Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Performance review, income tax and a worth-while venture

Kind of a hectic week this week.

I had to make sure that I complete the yearly performance review for my staff so that they would get considered for a pay increment this year. It is usually around this time I find myself thinking if I am actually doing good work being their boss. I like to think that I have an open door and hands off policy when it comes to my subordinate but some times I wonder if there is something that I could have done better to improve. In my performance appraisal sessions, my boss always suggested that I be more involved with what my staff were doing. “Be more involve” is his code word for micro-managing the daily lives of your staff which I could never agree to. As long as my staff completes the task/project given and keeps me appraised of any issues that comes up then I am happy with them.

I’ve submitted their performance review forms to the next level. Hopefully they would be agree with it and not ask me to go through any additional paperwork on it till the next review cycle.

I’ve also submitted my 2006 income tax form by using their online E-Hasil submission for the first time. I have to say that I found the whole process from start to finish to be fairly painless compared to the old method of filling up the manual form. It used to be that I would have to wait to get my income tax forms in the mail (which always came very late), fill the form up and send it in by hand to the Inland Revenue Board (because my frelling income tax form would always arrive in my mailbox 2 days before the submission deadline). Fed up with the last minute rush crowd at the IRB office year after year, I decided to make use of their online submission process that they started this year.

To submit the income tax form online, I had to first get a digital signature registration slip from the IRB office and download the digital signature certificate to my machine. Once I have that then I had to download a PDF version of the BE income tax form and fill up the information they required. One good thing about this online form is that I just need to plug in the numbers from my EA form as well as from my deductible receipts and the form will calculate how much I still owe the government in taxes. The form also considerately grayed out all the spouse info, child-care deductions and joint declaration section once I selected the appropriate marital status option. Once completed, I only had to click on the submit button in the document to digitally sign the completed form and submit it to their servers. They also provided a nice acknowledgement of submission acceptance screen for me to print out and keep as proof that I’ve submitted my income tax returns for 2006.

It was that easy. If only it was as easy to get more tax deductible entries to add to my annual income tax returns.

Speaking of tax deductible ventures, I like to take this opportunity to promote an online charity event organized by a few local bloggers that was highlighted in the latest entry at SultanMuzzaffar’s blog. The “Pledge Your Donation” event is coordinated by Badrul Hashim who writes the BadrulAfterSix blog and would like to collect pledges from the online community for support of the Baitul Fitrah Charity Home in Rawang. The Baitul Fitrah Home helps out young orphans and single parents in nearby areas but is currently finding it difficult to do so with their current resource limitation. They would warmly welcome any help that we could offer both in terms of financial pledges or items that they sorely need for their daily operations.

Drop the organizers a line at if you think that you would like to chip in and help them out.

Friday, March 24, 2006

DVD Review: Rent

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I first heard about “Rent”, the stage production, way back in 1995 while I was studying in the US. It was somewhat of a phenomenon back them and it piqued my interest being that I’m a big fan of stage musicals (I know … OGT alert). Being that I was studying way up north in Wisconsin at the time, the odds of me actually getting to see the show (or any show on Broadway for that matter) was as good as a snowball surviving in hell. Needless to say that I didn’t get to see it but I keep hearing good things about the show. Once in a while another comment would come up about so and so performing in “Rent” and my curiosity radar gets a ping again about this show. Unlike Webber’s shows that seems to be more popular locally, there was fairly little information about shows like “Hair” and “Rent” here.

I have to admit that I had to think twice before purchasing my copy of the “Rent” DVD. Having getting burnt before with sub par film adaptation of stage productions (think “Phantom of the Opera” and “Evita”), I didn’t know if I would like this big screen adaptation of “Rent”. It didn’t have a lot of recognizable names (at least to me) in the cast and other that the very basic awareness of the story I didn’t really know what to expect from it. The critics reviews available online about the initial theatrical run of this film was not exactly encouraging but there were a few that were passionately positive about it nevertheless. Being that purchasing these original DVDs are still considered a luxury purchase for me, buying the “Rent” DVD was one that I took at a risk hoping that I would eventually like the movie.

“Rent” is an urban based rock musical written by Jonathan Larson that tells the story of a group of young people living in the fringe of society in a bleak Lower East Village of Manhattan circa late 1980’s. The audience follows the story through the lives of a large ensemble cast which includes aspiring songwriter Roger (Adam Pascal); Roger's roommate and wannabe filmmaker Mark (Anthony Rapp); computer genius Tom (Jessie L. Martin); Tom's cross-dressing lover Angel (Wilson Jermaine Heredia); and Benny (Taye Diggs), who betrayed his friends when he married their landlord's daughter and is now threatening the group with eviction from their seedy loft apartments. Mark’s ex-girlfriend Maureen (Idina Menzel) who dumped him for lawyer Joanne (Tracie Thoms) and Roger's downstairs neighbor Mimi (Rosario Dawson) rounds up the remaining cast all of whose narrative are driven by the songs of this musical.

Broadly adapting Puccini’s “La Boheme”, Larson updates the play to a modern setting with Roger the songwriter replacing Rodolfo, the poet, Mark the wannabe filmmaker standing in for Marcello, the painter and Benny replaces Benoit the landlord trying to evict them. Mimi in “La Boheme” is similarly updated from being a seamstress with tuberculosis to an exotic dancer with AIDS. The musical's subject matter and location of AIDS and the bleak Lower East Village of Manhattan may have changed dramatically since the time when this stage production was originally staged but it still resounds loudly especially to those who lived through those dark times. The underlying theme that “Rent” presents remains relevant today: young people trying to figure out their place in a world they don't necessarily respect, or want to be a part of.

