, that is of "stealing" ideas or secrets through a person's dream; for example, industrial secrets from a rival corporate head. Sort of like mind-reading, but more visceral. Japanese businessman Saito (Ken Watanabe, Batman Begins) requires such talents, but a simple mind heist just would not do for this entrepreneur. Instead, Saito wants Cobb to do an "inception", a rarely successful process of implanting an idea into somebody's grey cells. The target is his business competitor's son, Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy, Batman Begins), the newly appointed successor to his father's throne. Naturally, things never, ever go as expected, especially when Cobb's personal nightmares start to literally appear to sabotage his plans.

Inception shares some similarities to movies like A Nightmare on Elm Street, The Cell, and Dreamscape, where a certain individual or individuals are given the ability to invade a person's mind and occupy it like it's another world or dimension, scientifically or supernaturally. Nolan's take is a little more "grounded", so to speak, as his dreamworlds are a little more realistic and bounded by the laws of physics (for most of the time at the least). The excuse is that the Extractors are like conmen who must trick their target into believing that he is still in the real world in order to achieve their objective, so they must "build" a dreamworld that resembles reality, at least for their target. Thus, people in the Inception dreamworld still has to get into fisticuffs and gunfights and leap away from explosions, although that last one may just be more at home in that kind of place. Some people were disappointed because Nolan did not go all out and make his heroes drop entire buildings onto bad guys by just willing it with their minds. It would be fun if Cobb and co. could actually will people into bunnies or toasters. I think Nolan was not trying to portray dreams authentically, but to establish a new mythology based on dreams, with its own set of rules and conditions. For example, the concept of "projections", deaths within dreams, dreams within dreams, and the passage of time in the dreamworld.

Despite all the thinking exercises, Inception plays just like a heist thriller not unlike Ocean's Eleven or The Italian Job. The heist bit brings a lot of action and excitement, while the subplot of Cobb's troubling secret keeps the tension up, emotions high, and the mystery intriguing. The movie is also well-supported by a crew of revered acting talents that include Academy Award nominees Watanabe, DiCaprio, Pete Postlethwaite (Clash of the Titans), Tom Berenger (Training Day) and Ellen Page (Juno), winner Marion Cotillard (Public Enemies), Murphy, Joseph Gordon-Levitt ((500) Days of Summer) and future Mad Max, Tom Hardy (Bronson, Star Trek: Nemesis).

Highly recommended.

P.S. Seems like a lot of people were pretty vocal about how they disliked certain things, e.g. the ambiguous ending, the lack of fantastical sceneries a la The Cell, or how it could have been more "brilliant" even after they proclaimed it as just that only a few sentences earlier. Frankly, with something as rarely clever and as entertaining as Inception, any complaint would seem like severe and uncalled-for nitpicking. But since everyone's doing it, I would like to join in the fun and submit one of my own pick of the nit. Well, one thing that still annoys me now is the question of how an Extractor could actually "steal" ideas or secret from inside someone's dream. Let's say, if you want to steal a new car design from the mind of an engineer. After finding the "safe" in the engineer's mind, and taking the "secret", usually represented by a document folder in this movie, what next? It's not like when you wake up, the document would magically materialise in your hand, right? If not, does that mean that you would have to memorise the document somehow? That may be difficult if the secret you're stealing is a bunch of engineering schematics and you have close to zero understanding about automobile engineering. In the opening sequence, Cobb stole Saito's "secret" represented by a bunch of papers with the word "CONFIDENTIAL" stamped across every page, and he was actually reading it while on the run from Saito's "projections". Was he looking for something specific, or memorising the entire stack? I'm not sure if they were double-sided, but there are at least ten minute's worth of reading material there judging from the density of text even on one side of each sheet (and that's not even counting the time you may need to memorise it!), and Cobb went through it in a second. Maybe the documents are "saved" in Cobb's subconscious, where it can only be "read" again by entering Cobb's dreams, presumably by whomever that hired him to steal the docs in the first place. I doubt anyone would pay loads of cash to an Extractor just to hear them say that, "Yup, your competitor's definitely going with the red one."

