Tuesday, December 18, 2012

CZ12 Chinese Zodiac


Director:Jackie Chan
Cast:Jackie Chan, Zhang Lanxin, Yao Xingtong, Laura Weissbecker, Kwone Sang-Woo, Oliver Platt
Genre:Action, Comedy
Run Time:123 mins
Opens:20 December
Rating:PG – Some Violence

It’s the holiday season and the 12 days of Christmas are upon us, but Jackie Chan hopes to turn moviegoers’ eyes eastward to a different “12” – the 12 animals of the Chinese Zodiac. In this film, the third installment of Chan’s Armour of God series (though it isn’t marketed as such), he returns as mercenary and master thief JC.
The “Chinese Zodiac” (aka CZ12) of the title refers to 12 bronze animal heads, one of each animal, that were stolen when Anglo-French armies looted the Summer Palace in 1860. Six of them are missing, and JC has been hired to track them down and find them by the father-and-son-duo of Lawrence (Platt) and Michael (Vincent Sze) (adopted, perhaps?), who run the shady Max Profits Corporation. This quest brings JC and his crew – Simon (Kwone), Bonnie (Zhang) and David (Liao Fan) from the chateaux and vineyards of France to an island in the South Seas and beyond, as they meet a French heiress (Weissbecker), a Chinese archaeology student (Yao), and a ruthless rival mercenary named The Vulture (Alaa Safi). That, and the expected smorgasbord of action set pieces, which include outrunning Rottweillers in a garden maze, and a skydiving skirmish high above an active volcano.
Chinese Zodiac has been touted as possibly Jackie Chan’s last big headlining action film and a return to the Jackie Chan action-comedy of old. In that respect, it delivers, because this is classic, typical Jackie Chan. It really is reminiscent of the films earlier in his career, and since it’s been 21 years since Armour of God II: Operation Condor, it does tickle the nostalgia bone. The action sequences in this film are uniformly entertaining and while it seems Chan has learnt a fair bit from working on big Hollywood films, he hasn’t lost that essence entirely, so we have a romp that’s slicker and a fair bit more polished than his earlier efforts, yet still unmistakably Jackie Chan.
However, that’s not entirely a good thing. The story isn’t the most original, with shades of the Jackie Chan animated series amongst others, there are the usual plot contrivances (do random French heiresses really just invite you home to check out their antique collection?), and Chan’s penchant for slapstick is on full, brash display. While humour is a part of his brand of cinematic action, there’s a difference between being lighthearted and witty and being just plain silly; this is a line that Chinese Zodiac crosses all too often. Many of us haven’t completely outgrown Jackie Chan flicks, but we’ve definitely grown up, and this reviewer isn’t sure if the same can be said of the director/star as some of the antics showcased are rather juvenile. The most egregious example is an odd Pirates of the Caribbean pastiche that comes completely out of left field, when JC and his party are exploring a long-lost island and get ambushed by a multi-national band of pirates, including one made up to look like Jack Sparrow. Then there’s an attack by a hive of bees, complete with the pirates sporting cartoony swollen lesions. It’s scenes like that one that threaten to completely derail whatever little story the film had to begin with, and are frankly unnecessary.
The film has JC working with a team this time around, Mission: Impossible style, but let’s face it, this doesn’t make it any less of a Jackie Chan ego trip. There’s a supposedly lofty message of the preservation of cultural heritage by having all artifacts and national treasures returned to their countries of origin, and Chan includes a slightly obnoxious voiceover over the end credits, but at least his onscreen persona of the mercenary with a heart of gold is likeable as always.
However, what Jackie Chan excels in are undoubtedly cool stunts, and there’s no denying that there’s imagination on display in how said stunts are staged and shot, more than in your average Hollywood actioner, and that the 58-year-old multi-hyphenate is still spry and energetic. Chan one-ups the zorbing scene from Armour of God II in the “unique modes of transportation” department with the “Buggy Rollin Suit”, invented by French extreme sportsman and designer Jean Yves “Rollerman” Blondeau. It’s an exciting opening chase that wouldn’t be out of place in a more upbeat Bond movie, and is very tactile and physical. The major hand-to-hand combat sequence between JC and Alaa Safi’s Vulture (a cool character who’s a little underutilized) is exactly the kind of scene Jackie Chan fans would relish. And yes, while the climactic skydiving sequence was accomplished mostly with blue screen photography, it’s still pretty edge-of-your-seat stuff.
It’s good to see Jackie Chan back in his element in an archetypical “Jackie Chan movie”, warts and all, but this definitely is a movie where the enjoyment is contingent on how forgiving of its star one is willing to be. Good thing then, that the star is Jackie Chan.
SUMMARY: If you’re a Jackie Chan fan, you just might be able to overlook the wanton silliness and enjoy Jackie Chan’s signature stunts and action feats.
RATING: 3 out of 5 STARS
Jedd Jong

