Friday, November 28, 2008

Struggling for an ember of hope – City of Ember

Adopted from a best-selling children book, the plot is not quite novel for adult audience: The Earth environment is heavily damaged, so that mankind decided to hide in an underground city for 200 yrs, waiting for the Earth to heal herself. However, after 200 yrs, ppl have forgotten the thing of returning to the surface, until two teenagers found the secret and saved the world.

If you are willing to invest enough money and time, this story could actually be the next “Lord of the Rings” series. But the movie company simply did not wanna take the risk. So the result turns to be more like a teenager version of “Chronicles of Riddick”, or we shall call it “Young Indiana Jones & His First Love”?

As the leading roles, Saoirse Ronan and Harry Treadaway appeared to be too “next-door”, i.e., I cannot see anything can be called “pretty” there. Yes pretty face is superficial, but if this is meant to be a teenager movie, it’s expected to be superficial. If it is NOT a teenager movie, then the writers need to put much more effort in polishing there script – there are so many “holes” there!

The special effect is disappointing too. The scene that the three kids are traveling in a “locker-boat” passing through the underground river, it’s an obvious copy-cat from “Indiana Jones” and “Journey to the Centre of the Earth”. Even so, the impression to me is that the figures of the characters are simply “pasted” to the background – seriously, I can see the glue!

Bill Murray is competent in playing the mayor. Sure he is, as an Oscar actor. But is it a big waste for him to act in such an “average” movie?

The season of blockbusters has come, and “City of Ember” can only see the ember of hope in box office now.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Uncle Sam is just an old man now – Body of Lies

The impression I got from this movie, is that US is really an old man now, just like the impression from this global recession.

Russell Crowe’s role as the lead agent is quite annoying. Know nothing, and only do things to suck his own guys, typical manager. And his mid-age man look is just the portrait of the bureaucracy in current US government. If the director just wants us to feel annoyed whenever Russell’s face shown on the screen, then, he is very successful in that point.

Leonardo DiCaprio is one of those rare actors, who owns a face of angel, yet is willing to be trained in hell to portrait a devil. In “Blood Diamond” his South African accent was surprisingly successful, and now in this movie he even learned Arabics! With all his effort in these years, I think it’s time to give him an Oscar now.

Mark Strong is definitely a show stealer. Playing Mani, the head of Jordanian Intelligence Bureau, he brought us a smart, cold-blooded yet charming Arab Knight, reminds me Al Pacino in “Godfather”. With his existence, Russell seems even more miserable.

Saturday, November 15, 2008

And old photo of Mark Wahlberg

Bet you can't recognize this is the guy of "Shooter" and "Max Payne"!
This is an ad photo for the underwear of Calvin Klein back to the time Mark was still a rap singer named "Marky Mark". Time changes soooooo much!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Miserable Bond -- 007: Quantum of Solace

Obviously Daniel Craig is doing a totally different Bond: Endless chasing (on the land, over the river, and even in the sky!), bombing, gunshot fighting, martial fighting, plus a sky diving, we hardly see a “Tuxedo Bond” here, but a wounded man in rags for most of the time. Sometimes we have to remind ourselves that this is a 007 movie, not a Bourne, not an Indiana, not anybody else. (The guy behind Bourne series also worked for Daniel’s two 007 movies so far, no wonder…) God bless someone don’t make Sherlock Holmes to do some kungfu fighting…

It seems that the director wants to show some different aspects of Bond: miseries of the women around him, death of the true friend, etc. But he just did not give Craig enough time or scene to demonstrate the deep sorrow, or he just did not have enough time with the high tension of the speed of the movie?

Make this 007 movie as a sequel of the previous one (Casino Royale) is not quite a good idea, for most of the audience (including me) have already lost track of the casino story. And seems they even want to go on with what ends in this one and make the next one, sounds even more risky for me.

The theme song is quite attractive. Heard that in U.S. the OST even got a better sale than the movie itself…

Monday, November 10, 2008

Relax in Brunei (8) (ending)

As the ending, some facts about Bruneians’ everyday life and travel tips.