Thursday, July 1, 2010

Review: Where The Wild Things Are

Where The Wild Things Are is a children's fantasy based on the very illustrated 1963 book of the same name by Maurice Sendak. It is set in the comtemporary world, following the adventures of a young and angry boy named Max (the actor is also called Max, Max Records) who disappears into the world of the Wild Things after running away from a fight he had with his struggling single mom, played by Catherine Keener (Being John Malkovich). The Wild Things are enormous bear-like talking creatures with huge heads and an appetite for kids like Max. The boy smartly pretends to be a king from a distant land to avoid becoming Wild Food, and organises some activities to keep the pack together. The wildest of the bunch, Carol (James Gandolfini) was at first ecstatic about having a new little ruler, but soon starts to grow frustratingly suspicious about Max's dubious royal roots.

This movie comes highly recommended from certain critics, and was even worthy enough to enter a few 2009 top tens. It is also one of the more disappointing fares of the year for me, especially after believing all the endorsements from noted online critics. Although very competently made under the direction of Spike Jonze, who churned out the one-of-a-kind Being John Malkovich, the movie's main problem for me is that it's a bore. There is a character arc for Max, but its lacking genuine drama and feels like its going through the motions of a typical morality kid's tale. The oft-kilter vibe of the Wild Things doesn't help either. There were attempts to make the creatures lovable, but they still felt inappropriately creepy and unnerving. Even Carol spoke in an Italian-American accent (by no other than goodfella Mr. Tony Soprano himself), which took me out of the movie every time he spoke. I don't know why, but using a British accent in fantasies, science fiction, and historical epics is always effective in helping the audience to suspend their sense of disbelief, even add some credibility to preposterous scenes or expositions.

This movie reminded me of another critically acclaimed kid's movie that also turned into a Big Movie Snooze-fest: The Dark Crystal.

If you enjoyed the movie, then good for you, and do write to me about it, because I genuinely want to like the movie and perhaps the answer will come to light in your comments about it. I didn't enjoy it, found it boring, and at this point in time can't possibly, wholeheartedly recommend this to anyone else.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Review: The Book of Eli

What happens when you combine Blade with I Am Legend? You get another science fiction actioner for another prominent African-American actor, Mr. Denzel Washington. The million-dollar question is, is it any good? For a sci-fi actioner based on no existing franchise, The Book of Eli exceeds general expectations.

Set in a futuristic post-apocalyptic world (Which movie world nowadays isn't?), the movie follows seasoned survivalist Eli on his spiritual quest to deliver a mysterious book to an undisclosed location and person. Seems that an implied recent nuclear holocaust has reduced the world into a barren, brutal wasteland. The survivors no longer have the luxury of civility and humanity when even the basic necessities of life are scarce. As dictated by the requirements of the genre, Eli is of course gifted in the murder arts, which conveniently explains his longevity in such a ruthless environment. On the way, he meets Carnegie (Gary Oldman in his trademarked villain mode) who runs a water-rich town like a don and coincidentally has a strong interest in Eli's delivery package. Bloody carnage ensues. The movie is backed by a star-studded cast that includes Punisher No.3 Ray Stevenson, Dumbledore 2.0 Michael Gambon, the Flashdancing Jennifer Beals, That Seventies Showing Mila Kunis and A Clockwork Orangy Malcolm McDowell.

The movie is pretty realistic in depicting a post-apocalyptic world, so people who like realism or some intelligence in their action diet would have little to complain here. I'm only not convinced by Kunis' virginal character, although there's a passable logic behind it. The action sequences obviously does not pass the realism test, but what's a junk food without a little MSG? Give Eli an arsenal from any era and he'll dispatch a roomful of stock henchmen with unexplained superhuman efficiency.

The movie touches on the controversial topic of religion and actually has something interesting to say. There is also a Shyamalan-worthy end twist that gives you the urge to rewatch the movie, as you may have already heard from other movie critics. This is a solid sci-fi actioner that is definitely worth your time.

Format: DVD, 2.40:1 Anamorphic Widescreen
Source: Rental (Arts Brother, Jurong Point 1 Level 3)
Experience: Home, 47-inch LCD with home theatre surround system
Cost: SGD $4
The cardboard slipcase is unnecessarily extravagant as it repeats the artwork on the DVD case and serve no other purpose except to protect the case. Ironic, considering the subject matter.

