Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Pixar is strong in this one

Wreck-It Ralph
My rating:

As I have previously mentioned, it is not the best of times to be a Pixar fan. A couple of disappointing releases have slightly tarnished its record of knockout successes - slightly, because a disappointing Pixar film is still a pretty good animated family film by all but its own standards. Wreck-It Ralph is not a Pixar release, but it cannot avoid the comparison; it's still a Disney film, and has John Lasseter as an executive producer. More obviously, its premise of videogame characters with inner lives and personalities of their own not only recalls the Toy Story series, but also A Bug's Life, Finding Nemo and Cars - in Pixar's penchant for creating anthropomorphosized, richly-detailed worlds that also provide opportunities for lots and lots of in-jokes. And its 87% score on RottenTomatoes has already trumped Pixar's last two (Brave scored 79%, Cars 2 38%), raising the possibility that perhaps the parent company is beating them at the game they used to rule.

Perhaps. But only because of what they learned from them.

Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) is the villain of the Fix-It Felix, Jr. video game at Litwak's Arcade, and he is not very popular. While Felix (Jack McBrayer) is nightly celebrated by the inhabitants of their gameworld, Ralph doesn't even get invited to their game's 30th anniversary party. Wanting to be a hero for a change, Ralph sneaks into Hero's Duty, a 1st-person-shooter game - in which Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch) is the main character - in order to win a hero's medal. He ends up in Sugar Rush, a kart-racing game, and meets Vanellope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a character with a sad story of her own: she's a "glitch", equally shunned by everyone in her candyland gameworld, and forbidden to participate in the races by King Candy (Alan Tudyk). Ralph and Vanellope partner up to get her in a race and win him his medal, and a friendship grows between the two. But if Ralph isn't in his game, Mr. Litwak will junk their console - and as Felix teams up with Calhoun to find him, they learn that a Cy-Bug monster from Hero's Duty has infected Sugar Rush, thus threatening to destroy two video game worlds.

The trailer prominently features a scene at Bad-Anon, a support group for video game villains, presided by one of the Pac-Man ghosts (Clyde, if you must know) and in which Zangief from Street Fighter, Bowser from Super Mario Bros and Doctor Eggman from Sonic the Hedgehog all make prominent cameos.  It's a hilarious scene, and it encapsulates much of Wreck-It Ralph's appeal: appearances by fan-favourite videogame characters, clever in-jokes, and a commitment to fleshing out the inner worlds of videogames right down to the characters. This is one movie you'll want on Bluray DVD so you can pause and admire all the visual detail - from the tiny cameos by more videogame characters (Chun-Li makes at least two appearances if I recall correctly) to the fact that Game Central Station, the terminal in between game machines, is literally a giant multi-plug socket on the inside.

Which is, of course, exactly what you expect of a Disney animated film, even a non-Pixar one. What matters more is a strong emotional throughline that makes us care about the characters, especially our titular hero. And it's there; on one level, we feel for Ralph when he's unappreciated and ostracised from his own gameworld - but on a deeper level, it's about his need to define himself beyond his assigned label as videogame bad guy. Which is echoed by Vanellope, a malfunctioning character in her game who just wants to participate like the rest of her peers. They go from annoying each other - well, more like Vanellope annoying Ralph - to a deep and heartwarming friendship based on their common desires and helping each other realise them.

It's just... we've seen this kind of thing before. Not just the funny anthropomorphosized world, but also the unlikely-friendship storyline. Two wildly differing characters will meet, bicker, then grow in affection towards each other, only to have a heartbreaking fall out, before reconciling in time for a triumphant climax. It's in the majority of Pixar films, as well as most animated films from other studios as well - in fact, come to think of it, it's the classic romantic comedy formula that goes way back beyond Pixar. Which gives Wreck-It Ralph a been-there-done-that feel that's just a little disappointing. It feels like Walt Disney Animation Studios - through director Rich Moore, and writers Phil Johnston, Jennifer Lee and John Reardon - is trying too hard to make a Pixar-ish film and deliberately aping their formula.