In adapting the stage production to film, director Chris Columbus (Home Alone, Mrs. Doubtfire, Harry Potter 1) stayed true to the original material for the most part. Several songs in the original were converted into smart and funny dialogue sequences between the musical sequences. Being a rock opera, the musical sequences are the meat and potatoes of this film. I would have to say that I was thrilled to watch almost all of them performed by this energetic and passionate cast with the exception of a very select few that seemed to come across as a bit flat on film. With almost 26 musical numbers through out the movie, it was hard for me to pick favorites but I have to single out "Light My Candle" - Roger & Mimi, "Will I" - Steve, Gordon & Cast, "Take Me Or Leave Me" - Maureen & Joanne, "I'll Cover You (Reprise)" - Collins, Joanne & Cast and "Finale B" - Cast of RENT as the songs that stayed with me at the end of the first viewing. After viewing the DVD at least 7 times to date, I have to say that I beginning to love every one of the songs (with the exception of "Over The Moon" - Maureen which is a bit too weird for me to get into) and can’t wait to get the original soundtrack CD of the movie.

It goes without saying that the cast of “Rent” the movie is the best possible cast Chris Columbus could ask for as 6 or the 8 original stage cast returned 10 years later to reprise them. These were the 6 people who starred in the first production of “Rent” and have indelibly left their mark on how the character should be. It was fortunate for them that they were cast in the original stage production at such a young age that they don’t seem to have aged too much for their film character reprise. The two newcomers to the group, Rosario Dawson as Mimi and Tracie Thoms as Joanne, fitted so well with the rest of the cast that they looked as if they have been doing it for as long as the original cast did. I did some very basic comparison between their performance in the original stage production versus the movie, using the snippets of both the original stage recording and the original soundtrack, and thought that their performances on the film sounded much better that the former. All of the cast’s voices have a more matured quality to them compared to their pervious performance of the material and this makes for a more polished end product.

Disk 1 of the 2-disk DVD set hold the full feature with the standard language and subtitle options. I found that I prefer watching the movie with the subtitles on so that I could possibly memories some of the lyrics for my personal shower-time remix sessions. The picture and audio quality has no discernable points to dock as it was pretty clean and clear. A commentary track featuring Chris Columbus (director), Adam Pascal (Roger) and Anthony Rapp (Mark) is also include on Disk 1 of the DVD set. All three talked comfortably almost the whole time about their experiences in making the film. There were parts of the commentary in which they responded to the criticism made against the movie by some of the critics. While it was illuminating to hear them respond to the critics, I thought that the responses were too flippant to what was essentially valid criticism on what was happening on screen. Their comments made them seem a bit too defensive about their work which is actually good without having to rationalize it. Other than that particular point, I found the commentary enjoyable to sit through and share the passion that they had with the material.

Disk 2 of the DVD set included a selection of delete scenes with optional commentaries by the director. Most of the scene were cut for pacing as well as to better mold the emotional content of the movie. Among the cut scenes were 2 fan-favorite musical numbers that were filmed but never made it in the final cut. The crown jewel of the 2nd disk however is the feature-length documentary about the writer, Jonathan Larson and the story of how “Rent” came to be. This crowd-pleasing, inspirational and tear-inducing documentary traces the journey of Larson from childhood to his lean days while creating “Rent”. His early struggles and his successes up to the point when “Rent” was finally realized are shared with the audience through interviews with the people linked closely to him. The audience will definitely be touched to find out that Larson died at such a young age on the eve when his greatest work was to be staged to the public. The documentary continues with how Larson’s death didn’t stop the show and how it be came such a hit even while everyone involved in it was still mourning their lost. The documentary concludes with a section about the making of the film version of “Rent” after 10 year of it’s successful run. This documentary, which is a totally joyful profile of Larson's dedication to his art, is a touching memorial not only to him but to the dreams he represents in everyone.

Fans of the “Rent” stage production are known as “Rent-Heads” which I now proudly to proclaim myself as one after watching the film on DVD. This 2-disk DVD set was one of those risky purchases that turned out to be better than I could ever dreamed of. The film was one that left a profound impression to me and now ranked in my all-time favorites list and I would have never get to know it if I didn’t buy this DVD set. A good transfer and fairly enjoyable commentary track adds to the enjoyment of owning this DVD but the brilliantly poignant documentary has to be the highlight of special features included in the DVD which makes the DVD set a worthy addition to any DVD library. All in all, it is a very easy DVD presentation to recommend to those who enjoy musicals.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Movie Review: V For Vendetta

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At what point does one man’s terrorist become another man’s freedom fighter?

This is the question that “V for Vendetta” ask of it’s audience as we spend 131 minutes watching the film. Filled to the brim with thought provoking exchanges, “V for Vendetta” is definitely not a movie for the action junkies as they would sorely be disappointed with the spares action sequences that it offers. What is offered instead is an intelligent discourse on the state of the world today albeit in an allegory form of a world gone horribly wrong all because of good intentions gone awry.

Adapted from the popular graphic novel of the same name written by Alan Moore and his illustrator-collaborator David Lloyd, “V for Vendetta” tells the story of the anarchist named V who is struggling against the government of a fascist theocratic police-state that the United Kingdom becomes in an imagined near future. V (Hugo Weaving), wearing the fixed visage of a Guy Fawkes mask, bursts into the scene by blowing up a London landmark to the tune of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture in plain view of a witness, Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman), who he saves earlier in the evening from a group of degenerate secret police squad.

Evey is not really sure what to make of this strange fellow who had rescued her from her fate. V was clearly intelligent and very much convincing in his convictions that the people of the land had crossed the line too far by empowering the oppressive government to further curtail their individual liberties all in the name of public safety. Her fate would later become unavoidably linked to V once again when she helps V to gain command of a broadcasting station to broadcast his manifesto and call the population to witness his destruction of the Parliament on the eve of the next Guy Fawkes Night (Nov 5th).