Saturday, December 1, 2012

The Dark Knight Rises Blu-ray

Originally written for F*** Magazine, Singapore
The Dark Knight Rises was pretty much the movie event of the year, and, yes, now that people have seen it, it has its detractors and those who say it didn’t quite live up to the hype. However, it’s hard to deny just how big an achievement the film is, a blockbuster of truly gargantuan proportions and a grand send-off for the Dark Knight trilogy no matter how you slice it. The release of the film on home video can definitely be considered something of an event, and while there’s no better way to soak in a film of such proportions than on the big screen, reliving the big moments in the comfort of your home, with Bane’s gruff, muffled lilt coming over your sound system (and subtitles to help you out), is a very close second.

This reviewer has written about the film itself in an earlier piece, and loved it to bits. Seeing it again at home, his regard for it hasn’t slipped at all. Sure, it’s not quite as perfect as previously thought, but it’s still a darned good piece of filmmaking, and definitely the finale Christopher Nolan’s vision of Batman deserves. The sound and picture is, as expected, astounding. Most of the film was shot in the IMAX format for maximum impact, and the transfer is pretty much flawless. The aspect ratio changes slightly between scenes shot in IMAX and shot on regular 35 mm, but it’s not too distracting.

This is one of those films where it feels like an honor to watch it in your own home. The opening hijacking/infiltration sets the stage for an explosive ride, with the panoramic vistas, the dizzying heights, and the thumping Hans Zimmer score with the now-famous “deshi basara”  chant roaring in the background. In addition to its dense and engrossing plot, this is definitely very much a “sight-and-sound” movie. Every little detail is presented to be relished in all its glory, from punches landing to gunshots being fired,  the whirr of the Bat’s rotors and turbines, the falling water in both Batman and Bane’s lair, all of Wally Pfister’s remarkable cinematography and Richard King’s immersive sound, really…almost brings a tear to  one’s eye, it’s all so beautiful. It’s also easy to appreciate that Nolan gives the dialogue scenes as much weight as the action sequences, and it is very effective.

Christopher Nolan, youda man.
The 2-disc special edition comes with over three hours of special features, which should provide good feasting for voracious Batman fans. There’s a great retrospective documentary about the Batmobile, featuring all five of its cinematic incarnations in the same room together for the first time, like supermodels for a fashion photo shoot. Batman’s car has always been almost as iconic as the Caped Crusader himself, and there’s something about the Batmobile that brings out the five year-old boy in everyone. The documentary includes interviews with various designers, technicians, and artists responsible in bringing the Batmobile to life on the big screen in its various forms, from the retro cool of the Lincoln Futura-based model in the ’66 movie and TV show to the tough, aggressive matte-black Tumbler Batmobile in the Dark Knight trilogy. Various fans who turned up at San Diego Comic Con in costume are also featured in short interview segments. This is not merely a geeky look at the technical specifications and gadgets of Batman’s ride, though, and this documentary is remarkable in its examination of the iconography and symbolism of the Batmobile, how it’s akin to the noble steed a knight from Arthurian mythology would ride into battle, and the special place it occupies in the hearts of its creators and Batman fans everywhere alike.  Towards the end of the featurette, there’s a clip showing the Tumbler Batmobile being taken up to the Children’s Hospital in Vancouver, and it was quite a surprise for this reviewer to find himself actually tearing up during a celebration of the one of the toughest, coolest, most manly cars in pop culture history. And, of course, there’s a thrill to see all five cars, single file, roaring down the freeway.

