Wednesday, December 28, 2005


(animated drama)
Time: 85 mins
Rating: * * *
Wallace & Gromit out on a bunny hunt
AFTER Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride, we have another entertaining stop-animation flick about an absent-minded inventor and his faithful dog. The Wallace & Gromit series is not new. Created by British animator, Nick Park, the Plasticine (modelling clay) characters first thrilled children with a tale called A Grand Day Out in 1989. In 2000, Park and co-director Peter Lord took time off from the series to give us Chicken Run. So far, there has been six more instalments of Wallace & Gromit, including this Curse Of The Were-Rabbit.

Set in a small town in England, this episode sees Wallace and Gromit running a new business — a pest-control company called Anti-Pesto which protects the folks’ vegetables from pesky rabbits.
And since it is the season for the annual Giant Vegetable Competition, Wallace (voice of Peter Sallis) and his pet dog are terribly busy catching the furry critters.

Wallace’s Anti-Pesto is not an outfit that kills bunnies. He adopts a more humane way of capturing the pests with a contraption called the Bunny Vac 6000 and keeping them in his basement menagerie. Lady Tottington (Helena Bonham Carter), the hostess for the competition, is the chief advocate of Wallace’s humane removal of the animals, but the sniveling Lord Victor Quartermaine (Ralph Fiennes) prefers to shoot them all.

Lord Victor dreams of marrying Lady Totty and get his grubby hands on her ancestral wealth. He sees Wallace as a rival. And the toupee-wearing Victor is not someone you would want to mess with... Meanwhile, Wallace decides to invent a device called Mind-O-Matic that would wean the rabbits’ craving for fresh produce. However, a lab accident interrupts the invention — and the residents find themselves having to deal with a King Kong-like Were-Rabbit that threatens to wipe out their prize veggies. As usual, Gromit has to play Sherlock Holmes and save the day.

The Curse Of The Were-Rabbit, helmed by Park and Steve Box, also employs a bit of computer graphics, especially in a sequence where the vacuumed bunnies are in free-fall. For me, the most amazing part of the movie are the facial expressions of Gromit. The dog has no mouth yet it speaks volumes just through its spherical eyes. Needless to say, Gromit is the smartest and most lovable character in the entire movie.

The scripters have also thrown in a few hints of British bawdiness but this is done in good fun. Those who like Brit humour will find lots of puns and typical ‘stiff upper-lip’ gags here. While Corpse Bride fascinated us with its macabre humour, this one has characters we can root for.

# The main feature is only 85 minutes but there is a bonus clip — a short cartoon about the militant Penquins of Madagascar going on a mission to bring cheer to a friend on Christmas eve.


(fantasy adventure in Cantonese)
Time: 88 mins
Rating: * *
Nicholas Tse in Chinese Tall Story
THE adventures of the Monkey God, Sun Wukong, from the Chinese classic, Journey To The West, has fascinated people through the generations. It has been translated and adapted into countless comic books, movies and TV series. The latest, A Chinese Tall Story, is a whopping RM50-million spoof by writer-director Jeff Lau Chun-Wai who ‘updates’ the tale with all manner of special effects, stunts and gimmicks.

But Lau is not really concerned with the adventures of the Monkey God here. His emphasis is on a love story between a Tang Dynasty monk named Tripitaka (Nicholas Tse), and a young lizard girl named Meiyan (Charlene Choi). Oops! Let me rephrase that. Lau’s real emphasis is on showing off his computer-generated effects and he goes about this like a kid on Christmas morning.

He throws in everything from Star Wars and Close Encounters Of The Third Kind to Matrix and even Zathura. I suspect, if we had looked at the space sequences close enough, there could be a kitchen sink out there too...

The love story, or rather romantic entrapment, takes place before Tripitaka embarks on his famous journey to bring the sacred sutras from the west. Tripitaka and his three disciples, Monkey King Sun Wukong (Chen Po-lin), the Pig monk, Zhu Wuneng (Kenny Kwan) and Sank monk Sha Wujing (Steven Cheung) arrive to a hero’s welcome in Shache City. The three disciples, however, are promptly abducted by some evil magicians and our hero has to borrow the magical Golden Pole in his bid to save them.