As Evey begins to try to understand her savior, V is also being pursued by Det. Finch (Stephen Rea) whose investigation into the anarchist begins to unravel the backstory of his quarry. Finch realizes that V’s origin was very closely linked to high profile members of the establishment ruling the country all the way up to the supreme leader of this totalitarian regime, High Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt). With each piece of new information both Finch and Evey discovers about V, the more doubt gets cast over the motivation that is driving this enigmatic person to rebel against the authorities.

As V’s actions to overthrow the establishment becomes increasingly distasteful to her, Evey attempts to leave V only to find herself eventually captured and tortured for information pertaining to the location of V. Det. Finch is also struggling with the revelations that he is uncovering in his investigations of who V was as the people of this dystopian future begins to raise to V’s challenge that they change their current situation. Everything comes to a climatic ending when V’s promise to blow up the Parliament comes to pass but not without a heavy price to the major players in this story. In their own way, they all had to pay something in exchange for their new future that V had promised will be ahead of them.

The adaptation of the original graphic novel to screenplay was done by Andy and Larry Wachowski, the director-creators of the Matrix movie trilogy, and was not without it’s share of controversy. In adapting this story to the screen, the Wachowski brothers had to veer away from the original material in several aspect which resulted in the original writer of the story publicly disowning this adaptation. Alan Moore refused to have his name credited to this adaptation of his seminal work on the basis that it was not what he had in mind when he wrote the piece and the Wachowski brother will have to credit it to David Lloyd instead. While the adaptation differs from the original text in many points, the Wachowski brothers have made the point to make sure that it was true to the spirit of the original work. Most of the iconic figures and storyline still exist in this adapted work in their near original forms which, while may not please the purists, would be sufficient to convey the story of “V for Vendetta”.

The thing that struck me the most about this adaptation is how politically aware this movie is. The movie raises a lot of issues that we are struggling in these dark days where someone like V is not view in a good light. The movie doesn’t hold itself back from commenting that the issues of terrorism and the state’s reaction to terror acts are never in the absolutes relative to the views of all the parties involved. As an allegory to the way the world is structured now, “V for Vendetta” allows the audience to view through a dark mirror of an imagined future and wonder how little it would take in the real world for us to end up in a similar situation. While the questions that it raises might be distasteful for some, it was refreshing to see it tackled in a in a mainstream film feature.

Hugo Weaving gives a sterling performance as the scarred and tormented V despite the handicap of not able to rely on facial expressions that other actors take for granted being able to do in their performances. He uses his natural physical agility instead to successfully imbue the masked V with layers of meaning through the use of body language that lesser actor would not be able to pull off. Natalie Portman is equally good in this movie opposite Weaving even with the noticeable slip-ups with her British accent. With this film, she joins Sigourney Weaver and Demi Moore as women who can pull off looking really sexy bald. John Hurt, Stephen Rea and Stephen Fry round out the wonderful performances of this outstanding cast.

“V for Vendetta” is definitely a refreshing change in that it is an intelligent blockbuster instead of the more common mindless popcorn action fare. It has a fairly political message that it wants to deliver and it is not afraid to lay it out irregardless of how it may be received. Audiences will definitely leave the theater thinking about the issues raised in the movie that they just watched. Add to that a brisk piece of storytelling tightly plotted from the very first frame to the very last credit, this movie is one of the must see movies of 2006 irregardless of your politics.

Friday, March 17, 2006

DVD Review: Mirrormask

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I have to admit that I am more familiar with Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean’s collaborations in the comic books than in anything else. Gaiman’s work in the popular “Sandman” series published by DC comics is still ranked high in the list of comics that I would always recommend other people to read. McKean’s work on the cover art for the same comic book series also remains today as the most imaginative covers on any comic book that I’ve seen to date. So when I heard that they will both collaborate on a feature length film, I have to say that I was really excited about the prospect of seeing what the result will be. Having finally able to watch “Mirrormask” on DVD recently, I have to say that the end product was a mixed bag for me.

“Mirrormask” tells the story of Helena (Stephanie Leonidas – looking eerily like a young Helena Bonham-Carter) who lives the life of a performer in a traveling circus that her family owns and operates. While other people dream to run away and join the circus, Helena longs to live a more normal life. She spends her time between juggling and other circus work by sketching to escape the boredom that she feels around her. When her mother (Gina McKee) is suddenly stricken with an undisclosed illness and rushed to hospital, her world suddenly is thrown into turmoil as the circus begin to slide into a financial and operational crisis. Helena feels especially guilty as she feels that she was responsible for her mother’s illness as she had exchanged harsh words with her mother just before her mother collapsed.

On the night before her mother’s scheduled operation, Helena falls asleep and drifts into a bizarre dream world seemingly reflecting her inner fears, guilt and turmoil. In this dream-world, Helena meets Valentine (Jason Barry) who is a fellow juggler like her who has just lost his juggling partner due to an attack by a shadow-like wraith. It is from Valentine that Helena learns that the Queen of Light (Gina McKee) who rules this land had fallen into a deep slumber and it was up to her to help release her so that she can return Helena to her world. In order to wake up the Queen of Light, Helena must obtain the Mirrormask charm that was stolen by the dark princess who had come to these lands from the domain of the Queen of Dark (Gina McKee).

Her quest to find the Mirrormask takes her to many wondrous and surreal locations that looks very much like the sketches that she has done in the real world. She also begins to unravel the mystery of what had happened to the Queen of Light and realizes that the Princess of Dark is actually a doppelganger version of herself who seems to have taken her place in the real world. She learns that the Princess, like herself, was bored with life in the Dark Kingdom and wanted to escape it all by replacing Helena with herself in the real world. Helena would later find herself captured by the Queen of Dark who wants to convert her into a copy of the daughter to replace the one that she herself had lost.