There's a bleak but scenic spread that greets every opening. Less interesting is the disc artwork.

Blessed art thy maker, who hath maketh thee anamorphic widescreen. All is right in the world. - The Book of Wei Lam, Chapter 2, Verse 40:1.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Anamorphic problems even in U.S. releases

The anamorphic woes continue. Previously, I have written about how the Red Cliff Part I DVD was not "anamorphic" and the image quality was not worthy of a high-definition LCD TV presentation. Inspired by a discussion on Facebook, I rummaged my DVD storage for my copy of Silence of the Lambs, the serial killer thriller that popularised the character of Dr. Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), hoping to relive the grisly world that the bad doctor resides in. To my horror, the disc also suffers the same problem as the Red Cliff disc, as the video appeared squashed on the original or 16:9 aspect ratio setting.

Jodie Foster looking like prime material for Buffalo Bill's makeover.

Changing the TV ratio setting to 4:3 corrects Jodie Foster's fat quotient. However, this proves that the video was modified to fit the squarish frame of televisions of yore, and not widescreen televisions. Notice that Jodie looks just right, but because the presentation won't fit a rectangular widescreen TV, hence there are two vertical bars on the left and right. 

You can't really fix this, unless you can "zoom in" to fill the screen more, but the video quality will look worse, and the grainy, un-mastered condition doesn't help the situation. Getting the anamorphic Silence of the Lambs DVD or Blu-Ray is the best option if money is not an issue. The movie was shot in 1.85:1 aspect ratio, so the picture should fit the screen fully like this:

I should have used these graphic examples to highlight the problems on the Red Cliff I DVD. You guys may have been and maybe still are a little confused about my babblings on that post. But it's the same problem there and here.

What's frustrating is that the DVD packaging indicates prominently that the disc is made for widescreen presentation.

It didn't say that it was anamorphic, though. But that's like saying you could sell me a car without a steering wheel if they didn't mention it having one in the manual.

I bought the DVD probably five years or more ago, likely from Choa Chu Kang Laser Flair, Lot One branch. (Don't worry, Laser Flair, I won't charge. Free publicity.) High definition TVs weren't so prevalent during those days, so I guess people didn't take much notice of the ratio and anamorphic issues, including yours truly. I'm sure I played this very DVD for more than ten times (on my still-alive ten-year-old JVC cathode ray tube television, of course) and still never noticed anything wrong!  

Can't remember how much I paid for this. No special features.
Nice, freaky DVD box design, though. Sssssslurp!

If you want to know more about anamorphic DVDs, this site explains it pretty well.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy's Revenge

In my review of the original A Nightmare On Elm Street (ANOES), I forgot to mention another reason why the Freddy Krueger movies aren't scary to me. I'm not sure about your own experiences, but my dreams are usually very hazy, disjointed, frightening, monochromatic, without any sense of time, and mostly beyond my control, like as if they were scripted events - just like a movie! (See Minority Report's psychic scan sequences, which is the closest cinematic representation of dream sequences I've seen so far, even though they're not exactly representing dreams in the movie.) However, when a person dreams in the Elm Street movies, it's like he or she is entering an alternate, parallel world or dimension that progresses in real time, where people can have a substantial amount of free will, participate in conversations, and even make informed decisions! The advantage of doing this is that it keeps the audiences guessing as to whether the onscreen characters are still in the real or the dream world, making the eventual Krueger attacks more unexpected and surprising. This formula makes the movie more fantastical and sci-fi-ish and less relatable to real-life experiences.

This is where ANOES2 gets interesting, as it veers away from the formula even before the formula became formulaic. After the tragic events in the first movie, a new family moves into the Thompsons house, unaware of said happenings. Inevitably, the ghost of Freddy Krueger haunts the sole teenager in the house, this time a reclusive, geeky boy. Probably because the whole nightmare killing thing didn't work out too well the last time, Krueger tries something new, by possessing the kid's body and embark on his killings in the real world. Strangely, his logic-twisting powers in the dream world also applies in the real one. This is more ridiculous than the "alternate world" concept. Trying something new is a good thing because we don't always want to see the same old thing and Hollywood is currently notorious for being creatively bankrupt, but then again in cases like ANOES2, new doesn't necessarily mean it will work for the better.