On the way, he meets the buck-toothed Meiyan who falls in love with him instantly and follows him wherever he goes. An unrecognisable Charlene Choi gets the most laughs here as the rapid-mouth imp who probably thinks she has a good chance at winning the Miss World/Galaxy crown. Still, Choi seems to be the only one who carries the comedy in this movie. Nicholas Tse, who did not even have the courage to shave his head bald for his role as a monk, appears to be playing a supporting role beside Choi.

Others in the cast, like Fan Bing Bing (as Princess Xiaoshan) and Isabella Leong (as the Crimson Kid), are just eye candy in a messy movie that offers space monsters and storm-troopers in confusing battles. Some may equate the action to that of video games but this Tall Story is just CGI rubbish. The film-makers may have wanted to impress us with their computer wizardry, but they end up infuriating us!

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

THE PROMISE: A Flawed Parable about Fate

(fantasy adventure)
Time: 103 mins
Rating: * * *
Cecilia Cheung and Hiroyuki Sanada in The Promise
IF Beauty killed the Beast in King Kong, it seems to have made a muddle of the tale in Chen Kaige’s The Promise. In his pursuit of beauty — of style, timelessness and interpretation — Chen has ‘sacrificed’ traditional story-telling and has infuriated some of his fans who had raved about his epic, Farewell, My Concubine (1993). Some viewers have even questioned (on the Internet) why this movie even got a Golden Globe nomination.

But in The Promise, Chen is not trying to tell a story. It is a parable about Fate and Human Destiny and it is told in a fantasy format set (in Chen’s words) “3,000 years in the future, somewhere in Asia”. The opening sequence sets the theme and tone of the movie: A starving village girl ‘steals’ a piece of dumpling and tries to take it for her ailing mother. A Sorceress appears and offers to fulfil her secret desire: She will become a beautiful princess and have all men falling for her. The catch is that she will never have true love or real happiness.

Would she accept? She does! — and the following sequences show how she has a King, a General, a vindictive Duke and a young slave falling in love with her, all with tragic results.
To the King, Qincheng (Cecilia Cheung) is just a possession — to be betrayed and exchanged for political advantage.
To General Guanming (Hiroyuki Sanada), whom she believes has rescued her from the king, Qincheng is his prize and may even change his destiny.
To the slave Kunlun (Jang Dong- Kun), who had donned the General’s armour in that rescue attempt and even tries to sacrifice his life for her, she is his elusive love. Kunlun may run faster than the wind, but not fast enough to win her love. And to Wuhuan (Nicholas Tse), the Duke of the North, she embodies fleeting love and revenge — for breaking a promise.

All through her encounters with these men, Fate plays a role, as do elements like greed, ambition, loyalty and the search for true love. However, Chen’s preoccupation with sweeping cinematic style and beauty has blurred these lines and obscured his message. Viewers will be distracted by the sets, the breath-taking scenery and comic book-style action — and miss out on the parable.

Also, the cast do not help. Tse is unintentionally comical in some scenes, having fun with his Mandarin accent, while Cheung is nothing more than just eye-candy. Sanada and Korean star Jang fare better in their two-dimensional roles.

And as Chen has lamented, Fate too played a hand in this movie. “The film you ‘plan’ to make is not the one which you shoot. The film will unfold as it will,” he said. For his next ‘epic’, he should promise to take better control of his work.

KING KONG: Another Jackson masterpiece

(adventure thriller)
Time: 187 mins
Rating: * * * *
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AFTER the spectacular conclusion to the Lord Of The Rings trilogy, The Return Of The King, director Peter Jackson presents the Return of Another King — King Kong. The story of Kong, indisputably the Lord of Skull Island, has been Jackson’s passion since he was a young film-maker. And with his experience gleaned from the epic LOTR trilogy, he is determined to make King Kong bigger and better than ever.

Jackson’s King Kong follows the basic plot of the 1933 original — and he has even given the film a grey- brownish hue of the old black-and- white movies. It is the Depression era in the US and vaudeville actress Ann Darrow (Naomi Watts) is destitute after failing to land an audition at a local theatre. Hungry and broke, she resorts to pinching food when maverick director Carl Denham (Jack Black) offers her a role in his new film.