With the help of Valentine and other assorted characters that she encounters in her quest, Helena was able to free herself from the Queen of Dark and retrieve the Mirrormask charm. With the charm in hand, she was able to return herself and the Princess of Dark to their own respective places before the switch became irreversible. Helena returns to the real world a changed person with more appreciation of her life and her parents after the life changing experience that she when through in her dream world. Fittingly enough, she finds on her return to the real world that her mother had also recovered from her illness and she would have another chance to make things right with her mother. Helena returns to her life and the circus a much happier person and soon would encounter a young man who seems to be a reminiscent of the Valentine whom she shared her quest with in the dream-world.

The storyline in “Mirrormask” is something that a lot of people will be familiar with as it is influenced heavily by “Dark Crystal”, “Labyrinth”, both made earlier by the Jim Henson Company which also made this film, and by “The Wizard of Oz”. The combination of disparate storylines while seemingly ambitious at the onset grinds to a mind numbing crawl in places making the whole seem to move with dream-like speed much like what was happening on screen. Characters spend too much time arguing with others or themselves to really move the action forward that at times the audience wishes that they would just shut up and move on. When the story does start to pickup the pace again, the forward momentum is not sustained long enough before the audience is thrown into another long exposition scene.

It is a good thing that “Mirrormask” is such a visual feast to indulge in between the long narrative scenes. Dave McKean’s art has always had a 3-demensional feel to it in the printed medium that translated beautifully to the CGI rendered scenery that makes up most of the dream world. Helena’s dream-world is filled with surrealistic representations of people and places that exist in her real world which include memorable images like human-face cat sphinxes, flying fishes and gigantic floating figures locked in permanent embrace. The look of the film is definitely something that sets it apart from any other that came before it and it is amazing to see how much they have done with very little money since the reported budget for the whole movie was a relatively measly USD4 million compare to other US film productions.

There is a wealth of supplementary material on the DVD release of “Mirrormask”. The one that I found most interesting as a fan of their work is the feature length commentary included in this widescreen presentation. Both Gaiman and McKean talk at length about their experiences planning and making the film. They also provide quite a few technical description about how they created the images on screen and the limitations that they ran into with the limited budget. This fairly descriptive commentary track should be enjoyed after viewing the movie for the first time as it does delve into the secrets on how they made the beautiful CGI scenes.

“The Making of Mirrormask” featurettes is comprised of eight different segments. Each can be played separately or you can utilize the handy “play all” feature. The segments include an interviews with Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean on their background and how they came together to make the movie. We also see the behind the scenes story about how the Jim Henson Company became involved with the production of this movie after the success of the DVD releases of their earlier “Dark Crystal” and “Labyrinth” movie. We also get a segment on the cast and crew of the movie talking about their experiences making the movie.

We also get 3 segments that focus on the production effort of making the movie. One that I found interesting was the “Production day 16” featurettes that used a split-screen to show the finished product on one side and the production activities that was involved on the day of filming that sequence as captured in fast motion. The notes included really highlights just how much effort it took to make the short sequence work. The other 2 production segment focuses on the creation of the Monkeybird segment seen later in the movie as well as the floating giants from the two of the more memorable scenes in the movie. As in the previous production day segment, there are no narrative going through these 3 featurettes but they do have a jazzy musical score accompanying the segment.

The featurettes conclude with “Questions and Answers” in which we see both Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean answering questions from fans about “Mirrormask”. Most of the questions came from their Mirrormask panel discussion at the San Diego Comicon (one of the biggest comics convention in the world) as well as from an early presentation of the finished filmed in the US. Both seemed clearly comfortable in front of their adoring fans and answered each questions with their own unique wit and style. While this segment may not appeal to all, fans of the pair would appreciate the featurettes as it gives them an insight on the real Neil Gaiman and Dave McKean that they have only seen before in the printed medium.

The special effects, awe – inspiring images and massive use of CGI is certainly a curious spectacle in “Mirrormask”. The story about the stress in the young girl’s life seeping into her dream world when she experiences a life changing lesson is reasonable, but not consistently compelling or particularly original. The mileage on the wealth of supplemental material on the DVD might depend on how much of a fan the viewer is with the pairs work and how much they are interested in the production of film that they have watched. “Mirrormask” is a mixed bag in terms of trying to recommend it as you can either like it or hate it with a vengeance. Like in Helena’s dream world, the grey areas are often too blurry to care.

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Movie Review: Underworld - Evolution

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A general rule of thumb for Hollywood movie sequels seems to be that the sequel must have a combination of more action, more nudity or more villains. In “Underworld: Evolution” we get all three components in good measure packaged in a frenetic presentation that was heavy on the action and very light on the logical narration. While it was more energetic that it’s 2004 “Underworld” predecessor, “Underworld: Evolution” provided nothing new to what could potentially be an interesting premise if done correctly. Although fans of the first movie might welcome this addition to the franchise, casual viewers could be put-off by the dense narrative and ambiguous character conflicts/motivations.

After an extended flashback sequence that gives the back story of the new characters that we will be seeing in this sequel, the film opens with the vampire Selene (Kate Beckinsale) and her vampire/lycan (werewolf) hybrid lover Michael (Scott Speedman) in an undisclosed Eastern European location. They are both on the run from the her old vampire coven thanks to the events of the last installment of the movie which at the beginning on this movie just happened a few days (or weeks) earlier. Despite the certainty that their presence will surely be detected, the fugitives enters a vampire coven safehouse in their location to rest and rearm while Michael struggles to comprehend and control his new powers as a half-vampire, half-werewolf hybrid.