Most of Brunei’s fortune comes from the oil. But it’s not true that every Bruneian is a billionaire, or even millionaire. The real “rich guys” are the royals (because of the huge amount of land they own under the monarchy) and a few successful industrialists (most of them are Chinese Bruneians). Normal Bruneians’ life is no different from their Singaporean or Malaysian cousins, except for the following areas:
Education all the way to University (yes, Brunei even got its own university!) is free for all citizens. And if you go to a government clinic, you only need to pay B$1 per visit, no matter what kind of treatment or medicine you got (given that the clinic can offer such treatment/medicine). That’s why with a much lower pay (compared to Singapore, normal ppl’s salary is only about half), Bruneians seem to have an at least roughly equal lifestyle.
Not like Singapore, where private cars are strongly discouraged by COE (a rule in Singapore, that ppl need to bid for COE to own a car, normally 10k to 15k S$, valid for 10 yrs), you only need to pay about B$50 per yr for the road tax plus around B$200 for the insurance, you can buy a Japanese economic car at the price of about B$25k. And since the patrol is so cheap, almost every family in Brunei owns a car, some even got more than one.
If you are a Brunei citizen, the government will give you a piece of land for free when you reach a certain age (normally the legal marriage age). You can use the land for building you own house, doing some small business, or even cultivation. The land can be inherited by your heir/heiress, but you cannot sell it. If you don’t like the land given to you, you can rent another piece from the government, B$5 per year (!!!) for the rental. Normal Bruneian ppl spend B$250k to B$350k to build their own dream house, but with this price, you can hardly buy an 80-sqm flat in from Singapore government (HDB).
Bruneian ppl normally quite respect the royalty, especially the Sultan. He built a lot of public facilities like museum, stadium and traditional handcraft centre for the ppl, and they are all free to the public. So don’t try to “bad-mouth” the Sultan with a Bruneian.

Some travel tips:
1. Wear decent clothes, meaning don’t try to expose your sexy breast, thigh or butt. You will not be arrested even if you do so, and you could still get inside the mosques when you put on the black robe they provide, but most likely you will be politely refused by some restaurants, shops and public buildings. The only exception is when you are doing sports in a gym or swimming, you can wear the sports attires, provided you will change back to “normal” clothes when you step out of the gym or swimming area.
2. If you wanna buy some souvenirs, you will find out that the price are the same all over the country. Difference among the souvenir shops is just the product range. The ones in the airport got some bit high-end stuff, where I bought a quite unique deco – Brunei’s oil!

3. Jerudong Park is out of the sightseeing list of every travel agency in Brunei, and even local taxi driver will tell you that it is a waste of time and money (taxi ride is B$60-70 for return trip from city hotels) to go there. Seems Lonely Planet is kind of out of date here… If you really have half day to kill, try Empire Hotel area instead.

Friday, November 7, 2008

Relax in Brunei (7)

Our last night stayed in Brunei was a “Brunei by Night” tour. Actually we were the only two in the tour, so it became our private package, J.

This tour takes you to the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque and the Jame' Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque so that you can take night-view photos of these two gorgeous buildings, a water taxi drive on the Kampong Ayer (Water Village), a seafood steamboat dinner by the bay, and finally a shopping trip in the night market and the best shopping mall in Brunei – The Mall.

The Jame' Asr Hassanil Bolkiah Mosque (nicknamed “Jame”, pronounced as “jami”) is the biggest mosque among the 103 in Brunei. Built with hundreds of millions of B$ donated by Bruneian ppl, it was sent to the Sultan as a gift, hence it was named after the Sultan (you can find the “Jame' Asr Hassanil Bolkiah” in his long titles). Its location is not quite good – isolated from major shopping and tourism areas, standing by the roadside like a lonely old man. So the best way to visit it is to join a local tour, otherwise you will take the risk that cannot find a taxi to take you back to your hotel!
The night view of Jame is like dream palace:
Jame01 Jame02 Jame03 Jame04 Jame05 Jame06
Every Friday afternoon, the Sultan will pick a mosque to do the pray (as long as he is in Brunei). If he comes to Jame, ppl will open the “Sultan-only” escalator for him, otherwise it is covered by canvas:
Sultan-only escalator

The Water Village (Kampong Ayer) is said to be the oldest and largest in the world now. Hundreds of cottages are connected by planks, and supported by pillars so that they can stand above the water. Within the Water Village, they have their own school, mosque, police station, and even a fire station! Ppl nowadays live in the Water Village also got cars and jobs on the land, only a few of them are still practicing the fishing industry.