Denham, of course, is desperate too. He is being pursued by creditors and the police he has to find an actress (“Fay Wray is not available,” he is told) to join his cast and crew and sail away to an uncharted island immediately. Also on board the clunky steamer is screenwriter Jack Driscoll (Adrien Brody) and lead star Bruce Baxter (Kyle Chandler).

The voyage to ‘Skull Island’ recalls that of Titanic as Ann gets romantically involved with Jack while sinister intrigues are being discussed among the ship’s crew. There is also an interesting subplot about a ship’s boy named Jimmy (Jamie Bell).

When we arrive on Skull Island (in the second act), it is on to Indiana Jones territory as the natives kidnap Ann and prepare her as a sacrifice to their god, Kong. It takes a good hour before we get to see the Giant Ape but there are enough thrills in the kidnap and subsequent rescue mission to keep us riveted to the screen. Ann’s encounter with Kong is both fascinating and touching. The big ape is so intrigued by his blonde captive that he starts to play with his ‘food’. Ann, on the other hand, realises this and entertains her captor with a comedy vaudeville routine.

The ‘connection’ is made and the poor Beast does not stand a chance with our Beauty.
Jackson, meanwhile, heightens the ‘rescue’ mission by throwing in the thrills and spills of Jurassic Park — with Kong in a seat-gripping battle against a bunch of tyrannosaurs, and Jack and his shipmates fighting giant bugs and bats. These sequences, however, have no relevance to the plot and are more like Jackson showing off his hair-curling special effects and giving us more ‘value for money’.

The third act takes us back to Manhattan which now looks brighter and richer. Kong has become the biggest show in town and he pines for Ann. When they meet, Jackson throws in a poetic scene on a frozen pond in Central Park, before Kong’s inevitable encounter with bi-planes on top of the Empire State Building.

It is a heart-rending climax as Kong fights for his life and that of his beloved Ann. Denham closes with the famous quote: It was beauty killed the beast. However, we all konw that it was Jackson’s passion that fashioned this masterpiece.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

SPL: Beware of Bone-crunching action

(crime thriller in Cantonese)
Time: 95 mins
Rating: * * *

Sammo Hung (centre) and his gang in SPL
SPL, or Sha Po Lang, is a violent, no-holds-barred crime melodrama that will leave you exhausted just by watching it. It is a throwback to the good old days of Hong Kong action thrillers like Ringo Lam’s City On Fire and John Woo’s The Killer.

The only difference is that director Wilson Yip now has more sophisticated camera work and effects, and visually realistic fight scenes choreography by co-director Donnie Yen. Yip has also included touches of humour in the sequences that remind us of Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill movies.

Sha, Po and Lang are three Chinese constellations that represent Destruction, Conflict and Greed. These are the qualities that we find in a Hong Kong police task force, led by Inspector Chan (Simon Yam), to investigate gang boss Wang Po (Sammo Hung). The enmity between Chan and Wang goes back a long way when Wang ordered the killing of the parents of Chan’s god-daughter when they were on their way to testify against the crime lord.

Playing foster parent to the girl, Chan is reminded of the murder every day and he vows revenge.
The story opens when Chan is forced into retirement because of health reasons. With only days left before ending his career, the police inspector and his team go all out to nail Wang, even to the extent of breaking the law and misappropriating Wang’s loot.

Things get complicated when Inspector Ma (Donnie Yen) is assigned to take over the task force. Ma is no angel but what he uncovers is shocking, even to him. Chan’s men are so desperate to get Wang that they are even fabricating evidence against him. Normally, the audience would lose sympathy for such morally- decadent characters and easily lose interest in the movie. However, Yip counters this by throwing in subplots about their family life on Father’s Day.

While most people are celebrating with their loved ones, the members of the task force can only suffer pangs of remorse and regret for having neglected their children and family all these years.
Of course, the main attraction of this crime thriller is its brutal fighting sequences that do not rely on wires or computer graphics.