After an encounter with the local lawmen, the couple finds themselves pursued by Marcus (Tony Curran). Marcus, the progenitor of all Vampires, was recently reawaken as another vampire/lycan hybrid after drinking the blood of the lycan killed by Viktor (Bill Nighy) on top of his crypt in the last movie. Learning what had happened from the blood memories of the lycan he drank from, Marcus proceeded to kill Kraven (Shane Brolly) whose thirst for power precipitated the events that led to his premature awakening and to preempt Kraven’s plan to assassinate him. It is also from their blood that Marcus learns about Selene who unknowingly holds the secret of the location of where his twin brother, William (Brian Steele) who was his counterpart as the progenitor of the Lycan nation, was being imprisoned as seen in the flashback sequence in the beginning of the film.

Barely escaping a vicious pre-dawn attack by Markus, Selene and Michael seeks refuge in an conveniently abandoned warehouse where Selene starts to recall vague images from her past after seeing the amulet that Marcus was after. The amulet, which was given to Michael by the Lycan leader from the last movie, was actually part of a key to the prison where William was held and that Selene’s father was part of the team that was commissioned by the vampires to build the prison. This realization further motivates Selene and Michael to find out more about the key and the mysteries behind Selene’s family involvement. To do that, they would have to journey to seek out Arnaud Tanis (Steven Mackintosh) who is the vampire coven’s archivist who may have the clue of the location of the prison that Selene is seeing in her flashbacks.

After another bout of gunfire and bloody fighting with the werewolf guards who protected Tanis’s lair, the fugitives persuaded Tanis to tell them the whole history behind the prison and the key components that Marcus would need to open it to release his twin brother William. Tanis proceeded to point the pair to another mysterious figure that have been operating in the background who currently hold the other half of the key needed to complete the key combination. As Selene and Michael leaves to find the mysterious figure that Tanis told them about, Marcus pays Tanis a visit looking for the same information. Unfortunately for Tanis, Marcus is less reluctant to use terminal force that the uninvited visitors who came earlier to get the information that Tanis has.

Acting on the tip-off from Tanis, Selene and Michael seeks out the mysterious player in the vampire versus lycan conflict only to find that the person acting behind the scenes is actually Alexander Corvinus (Derek Jacobi) who is the immortal human who fathered both Marcus and William. Alexander have been cleaning after both his sons in a way by making sure that no evidence is left behind after each vampire/lycan encounter that has been happening in the hundred of years both night covens have been in existence. It was during the cleanup after the death of Viktor that he came across the other half of the key component that Marcus needed to free his twin from his eternal prison. Sure enough that Marcus does come crashing to retrieve the completed key now that both halves were brought together in the same place.

With the completed key in his possession, the film quickly moves ahead to the climatic ending on the site of William’s place of eternal incarceration. It is sufficient to say that the climatic fight is as bullet-filled and gory as the rest of the action scenes we’ve seen thus far but now ramped up further a few notches in the frenetic energy quotient. There are a few cheap plot twist that happened proceeding to the climatic battle to set up Selene as being Marcus’s equal after the audience have been told before that both Selene and Michael had no chance to bringing Marcus and William down by themselves. The film finally resolves itself after 106 minutes of running time but not before pulling a throwback final scene not unlike the one we saw at the end for the last “Terminator” movie.

Visually “Underworld: Evolution” shares the same dark and cold color palate as it’s predecessor. Most of the scene were filmed in a bluish-metallic tint and dark shadows which made more sense in the urban environment of the first film than it does in the Eastern European environment in this outing. Most of the small details looked washed out in the eternal twilight that this film seems to revel in with the exception of the icy-blue eyes that Selene sports when every she gets angry at something (which is most of the time she is on screen). The drab and dreary background does however help to impressively frame the explosion of color from the gunshots and the gore that ensues with each action sequence.

Kate Beckinsale, reprising the role that have made her the latest entry into the anti-hero famme fatale category, returns with the same icy numb exterior that we saw in the last movie. She does get to do some actually acting during the plot twist towards the end of the movie but for most of the time she is content to deliver stiff poses while she is blowing everything else to kingdom come. It was also no different for a returning Scott Speedman who seems to be in the movie just to show how good he looks shirtless and not much else given that the storyline of his character struggling with his new powers was dropped so early in the film. Good news is that both characters do get naked in a love scene that happens in between them getting chased by Marcus. Bad news is that we don’t get to see that in the local cinemas as the scene was obviously one of the many cuts made by the Malaysian Censorship Board.

Tony Curran’s Marcus suffers most from a less than imposing looking human form to make the character believable as a strong foil to the icy Selene. This might be the reason why his character spends most of his time looking like the creature from “Jeepers Creepers”. With enough rubber prosthetics and low lights, anyone can be scary. Add to this the almost incomprehensible motivation that was driving this character, it made for a fairly weaker villain than the one that Selene had to face in the first film. Finally, Derek Jacobi brings an element of class to the proceedings (and does so without overacting, a seeming impossibility in an endeavor like this). His presence is a welcomed breath of fresh air even if his screen time is too limited.

One of the thing that I hated most about this sequel was the near absence of any semblance of a storyline involving the lycan tribe. The interaction between the two night tribes, the vampire and the lycans, was the main point that sold the first movie for me. This idea that both vampire and lycans existed in the same universe and in fact share a common heritage was a novel one to me and I would have been happier if they decided to explore more of that idea in this sequel. Instead, we get lycans reduced to petty chained bodyguards or the mindless beast that contributed nothing to the lycan’s side of the story. While the first “Underworld” movie gave us a balanced representation of these two night tribes, this sequel seems content to only tell the story from the view point of the vampire clan.