To be honest, the water in the bay is both dirty and smelly, because some of the urines of the Water Village are directly expelled to the sea here. Luckily our “dinner by the sea” was in a air-con restaurant, so we could enjoy the night by the bay without any unpleasant smell.

The night market was quite disappointing. Most stalls were selling local vegetables, fruits and Malay snacks. Nothing quite special compared to Singapore.

Melayu Course #3:
"Kampong" means "village", "Ayer" means "water".

Relax in Brunei (6)

The Royal Regalia Building is actually an exhibition hall, which keeps a broad collection of items about the royal family of Brunei.
Me outside Royal Raglia House
The main items include two royal chariots used on the coronation ceremony in 1967 and the jubilee ceremony in 1992, a miniature of the banquet hall in the royal palace, and many gifts for the Sultan from ppl of all around the world.
Royal Chariot
The royal chariot is man-powered by 48 royal guards, and the whole parade consists of other dozens of guards and a band playing traditional Malay instruments.

The Empire Hotel & Resort is the latest pride of Brunei. Currently a 5-star one, it is targeting 7-star rating so that Brunei can catch up with Dubai.
All hotel rooms are with sea-view balconies, and the whole “Empire” also contains some resort villa, a country club and a 18-hole golf court.
Empire Hotel 02
The miniature of Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque in the lobby. Amazing crystal lamp!
Crystal Camel
The treasure of Empire, the crystal camel. Made of one whole piece of natural crystal, it’s valued over B$250,000.
Swimming pool of Empire Hotel Empire Hotel 04
The “swimming pool” is actually a series of pools that all with the view of South China Sea.
Empire Hotel 06
The main building of the hotel is located on a small bay with beautiful (I guess artificial) beach.
Empire Hotel 05 Empire Hotel 03
The interior decoration of the hotel lobby looks like a “show-off”. Dozens of huge marble pillars give you a feeling that how trivial you are.
Another highlight of the hotel is the brunch buffet they serve during weekends. The price is B$44 per person, not quite a bargain, but you can get a taste of many extraordinary French-style desserts and cakes, also other “regular” stuff like oyster, sashimi, sushi, etc.
The Empire is in the Jerudong area, so not quite convenient for sight-seeing or shopping. But inside it has the country club, a lot of sports utilities, beautiful beach, a shopping gallery (expect some nice handicrafts, but not cheap), and even a cinema and a library! So it’s ideal for a 3D2N pure relaxing trip. And the price is quite reasonable for a 5-star beach resort: normal rooms are less than B$300 per night, and even further discounts from time to time.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Relax in Brunei (5)

The trip to the Brunei Museum was full of “surprises”.

This time we decided to try the bus. A free shuttle bus took us from the hotel to Yayasan. When we were looking for the bus interchange, a local guy volunteered to take us there (it was a 10-min walk in the city blocks, not easy for a foreigner), and then just left before we could even say “Thank you”!

The bus interchange is quite worn out, same as the adjacent buildings. The buses are small purple ones which could contain around dozen of ppl. While we were waiting for the bus (No. 39), a local tour guide told us that the museum was closed for the morning because of some event. But at that time we really had no “plan B”, so still boarded the bus (after about half-hour’s waiting) and headed to the museum.

Actually there was an exhibition about the Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque held in the museum, in memory of the 50th anniversary of the mosque. One of the sons of the Sultan attended (not sure if it was the Crown Prince), so there were a lot of police, VIPs, guards, etc. We only took a photo of the museum from quite a distance:
Brunei Museum
(See the black Benz’s? The plate numbers are sequential, should be for the royal members and government officials.)

We actually entered the museum before it was officially re-opened. So for about one hour’s time, we were the only visitors inside. The first hall we visited was full of extraordinary south-eastern Asian style antiques, like weapons, jewelry, home appliance, etc. But there was a soldier (not guard or police, real army man!) was “accompanying” us all the time, quite uncomfortable.

The second hall was an introduction to the oil industry in Brunei. We got to know that all the gas consumed in Brunei is locally produced. Now you know why it’s so cheap!

A series of halls show the history of Brunei, especially the chronicles of the current monarchy. Good self-study materials.

Photo-taking is not allowed inside the museum (and all other museums and mosques in Brunei). I only took a photo with the Sultan …’s picture in the lobby:
Me and the Sultan

As mentioned before, we took a ride on the MPV of a lady delivering lunch to the museum to go back to the Bandar, free of charge!