The duels, especially the one between Donnie Yen and former wushu champ Wu Jing (as Wang’s chief thug Jet), are so realistic that we cringe at every blow. Surprisingly, the acting here is also above par, unlike in most Hong Kong actioners that just concentrate on the fighting scenes. Also. SPL succeeds where Daniel Lee’s Dragon Squad fails, although they both had Hung and Yam too. You can bet it is going to start a huge cult following.

PERHAPS LOVE: Right step for Far East musicals

(musical in Mandarin)
Time: 103 mins
Rating: * * *

Jacky Cheung and Zhou Xun
DANCE musicals have never been a strong point in Chinese and Japanese cinema, probably because of their cultural and social traditions. The few recent efforts were forgettable: A Fishy Story (1989), The Phantom Lover (1995) and dance drama Para Para Sakura in 2001.
This makes director Peter Chan’s Perhaps Love a bold and flashy move that may help to give a fillip to the genre in the Far East.

Fashioned after Hollywood’s Chicago and Moulin Rouge, this Mandarin-Cantonese effort boasts of splashy dance numbers, rich costumes and sets, beautiful photography and a pan-Asian cast and crew that includes Malaysia’s Farah Khan as choreographer. However, its triangle love tangle which is told in confusing flashbacks may be a bit too arty for many viewers.

The story is introduced by a ringmaster-like narrator called Montage (Korean TV star Ji Jin-hee) who promises to put scenes back into people’s lives after they have made the wrong choice. A circus atmosphere, with artistes and acrobats, then comes alive in the opening number which turns out to be a movie set being filmed in a studio in Shanghai. The movie’s director, Nie Wen (Jacky Cheung) is troubled. The China Press has accused him of using a Hong Kong star Lin Jian-dong (Takeshi Kaneshiro) but the big problem is that Lin is an old flame of the movie’s lead star, Sun Na (Zhou Xun) with whom Nie is now in love.

However, when Lin meets Sun Na on the movie set, she denies ever knowing him — and this sets off a series of flashbacks that delves into their love story. The movie shuttles back and forth between the past and present, and even mixes musical numbers from the movie and those of ‘real-life’. To some, this may be seen as ‘art’ — a device that provides a surreal effect on love and heartbreak. To others, it is plain confusion that muddles up the storyflow.

The main weakness is that there is no cohesive style in Aubrey Lam and Raymond To’s script. Also, the fast and choppy editing does not help matters. It is thanks to Takeshi and Cheung that the jist of the story manages to get across to the audience. The two male leads manage to convey their pain and frustration of their relationship with the pixieish Sun Na and we are able to root for them. Cheung also renders a heart-rending number that reminds us of a scene in Phantom Of The Opera. China starlet Zhou Xun serves more like eye candy in a role that is not properly interpreted. Her dance numbers are engaging, though. Also, watch out for Sandra Ng and Eric Tsang in cameos as movie producers.

Perhaps Love marks a successful collaboration among Asian film-makers and we should be proud of Farah Khan’s contribution.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

NARNIA: An enchanting family treat

(fantasy adventure)
Time: 140 mins
Rating: * * * ½

The Pevensie Siblings in Narnia
THIS rendition of Clive Staple Lewis’ book is not as overwhelming as Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Ring series, but it comes pretty close. Like LOTR, this effort by director Andrew Adamson is a rich and gorgeous production with a superb cast. It may not be as spectacular as Tolkien’s works but fans of C.S. Lewis would not be disappointed with this new franchise.

The story is set during World War Two when the four Pevensie children are sent from Finchley, near London, to the safety of the countryside to live in the mansion of Professor Kirke (Jim Broadbent). Peter (William Moseley), the eldest, wishes he is old enough to join his father in the war against Nazism. Instead, he is tasked with taking care of his siblings, Susan (Anna Popplewell), Edmund (Skandar Keynes) and Lucy (Georgie Henley).

One rainy day, while playing hide-and-seek to overcome boredom, Lucy slips into a wardrobe among the furs and finds herself in a snowy forest of firs. There she meets a gentle faun named Mr Tumnus (James McAvoy) who tells her she is in Narnia. This starts the siblings’ adventure!
Ironically, Peter’s wish to fight in a war is fulfilled when Edmund is captured by the White Witch (Tilda Swinton) who has turned the mythical world of Narnia into a ‘winter without Christmas’.