As for features pertaining specifically to this film, there is a trailer archive and a print campaign art gallery, but the motherload is definitely “Ending the Knight,” a collection of 17 behind-the-scenes featurettes coming in at over two hours in length altogether, and split into three sections: “Production,” “Characters,” and “Reflections.”  The Dark Knight Rises is crammed full of moments that will make almost anyone wonder, “Now, how did they do that?” and these featurettes attempt to answer those questions.
Almost all of the fun stuff is covered under “Production.” “The Prologue: High-Altitude Hijacking” details the filming of the exhilarating and suspenseful mid-air heist that opens the film. This first behind-the-scenes look establishes that, unlike a growing number of filmmakers, Christopher Nolan is particular about getting as much in-camera as possible, and not relying overly on computer-generated visual effects work, resulting in sequences which are spectacular and awe-inspiring in their realism. There’s stuntmen hanging out of planes for real, sections of planes dropped from helicopters, a full-sized plane on a full-motion gimbal platform, stuntmen crawling along the sides of the fuselage of planes in mid-air… From the get-go, you can see that stunt coordinator Tom Struthers, special effects supervisor Chris Corbould, and the rest of Nolan’s team had their work cut out for them.
“Return to the Batcave” and “Beneath Gotham” give viewers a look at the construction of the massive sets for the Batcave and Bane’s lair in the city sewer system, respectively, and “The Pit” grants us a look at the other major underground set, the prison from which Bruce Wayne must escape. “Armoury Accepted” shows how a combination of miniature model work, green screen photography, and dropping a full-sized Tumbler Batmobile right into the set came together to form the illusion of Bane blasting away the ceiling of his lair to drop Batman’s goodies stored upstairs right into his lap. “The Bat” highlights Batman’s sweet new ride, a flying vehicle that’s part-helicopter, part-tank, and part-lobster. A full-scale version of the vehicle was constructed, and since it couldn’t actually fly, a number of rigs were constructed to make it appear like it could, involving such contraptions as a setup of two cranes with wires strung between them, heavy-duty helicopters from which the Bat was suspended, and a ground vehicle on which The Bat “rode” that was painted out using visual effects work afterwards.
“Gameday Destruction” answers the question of how exactly the filmmakers blew up a football stadium to form one of the movie’s central action setpieces. Co-writer Jonathan Nolan reveals how he wanted to have Bane begin his takeover of Gotham City at a football stadium because it’s a place of “collective vulnerability,” and would have great psychological impact. Over 11,000 eager extras showed up at Heinz Field in Pittsburgh to shoot the scene where Bane takes the arena under siege, and the featurette clues viewers in to just how much work went into that one sequence, with everything from special effects rigging to stunts, to even naming Gotham’s football team (“The Rouges,” after Batman’s comic book rogues gallery) and designing their uniforms. Executive producer Thomas Tull, one of the owners of the Pittsburgh Steelers, enlisted players past and present to cameo in the film as the Gotham Rogues, and the real-life mayor of Pittsburgh Luke Ravenstahl appeared as the kicker of the opposing team, the Rapid City Monuments. “War on Wall Street” is about the other major crowd scene, a massive brawl between scores of policemen and Bane’s thugs, filmed on Wall Street itself — which the production team turned into a giant war zone for a 1,100-strong clash.
For this Batman fanatic, the special features on this Blu-ray release can be summed up as “extensive but not exhaustive.” Sure, there is a wide array of behind-the-scenes material, and it is very educational and entertaining to watch how Christopher Nolan and Co. mounted “Operation TDKR.” However, one can’t help but feel that bits and pieces are missing. For example, the “Characters” section of “Ending the Knight” comprises profiles of Bruce Wayne, Selina Kyle, and Bane — but none on major new characters John Blake and Miranda Tate or stalwart allies Commissioner Gordon, Alfred Pennyworth, and Lucius Fox. The extras are also curiously spoiler-free, so there isn’t a featurette that goes into the finale in detail. There is also an option to sync up the movie with the free downloadable The Dark Knight Rises app, though this reviewer would have also liked to see an in-movie interactive mode with trivia segments and so on accessible while watching the movie itself.
Still, it will be difficult for any Bat-fan to pass this up, and yes, this is a must-have.The Dark Knight Rises is a film that may be exhausting to watch, but exhausting in a good way, like after a morning run. It’s definitely very rewatchable in spite of its hefty running time, though if you’re feeling flush, a limited edition including a very cool-looking broken cowl replica display piece is also available. A trilogy boxset will also be out next year.
MOVIE: 4.5 out of 5 STARS
EXTRAS: 4 out of 5 STARS
Jedd Jong