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Relax in Brunei (4)

The best place to take photos for Omar is the Yayasan shopping centre area. This shopping centre consists of four buildings embracing one square. Many tourists will take photos of Omar right at the centre of the square. The shopping centre was one of the biggest ones in the last few years of 20th century, but now is just another shopping centre…
Yayasan shopping centre 01 Yayasan shopping centre 02

One thing quite interesting about the shops in Brunei is, for every signboard in the streets, you can find the names of the shops in Arabic characters.

But actually only few Bruneians can understand Arabic. Most of them can just read it out but don’t know what they are reading…

Also took a photo of the huge signboard about the Sultan:
Photo of Sultan

Once a protectorate of Britain, there are still some signs of history in Brunei:

Melayu course #2:
“jalan” means both the action “walk” and the noun “road”. So “Jalan Elizabeth 2” is “Road Elizabeth II”, a very common road name in Commonwealth countries.

Actually Brunei is not all “bling-bling”. Some streets in Bandar, like the ones around the Bus Interchange, are also worn-out, just like those ones in Malacca, Penang, etc.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Relax in Brunei (3)

The town centre of Bandar Seri Begawan is the “Bandar”. It’s an ancient port, with history tracing back to the Age of Discovery. “Seri Begawan” is a royal title to the sultan (BTW the titles of the sultans and queens can be as long as more than 15 words in English!), so the name of the capital can be roughly translated as “Sultan’s Port”. Nowadays Bandar is a centre of tourism interests in Brunei.

The Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin Mosque is probably the most famous building to the world in Brunei.
Omar01 Omar02 Omar03 Omar04
This mosque is dedicated to the previous Sultan (father to the current Sultan), and “Omar Ali Saifuddin” is his brief name. The architecture style is a mimic of the Taj Mahal, with the main architect and all the white marbles from Italy. It cost more than 60 million Brunei dollars and was finished in 1958. The Bruneians normally called it “Omar”. This year is the 50th anniversary of this mosque, so there are some celebrations within the country. They even re-do the golden plates on all the domes to make it more “shiny”. Unfortunately they did not refresh the water in the pond surrounding the mosque… (The water looks quite dirty now, not like those photos taken for the postcards.)
But the pond is the major characteristic of this mosque, with a stone boat inside. The mosque, the pond, the stone boat and the bridges consist of a unique landmark for Brunei.
The mosque is open to public during the daytime (except for the praying sessions). Ladies need to wear the black robes provided by the mosque, so do the gentlemen who wear shorts. So actually you don’t have to wear long sleeves and pants all the day round in Brunei (Although moderate clothing is preferred. Sexy beach babes are not welcomed here.), but during the rainy season (like now!) they ARE quite useful, esp. during nights.
The interior of a mosque is actually quite similar to a Baroque style church: Dome, colored glass windows, the seat for the Imam (priest in Islam) on the top of several steps of stairs… Just here you don’t have any seat for the prayers – everybody kneels down and sits on the carpets (those carpets are protected from touching of the visitors). Since photo-taking is not allowed inside the mosque, I just took a photo for the garden.
Also got some night views for Omar (that’s why I brought tripod this time…):
Omar07 Omar08 Omar09

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Better just music -- "Sing to the Dawn"

This is Singapore local cartoon movie, quite a big thing for this tiny little island country. So I got a gift voucher for it, as part of its promotion. I should say, it brought back to me that some movie can really drive me out of the cinema. It was only because of the periodically played beautiful songs by Kit Chan that kept me in.

The story is childish (actually the whole film is based on a children story book): In an oriental poor village, father ordered the intelligent daughter to drop out and marry the sone of the landlord, so that her brother could get the scholarship to college. Little girl found out the secret of the landlord that could stop him from destroying the village and build up a casino.
The thing is, probably we could believe that there are still such dumb nice guys existed in this world, but it's just not possible that nowadays' villains could be as stupid as the film describes.

The background drawings are very characteristics to the South-Eastern Asia area. So in case someday ppl in Hollywood wanna make a cartoon about a story that happened in this area (e.g., the cartoon version of Tomb Raider?), can consider these nice pictures. But the human figures are both lousy and out of date. Looks like the designers are still in the early 80's. Recent jobs done by Chinese movie makers are much better in this area.