If there was one thing that this film has going for it, I would say that it has to be the CGI and action scenes. CGI production values looked fairly polish and acceptable for a movie of this pedigree. The action scenes were exciting and energetic enough to sustain interest in the movie if one does not concern themselves too much with the convoluted narrative mess happening in between the action scenes. “Underworld: Evolution” seems to have upped the ante in terms of the amount of gore that we see in the action sequences compared to the previous installment. If a character wasn’t getting chunks of their flesh blown away in a hail of bullets, then the character would either be skewered by Marcus’s bat talons, have their heads pop off from their shoulders or have their jaws wrenched apart in a fight.

“Underworld: Evolution” is purely mindless entertainment for those who liked the first movie. Those who have not seen the first movie would be hard pressed to follow the dense narrative that they try to fit in between the chaotic fight scenes. Ultimately the movie doesn’t add much of the interesting premise that they started in the first movie which is very unfortunate as there are still a lot of stories left to explore in it.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Trailer Review : X3 – The Last Stand (Theatrical Trailer 2)

(picture curtesy of

I last wrote about the upcoming summer release of the new X-Men movie way back in Dec 2005 when they first released the announcement trailer. In that particular entry, I made some educated guesses about the plot of the movie based on the material that was included in the first trailer and my reading of at least 16 years worth of X-Men comics. Some of the points that I listed back then have even been confirmed to be true based on what I was able to find out from the fan sites on the Net.

For almost 3 months, that announcement trailer was the only trailer that they had for the X-Men until they recently release the theatrical trailer for the movie last Monday in the US. Thanks to a high definition QuickTime version of the trailer from the website and a fairly bit of free time on my hands today, I was able to review the trailer frame by frame and jot down a few notes that I was able to glean from this new trailer to add to what I already documented in my previous entry on this subject.

Of course I have to stress again that the following speculations are my own and may not reflect what would actually be in the film. Since some of the information below might be a bit spoiler-ish for those who have not been following any of the X-Men comics, you may want to skip them altogether if you don’t want to spoil your movie going experience.

This latest trailer can be viewed here.


- They have confirmed the full title for the movie will be “X3 – The Last Stand”

- The full X-Men team this time around will consist of Storm, Colossus, Rogue, Iceman, Wolverine, Shadowcat and Beast (at least in the climatic battle).

- It is not clear if Cyclops will be fighting along side the team as he is not shown in the final battle. He does however appear in earlier scenes at Alkali Lake where they found Jean resurrected after the events of the last movie. The obvious omission of Cyclops in the final battle is ominous given the rumors that a major character will (again) die in this installment. Whether or not Cyclops does die in this movie is still just speculations but it does make a valid motivation for Jean to turn to the dark side.

- I mistakenly speculated that the scenes involving Alkali Lake will come early in the movie. Based on this new trailer, I think that Alkali Lake will turn up towards the beginning of the 2nd act of this movie.

- There seem to be a love triangle happening between Iceman, Rogue and Shadowcat. Rogue’s powers continue to limit her relationship with Iceman causing me to believe that she grows more despondent in the movie when she finds out how much closer Shadowcat and Iceman was becoming. This could be the motivation that would lead her to consider the cure that the humans were offering to the mutants.

- My speculation about a cure for the mutant condition has been confirmed in this trailer. The cure was said to be able to repress the mutant genes permanently and in effect neutralize a mutant’s abilities.

- Mystique informs Magneto that the cure was derived from another mutant named Leech. In the comics, Leech was a young mutant who had the ability to temporarily dampen any superpower ability within a specific radius around him. Once outside of the range of Leech’s ability, those powers will return immediately. It has been speculated that Leech has the potential to be able to neutralize powers as he grows older but this has not been seen in the comics yet.

- In the comics, Leech has green skin and an amphibian appearance. In the movie, Leech is a bald Caucasian boy which I guess would be easier for the makeup dept.

- Calisto tells Magneto about a mutant more powerful than him. This might be referring to the return on Jean Grey as the Phoenix.

- Phoenix surfaces from beneath Alkali Lake in a burst of what seems to look like water and fire. I do hope to see a full phoenix effect when we first see Jean Gray return from the dead. In the comics, Phoenix burst out from the depths of the Caribbean after the team crash-lands there from a battle in an orbiting space station.

- The floating Cyclops glasses and the rocks behind Wolverine when he finds the newly resurrected Jean Gray suggest that she is more powerful than she was before and does not have full control of her abilities. Dire warnings from Xavier further enforces the idea that the Phoenix was dangerous.

- We get to see the Angel in flight in this trailer. The wings looked believable in action but we still don’t get a close-up of the wings. I can’t tell if they use full CG or a physical prop for the wings from the scenes in the trailer.

- The line “Fury that this world has never witness” delivered by Magneto seemed to be attributed to Jean Grey as she stood beside him. This might foreshadow the power of her Dark Phoenix aspect of her now fractured personality.

- Among the other mutants in Magneto’s group as they moved across the bridge were Jean Grey, Juggernaut, Pyro, Calisto, Quill and Archlight. We get to see a bit of Archlight’s powers when she released her shockwave attack from her hands in the trailer.

- In the comics, Quill is much younger, had darker skin and non-retractable quills on his body. In the movie it seems that Quill is of Asian descent and is able to retract his quills at will.

- The climatic battle between the X-Men and Magneto’s band of mutants seems to be at some type of power plant. It seems that the X-Men will be fighting along side some military types given the numbers that they would be facing.

- Pyro is seen wearing an new harness underneath his civilian clothes that allows him to generate the flames that he need to control. I suspect that he now has mini flame throwers/lighters attached to his wrists to start the fires instead of using his lighter that we last seen in the previous installment. As per the comics and the last movie, Pyro can only control the flames around him but is unable to generate the fires himself.

- We also see Juggernaut’s strength as he dashes through walls chasing after Shadowcat who phase herself through them. I still think that the movie’s Juggernaut is smaller than I would expect the character to be. The costume that the X3 Juggernaut is wearing is reminiscent to his costume in the “Ultimate X-Men” series.