According to a squabbling beaver couple, it has been prophesied that four humans would arrive to herald the return of spring and freedom in Narnia, and to coincide with the return of Aslan the Lion (voice of Liam Neeson). The Witch seeks to stop this from happening. Now, Peter and his sisters must team up with Aslan’s forces, not only to rescue Edmund but also to save Narnia from the clutches of the evil Witch.

Yes, this is another battle of good versus evil but audiences need not have to worry much about its Christian allegory. To save Edmund’s life, Aslan makes the ultimate sacrifice which recalls Mel Gibson’s torture of Christ — and his ‘resurrection’ is complete with two ‘women’ by his side.
Why, there is also a tongue- in-cheek sequence of Father Christmas turning up as a sort of ‘arms dealer’ to the kids.

The battle field sequence pales when compared with the Battle of Helm’s Deep in LOTR but it serves its purpose. The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe (1950) is the ‘second’ book of the Narnia Chronicles and the ‘sequels’, The Horse And His Boy (1954) and Prince Caspian (1951) promise more spectacular action.

The kiddie cast hold sway with little Henley standing out as Lucy, and Keynes looking pathetic as the troubled Edmund. However, the show-stealer is Swinton whose fair skin and schizophrenic nature makes a deliciously wicked witch. Considering that this is Adamson’s first live-action feature after the animated Shrek, he has done a good job of bringing Narnia to life.
It should make an enchanting holiday treat for the family.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

AEON FLUX: More like Catwoman than Matrix

(action thriller)
Time: 90 mins
Rating: * *
Charlize Theron as Aeon Flux
IT is obvious that the producers of Aeon Flux had meant for the film to be a hot action thriller like The Matrix. What they have come up with is a hot chick flick that is closer to the flop that was Catwoman.

The sets and photography are first class, but the dialogue sucks and the plot is awful. It is evident that the film-makers have concentrated so much on Charlize Theron’s outfits and fighting scenes that they have forgotten about stuff like acting, and character development. The biggest consolation is that the movie is only 90 minutes long...

Aeon Flux is based on the character from MTV’s Liquid Television’, an animated series created by Peter Chung. It started in 1991 as a series of sci-fi shorts about a hit-woman trying to infiltrate a bunker-like building and getting killed at the end of each episode because she has made a mistake. In 1995, it was adapted into a series of 30-minute episodes about Aeon Flux fighting for personal freedom against a dictatorial power.

However, Aeon Flux the movie is all fluff and little substance. It is 2415 and 99 per cent of the world population has been killed off by a virus. The remaining five million now live in a walled city called Bregna which is built by scientist Trevor Goodchild (Marton Csokas) who developed a vaccine against the virus. Life in Bregna seems quiet and peaceful but a group called the Monicans are trying to topple Trevor’s administration.

One of the most prominent members of the Monicans is Aeon Flux (Theron), a professional killer who is reckless and unpredictable. When her family is killed by government agents, Aeon gets the assignment she has been waiting for all her life: the mission to kill Trevor. Paired with her protege Sithandra (Sophie Okonedo), an agent with modified ‘hands’ to replace her feet, they manage to infiltrate Trevor’s fortress. However, when Aeon comes face to face with her nemesis, she just cannot pull the trigger.

This makes Aeon an enemy of both the Monicans and the government. And with Trevor’s younger brother, Oren (Jonny Lee Miller) hatching a treacherous plot, Aeon and Trevor must team up to stay alive and unravel the conspiracy. Yeah, there are some twists and turns in the plot but nothing is convincing enough to keep us interested. There is no warmth in the sloppily-developed characters and their relationships, and some of the cast are ‘misused’ here.

Veteran Frances MacDormand is wasted in a decorative role as the Monican’s Handler and Pete Postlethwaite is unintentionally comical as The Keeper of a floating ‘archives’. Sure, Theron looks fetching in black tights. She gets to ‘kick ass’ and strut around in eye-popping ‘pyjamas’. But after that Oscar-winning role in Monster, she ain’t gonna be proud of this role, not when the box-office figures come in.