Many movie critics pointed out the quite-apparent homosexual vibe in the movie, because A: the protagonist is frequently topless and sweaty, B: there's actually a gay bar scene and one S&M-like sequence in the locker room shower involving two men, C: one jock character even made a sober remark that the protagonist would rather "sleep with him", and D: the director claimed that he deliberately made the movie that way. True, they're there in the movie, but they don't deter the movie the way another vibe, the "B-grade vibe" does. Although very tight on budget, the first ANOES felt like a slick, big studio production, with a talented crew and director who were able to stretch every penny with just a little bit of creativity and elbow grease. ANOES2 had more budget, but perhaps with a different director and crew, the producers were unable to replicate the X-factor of the original movie. ANOES2 feels more like a direct-to-video cheapo a la Leprechaun 4: In Space.

The pinnacle of cinematic achievement

With the shift of focus on the real world, ANOES2 loses the novelty that the first movie possessed. The real world of ANOES2 isn't even an interesting place to begin with, having to follow around a mundane lead character that has no apparent appeal or any matter of interest except that he's being psychologically tormented by a supernatural entity. Therefore, I have to agree with the general consensus out there that this may easily be the weakest and dullest ANOES movie, having not yet seen anything else beyond Part 4 except for New Nightmare and Freddy Vs. Jason.

Next: A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

Related links:
Review: A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
The stuff of Nightmares 

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Review: A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Horror is a strange genre. Movies are supposed to entertain, excite, thrill, tickle your funny bone and even move or inspire you, if done right. Generally, they should affect you in a positive way. Horror movies, on the other hand, strive to affect you negatively, by shocking, provoking and/or frightening. Sometimes, you can admire the craft and thought put into the work, especially with The Exorcist, The Blair Witch Project, The Sixth Sense, etc. On a personal note, despite my respect for the genre, horror isn't my most favourite of genres, and I don't normally rush out to see the next big scare.

This may sound lame, but to me the most frightening movies are those with evil spirits resembling long haired women in white, which are probably the horror villains with the least amount of costume and makeup budget ever. (See The Ring, Ju-On, The Eye, A Tale of Two Sisters, etc.) They are frightening to me in a way clowns or lifelike dolls are frightening to some people.

That said, most Western horrors aren't very scary to me. Shocking, repulsive, maybe. But the scares rarely made me want to cower behind my blanket like the Asian varieties sometimes do. Vampires, zombies, werewolves, the Frankenstein monster, Michael Myers, Jason Voorhees, Leatherface and Freddy Krueger... they're more supervillains in a movie than something fearful on a subconscious level. They don't crawl under your skin like a good old apparation or just plain weird shit happenings could do. For example, a man standing and facing the corner of a decrepit room for no reason (The Blair Witch Project) does a lot more than the sight of a raised kitchen knife.

Yet, I still enjoyed movies like A Nightmare On Elm Street, although for the wrong reasons. Freddy Krueger, a very iconic horror staple recognisable through his trademark fedora, red and black striped sweater, Wolverine-like blades and charred face, is a memorable baddie more in the lines of The Dark Knight's Joker than a malevolent supernatural force like in the other movies I mentioned. With villains like The Joker, Hans Gruber, and Hannibal Lecter, you find yourself rooting for them despite their nefarious nature. I doubt anyone was in anyway concerned about Dr. Chilton at the end of Silence of the Lambs, and probably wished Lecter got to "have him for dinner" sooner!

Unlike other horror villains, Krueger dispatches his victims in their dreams (or nightmares) where logic and the laws of physics don't apply, which allows for creativity beyond the usual hack-and-slash-with-the-common-garden-utensil death sequences. One infamous scene depicts a teen being swallowed by his own bed, only to be regurgitated as a geyser of blood. This makes Krueger's nightmare attacks a constant highlight in every impending sequel. The Nightmare On Elm Street series becomes more of a morbidly humourous special effects showcase than a true fright fest.

"A Nightmare On Elm Street" is the kind of "must-watch" movie for the movie and horror buffs, simply because the popularity and iconic stature of the series cannot be ignored. I find the movie above-average, with some nice subversion of cliches (a trademark of director Wes Craven) marred by bad acting performances. I also didn't find it frightening for one second, but that doesn't mean you should show this one to your mum or kids either.