- There is a scene where both Xavier and Magneto is in the same room with Jean Grey. The Phoenix was using her powers to lift Xavier from his wheelchair while Magneto lay crumpled at the far end of the room. I suspect that both came to plead their case with her but it seems that it ended badly.

- Of all of the scene in this new trailer, the one that is stumping me the most is the one towards the end where we see a dark haired, blue eyes and naked women falling to the floor. I have no idea who she is and how she fits into the story.
(update 9/03/2006 - found out this morning that this woman is actually a depowered Mystique)

- At the end of this trailer, Jean pleads with Logan to kill her. It looks like that she is aware of what is happening to her and this request echoes the same request that she made in the comics at the end of the classic “Dark Phoenix Saga” storyline.

“X-Men : The Last Stand” is scheduled to be released worldwide on 26 May 2006.

Update : Latest thoughts on the TV spots released in Apr 2006 can be viewed here.

Friday, March 03, 2006

2006 Oscars Watch

Just in time for the Oscars.

I’ve seen most of the films nominated this year (aside of the final few categories involving the documentaries that you can hardly get locally) so most of my picks listed below are from my own personal opinion. I have to admit that some of my picks were influenced by what I have read on the net and in magazines but I’m fairly certain these choices represent the popular choice.

I really want to have “Brokeback Mountain” to win all the categories that film is nominated but I have a feeling that won’t happen this year as the other nominees in some of the categories are really hard to beat. The only sure thing that I think will happen on Oscar night would be that “King Kong” would roll over everyone in the technical categories.

The rest is still up in the air which makes this year’s Oscar something worth while to look forward to.

Nick’s Picks -
(6/3/2006 - updated with the winners list)

Best Motion Picture of the Year

Brokeback Mountain - Diana Ossana, James Schamus
Capote - Caroline Baron, William Vince, Michael Ohoven
Crash - Paul Haggis, Cathy Schulman
Good Night, and Good Luck. - Grant Heslov
Munich - Steven Spielberg, Kathleen Kennedy, Barry Mendel

Nick’s pickBrokeback Mountain - Diana Ossana, James Schamus
Winner - Crash - Paul Haggis, Cathy Schulman

Best Performance by an Actor in a Leading Role

Philip Seymour Hoffman for Capote
Terrence Howard for Hustle & Flow
Heath Ledger for Brokeback Mountain
Joaquin Phoenix for Walk the Line
David Strathairn for Good Night, and Good Luck.

Nick’s pick - Philip Seymour Hoffman for Capote
Winner - Philip Seymour Hoffman for Capote

Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role

Judi Dench for Mrs. Henderson Presents
Felicity Huffman for Transamerica
Keira Knightley for Pride & Prejudice
Charlize Theron for North Country
Reese Witherspoon for Walk the Line

Nick’s pick - Felicity Huffman for Transamerica
Winner - Reese Witherspoon for Walk the Line

Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role

George Clooney for Syriana
Matt Dillon for Crash
Paul Giamatti for Cinderella Man
Jake Gyllenhaal for Brokeback Mountain
William Hurt for A History of Violence

Nick’s pick - Matt Dillon for Crash
Winner - George Clooney for Syriana

Best Performance by an Actress in a Supporting Role

Amy Adams for Junebug
Catherine Keener for Capote
Frances McDormand for North Country
Rachel Weisz for The Constant Gardener
Michelle Williams for Brokeback Mountain

Nick’s pick - Michelle Williams for Brokeback Mountain
Winner - Rachel Weisz for The Constant Gardener

Best Achievement in Directing

George Clooney for Good Night, and Good Luck.
Paul Haggis for Crash
Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain
Bennett Miller for Capote
Steven Spielberg for Munich

Nick’s pick - Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain
Winner - Ang Lee for Brokeback Mountain

Best Writing, Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen

Crash - Paul Haggis, Robert Moresco
Good Night, and Good Luck. - George Clooney, Grant Heslov
Match Point - Woody Allen
The Squid and the Whale - Noah Baumbach
Syriana - Stephen Gaghan

Nick’s pick - Crash - Paul Haggis, Robert Moresco
Winner - Crash - Paul Haggis, Robert Moresco

Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material Previously Produced or Published

Brokeback Mountain - Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana
Capote - Dan Futterman
The Constant Gardener - Jeffrey Caine
A History of Violence - Josh Olson
Munich - Tony Kushner, Eric Roth

Nick’s pick - Brokeback Mountain - Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana
Winner - Brokeback Mountain - Larry McMurtry, Diana Ossana

Best Achievement in Cinematography

Batman Begins - Wally Pfister
Brokeback Mountain - Rodrigo Prieto
Good Night, and Good Luck. - Robert Elswit
Memoirs of a Geisha - Dion Beebe
The New World - Emmanuel Lubezki

Nick’s pick - Brokeback Mountain - Rodrigo Prieto
Winner - Memoirs of a Geisha - Dion Beebe

Best Achievement in Editing

Cinderella Man - Daniel P. Hanley, Mike Hill
The Constant Gardener - Claire Simpson
Crash - Hughes Winborne
Munich - Michael Kahn
Walk the Line - Michael McCusker

Nick’s pick - Crash - Hughes Winborne
Winner - Crash - Hughes Winborne

Best Achievement in Art Direction

Good Night, and Good Luck. - James D. Bissell, Jan Pascale
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire - Stuart Craig, Stephanie McMillan
King Kong - Grant Major, Dan Hennah, Simon Bright
Memoirs of a Geisha - John Myhre, Gretchen Rau
Pride & Prejudice - Sarah Greenwood, Katie Spencer