Also stars Johnny Depp and John Saxon.

Next: A Nightmare On Elm Street Part 2 - Freddy's Revenge

Related links:
The stuff of Nightmares

Sunday, May 30, 2010

Review: Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time

When I think of an action adventure movie set in the beautiful, golden desert of a Middle Eastern land, I expect picturesque cinematography, exotic locales and people, and brave, noble warriors who greet each other by tapping their lips and forehead before finishing with a hand wave, like Ardeth Bay in The Mummy. In this world, things are either said to be blessed, while others are cursed. People smile alot. Warriors are proud, hold their honour in high esteem, and are penitent towards God/Allah. They wield curved sabres, and the sword fights are intricately choreographed, often along stairwells or at the topmost edge of a castle wall. The beautiful heroine is usually feisty, while the hero smiles in amusement. Yeah, these stuff are cheesy as hell, but that's also why it is so fun.

Sadly, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time achieves only a few of these things. Picturesque cinematography was replaced by CGI landscapes. There were a few nice shots of sand dunes, but they were really tight shots, so you don't really see the full expanse of the desert. This is also one of the movies where the British accent doesn't work, especially with Prince Dastan's Cockney-like English. Nobody does the Middle Eastern hand-wave greet thing. And the "heroes" all started off doing something that is far from noble or honorable, trick or no trick. They behaved more like barbaric Vikings than proud Persians.

Another weak part is the use of the Dagger of Time. The use and limitations of this device are sketchy. No doubt, it is a magical artifact that can reverse time, but how far back does it turn the clock? Does it depend on how long the button is being pressed? Why is there a modern-day red button on the hilt of a medieval dagger in the first place? How much magic sand do you need for say, a 30-second jump back in time? How do you even measure the amount of sand per second of time travelling? Why does Princess Tamira wears a vial of magic sand around her neck even though the use of the Dagger is forbidden, apart from giving the hero (and hetero male audiences) an opportunity to check out her cleavage? None of these questions were answered in the movie.

The worst offender is the action, which is close to terrible. I heard some people calling the movie "Prince of Parkour", but associating the art of freerunning to this movie is an insult to the discipline. The action was filmed and edited in such a disjointed way that makes it very difficult to appreciate the parkour and swordfights on display. (For a good example of parkour action, see the Daniel Craig James Bond movie, Casino Royale.) Perhaps there never was much choreography in the first place, and the rapid edits serve to hide this shortcoming.

Still, I can't fully diss-miss this movie, as it does try its best to charm its way through humour, camaraderie among the cast, and some unexpected dramatic turns. Average at best.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Review: Kick-Ass

Fight like a little girl

Kick-Ass is a parody of superhero movies, particularly Spider-man. But unlike other spoofs, Kick-Ass is a notch better than the rest of its ilk, with cleverer jokes and no cartoon-illogic, anvil-dropping nonsenses, if I remembered correctly. Without a PG-rating restrain, the movie gets to spice things up with some gratuitous violence and darkly, morbid humour. Still, the movie was a few steps short of greatness because of the way it unevenly handles two different storylines that don't seem to gel all that well together.

The two main reasons to watch Kick-Ass are Hit Girl (Chloe Moretz) and Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage). They are the most compelling characters in the movie, and a strange mix of realism and exaggeration of some of your favourite comic book heroes. They are a bizarre and unhealthy father-and-daughter vigilante team where one of their crimefighting training involves the dad shooting his ten-year-old daughter in the chest with a gun. They do the most ass-kicking in the movie, especially the ten-year-old. Imagine O-Ren Ishii from Kill Bill during her prepubescent years.

Less interesting is the titular character, Kick-Ass (Aaron Johnson). Although he is the more realistic character, his storyline takes a too-obvious jab at Spider-man, from the Tobey Maguire-like voiceovers to the rooftop-jumping trials. Such smugness somehow doesn't really fit the realistic tone the movie was obviously aiming for. His story shows how completely stupid it is for a completely average guy to try and become a costumed hero. For a character named Kick-Ass, Kick-Ass spends more time getting his ass kicked than kicking asses.

As I said before, the two really doesn't mix when one is more fantastical while the other plays it real. Maybe it would have worked better if it is a story about an average dude who tries to be a superhero in a superhero world and not the real world. Or if the director or writer just removed some of the snide remarks about superhero cliches, which doesn't help when the movie actually plays to the cliches later on. Another idea is to relegate Kick-Ass' character to a supporting role and reduce his screen time. I had the same indifferent feeling when I was watching Watchmen, which later warmed me over on Blu-Ray. Perhaps I will like Kick-Ass more after a few home viewings. Right now, it's just a high Average for me.

Some cool taglines from the movie:
With no power comes no responsibility.
I can't fly/read your mind/be invisible/see through walls. But I can kick your ass.
Whenever Hit Girl swears.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Review: Clash of the Titans

The 2010 remake of the thirtysomething's childhood favourite tries to be grittier and Gladiator, but succeeds only marginally. Clearly wanting to separate itself from the original's childish leanings, the remake blatantly snubs Bubo the mechanical owl in its strive towards seriousness and "realism" (if that's even possible for a fantasy fest like this one.)

Still, the remake's story is actually weaker than the original. At least the motivations of the hero and other characters in the original were straightforward: kill the good/bad guy, get the girl, win the day. When you have a hero that just wants to kill the bad guy for revenge, doesn't give two poops about the girl, and couldn't care less about winning the day, it makes you wonder why he even bothers with the Kraken deadline. I'm sure if he taunts Hades long enough, the evil god would eventually show up for the hero to kick his ass. I mean, it worked pretty well for those Argos soldiers who smashed down Zeus' statue, though they were sorely lacking in contingency planning.

The action definitely benefits from a CGI facelift. Well, mostly. I enjoyed its version of the Kraken finale, which was able to convey the monster's immense and frightening scale through low-position camera angles, and did the job far better than Kraken 1981. The new Pegasus the winged horse is the most impressive special effect I've ever seen! The movement of its CGI wings are just so seamless and real, and it's impossible to tell where the CGI ends and the real horse begins. If someone tells me that what I saw wasn't even a real horse to begin with, I will take my 3D modelling course certificate and shove it up an orifice. Sadly, Clash of the Titans 2010 failed miserably in the Medusa sequence, which was easily the best scene in the 1981 movie. The original Medusa was a genuine Grade A uncompromising badass movie monster, while 2010 Medusa kept reminding me of The Mummy Returns' (2001) crappy CGI Scorpion King.

I thought Sam Worthington did a pretty good job with a lacking material, though he was much better in Terminator Salvation. Was surprised to see Ralph Fiennes, Danny Huston and Pete Postlethwaite, and Bond alums Gemma Arterton (Quantum of Solace) and Mads Mikkelsen (Casino Royale). The cast was put to ample use in a men-on-a-mission type of storyline, though it needed a little more humour and feeling of camaraderie.

Overall: Average actioner. The original wins by nostalgia and Medusa.

P.S.: I heard they haphazardly put in the 3-D effects at the last minute (upon hearing word of Avatar's success) and the end result was a murky, headache-inducing mess. Thus, I sensibly did not order the upsize, and opted for the regular.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Review: Up

To my dear brother Will2k who fell asleep during The Mummy 3...

Saw "Up". You won't fall asleep on this one. In fact, bring extra tissues.

Pixar has done it again, again, again, etc. Shit, can they not fail? Maybe they should fail once, so that at least I don't have to say "they have done it again" once again.

It's one of those good movies where there's no point talking about it since it only ruins the experience for those who haven't seen it. All I will say is that a small chunk of it was inspired by Hayao Miyazaki's "Laputa: Castle in the Sky", but the rest of the magic is pure Pixar effort.

A bit surprised how Up is startlingly similar to Gran Torino's old white geezer meets Asian kid and both learn life lessons plot, complete with dogs, but with more balloons and lesser guns.

Seems like the best movie directors nowadays all work for Pixar. The rest of the crap goes to Hollywood. Easily, best movie of the year before seeing The Hurt Locker, District 9, and Inglourious Basterds.

Anyway, "Up" is two thumbs way up, with balloons tied to my thumbs.

55 MINUTES LATER: I just read The Outlaw Vern's review, and realised he has beaten me to the Gran Torino reference. So, credit is given where credit's due.