Nick’s pick - King Kong - Grant Major, Dan Hennah, Simon Bright
Winner - Memoirs of a Geisha - John Myhre, Gretchen Rau

Best Achievement in Costume Design

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - Gabriella Pescucci
Memoirs of a Geisha - Colleen Atwood
Mrs. Henderson Presents - Sandy Powell
Pride & Prejudice - Jacqueline Durran
Walk the Line - Arianne Phillips

Nick’s pick - Memoirs of a Geisha - Colleen Atwood
Winner - Memoirs of a Geisha - Colleen Atwood

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Score

Brokeback Mountain - Gustavo Santaolalla
The Constant Gardener - Alberto Iglesias
Memoirs of a Geisha - John Williams
Munich - John Williams
Pride & Prejudice - Dario Marianelli

Nick’s pick - Munich - John Williams
Winner - Brokeback Mountain - Gustavo Santaolalla

Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures, Original Song

Hustle & Flow - Jordan Houston, Cedric Coleman, Paul Beauregard "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp"
Crash - Michael Becker, Kathleen York "In the Deep"
Transamerica - Dolly Parton "Travelin' Thru"

Nick’s pick - Transamerica - Dolly Parton "Travelin' Thru"
Winner - Hustle & Flow - Jordan Houston, Cedric Coleman, Paul Beauregard "It's Hard Out Here For a Pimp"

Best Achievement in Makeup

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - Howard Berger, Tami Lane
Cinderella Man - David LeRoy Anderson, Lance Anderson
Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith - Dave Elsey, Annette Miles

Nick’s pick - Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith - Dave Elsey, Annette Miles
Winner - The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - Howard Berger, Tami Lane

Best Achievement in Sound

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - Terry Porter, Dean A. Zupancic, Tony Johnson
King Kong - Christopher Boyes, Michael Semanick, Michael Hedges, Hammond Peek
Memoirs of a Geisha - Kevin O'Connell, Greg P. Russell, Rick Kline, John Pritchett
Walk the Line - Paul Massey, Doug Hemphill, Peter F. Kurland
War of the Worlds - Andy Nelson, Anna Behlmer, Ron Judkins

Nick’s pick - King Kong - Christopher Boyes, Michael Semanick, Michael Hedges, Hammond Peek
Winner - King Kong - Christopher Boyes, Michael Semanick, Michael Hedges, Hammond Peek

Best Achievement in Sound Editing

King Kong - Mike Hopkins, Ethan Van der Ryn
Memoirs of a Geisha - Wylie Stateman
War of the Worlds - Richard King

Nick’s pick - King Kong - Mike Hopkins, Ethan Van der Ryn
Winner - King Kong - Mike Hopkins, Ethan Van der Ryn

Best Achievement in Visual Effects

The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe - Dean Wright, Bill Westenhofer, Jim Berney, Scott Farrar
King Kong - Joe Letteri, Brian Van't Hul, Christian Rivers, Richard Taylor
War of the Worlds - Pablo Helman, Dennis Muren, Randy Dutra, Daniel Sudick

Nick’s pick - King Kong - Joe Letteri, Brian Van't Hul, Christian Rivers, Richard Taylor
Winner - King Kong - Joe Letteri, Brian Van't Hul, Christian Rivers, Richard Taylor

Best Animated Feature Film of the Year

Corpse Bride - Tim Burton, Mike Johnson
Howl’s Moving Castle - Hayao Miyazaki
Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit - Steve Box, Nick Park

Nick’s pick - Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit - Steve Box, Nick Park
Winner - Wallace & Gromit in The Curse of the Were-Rabbit - Steve Box, Nick Park

Best Foreign Language Film of the Year

Don’t Tell - Cristina Comencini (Italy)
Joyeux Noël - Christian Carion (France)
Paradise Now - Hany Abu-Assad (Palestine)
Sophie Scholl – The Final Days - Marc Rothemund (Germany)
Tsotsi - Gavin Hood (South Africa)

Nick’s pick - Paradise Now - Hany Abu-Assad (Palestine)
Winner - Tsotsi - Gavin Hood (South Africa)

Best Documentary, Features

Darwin's Nightmare - Hubert Sauper
Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room - Alex Gibney, Jason Kliot
March of the Penguins - Luc Jacquet, Yves Darondeau
Murderball - Henry Alex Rubin, Dana Adam Shapiro
Street Fight - Marshall Curry

Nick’s pickMarch of the Penguins - Luc Jacquet, Yves Darondeau
Winner - March of the Penguins - Luc Jacquet, Yves Darondeau

Best Documentary, Short Subjects

God Sleeps in Rwanda - Kimberlee Acquaro, Stacy Sherman
A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin - Corinne Marrinan, Eric Simonson
The Life of Kevin Carter - Dan Krauss
The Mushroom Club - Steven Okazaki

Nick’s pick – nil because I've seen none of the titles nominated
Winner - A Note of Triumph: The Golden Age of Norman Corwin - Corinne Marrinan, Eric Simonson

Best Short Film, Animated

Badgered - Sharon Colman
The Moon and the Son - John Canemaker, Peggy Stern
The Mysterious Geographic Explorations of Jasper Morello - Anthony Lucas
9 - Shane Acker
One Man Band - Mark Andrews, Andrew Jimenez

Nick’s pick – nil because I've seen none of the titles nominated
Winner - The Moon and the Son - John Canemaker, Peggy Stern

Best Short Film, Live Action

The Runaway - Ulrike Grote
Cashback - Sean Ellis, Lene Bausager
The Last Farm - Rúnar Rúnarsson, Þórir Snær Sigurjónsson
Our Time Is Up - Rob Pearlstein, Pia Clemente
Six Shooter - Martin McDonagh

Nick’s pick – nil because I've seen none of the titles nominated
Winner - Six Shooter - Martin McDonagh