Which isn't to say their formula doesn't still work. The fall out is still effectively sad, as is the triumphant and uplifting climax. The jokes are funny, the action scenes are exciting, and the voice acting is terrific. (I did not recognise Alan Tudyk there.) But I wish the film had spent more time exploring other video games instead of staying in Sugar Rush for most of its second half; the videogame in-jokes are replaced by candy and confectionery in-jokes, most of which I didn't get. And having Felix and Calhoun fall for each other is a subplot that I didn't enjoy; Felix is uninteresting and poorly-defined for all the screentime he gets, and a character like Calhoun is an ill fit as a romantic interest. Lastly, there just isn't much depth here, nothing more emotionally resonant beyond its be-yourself/be-whatever-you-want-to-be message - which is yet another thing that's been done over and over again in animated films.

Am I expecting too much of this movie? Perhaps I am. Thing is, Pixar is (usually) better than this. They don't always recycle the formula, as with The Incredibles and Wall-E. Even when they followed it, they're daring enough to explore new narrative and thematic territory, as with Up and Toy Story 2 and 3. They've raised the bar high enough that a film like this - even as well-crafted and heartfelt as it is - just clears it instead of soaring above it. To be honest, I might even prefer something as ambitiously flawed as Brave than something content to merely be the Pixar film Pixar never made. Guess I'm a Pixar fanboy through and through; I'm still waiting for their next to knock all our socks off.

NEXT REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Expectations: tempered

Monday, December 24, 2012

A life less allegorical

Life of Pi
My rating:

I am afraid I have never read Life of Pi, the novel by Yann Martel. For a while there it was one of those literary sensations that everyone had either read, or were being pressed to read by those who had. One of my friends loved it, even though he'd come to it somewhat late - a couple of years after its 2001 release. But as much as he raved about how good it was, I never got much of an idea what was so good about it exactly. Its fanciful premise of a boy sharing a lifeboat with a menagerie of animals didn't pique my interest. And I guess I was a little snobbish, but I tend to be skeptical of these "you have to read this!" literary sensations du jour. Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code was one of those, which, yeah, blechh.

Good thing for movie adaptations then, so that I only need spend 2 hours watching it rather than a few days reading it.

A Canadian author (Rafe Spall) visits an Indian man named Pi (Irrfan Khan) in Montreal, having heard that he has an amazing story to tell. Born Piscine Molitor Patel in Pondicherry, India, the young Pi (played by Ayush Tandon) grows up in the zoo owned by his family - father (Adil Hussain), mother (Tabu), and elder brother Ravi (Mohamad Abas Khaleeli). He is a spiritually curious child, exploring and adopting aspects of the Hindu, Christian and Muslim faiths. At age 16 (played by Suraj Sharma), his father is forced to sell the zoo and migrate to Canada, travelling on the same cargo ship that is transporting the animals. In a violent storm, the ship capsizes and sinks. Pi is the only survivor, sharing a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan - and an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, who quickly devours the other animals. Boy and beast, stranded at sea together, must come to an uneasy understanding if they are to survive - in a story that, as Pi claims, will make you believe in God.

...aaand it didn't, not for me.TMBF's religious persuasion, if at all I have one, can best be described as agnostic bordering on atheist. Life of Pi did little to change that, even if I am generally open to films with a spiritual viewpoint. This one works best as an adventure story, and a visual-spectacle-heavy one at that. Director Ang Lee is no stranger to special effects, having helmed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hulk, and the eye-popping sights here are enough to make me wish I'd watched this in 3D. The sinking of the ship is spectacularly terrifying, and Pi's encounters with bioluminescent algae are breathtakingly beautiful. The largely-CGI tiger Richard Parker is flawlessly lifelike, and only when you know that PETA never protested this movie would you realise that the tiger - who gets soaked and tossed about the lifeboat and almost drowned - isn't real.

When Life of Pi is an adventure about survival at sea, it's quite enjoyable. Pi's efforts to survive in a 20-foot lifeboat alongside a flesh-eating tiger are fascinating; first he builds himself a makeshift raft on which he can keep away from the tiger's reach, then he has to keep feeding it so that it doesn't just swim over and devour him. Richard Parker starts out as threat, then enemy, then a burden, and finally earns Pi's friendship and affection - but it is always incontrovertibly a wild animal, never a Disneyesque cute anthropomorphic sidekick. Also enjoyable are the early portrayals of Pi's life in India, that include amusing vignettes of how both boy and tiger got their names. Pi's spiritual curiosity as a child lends him the faith he needs to survive his ordeal (and informs one poignant scene in which he kills a living thing, a fish, for the first time), and a lesson his father teaches him about the tiger's animal nature gives him the knowledge he needs to keep them both alive.

It's when Life of Pi tries to be a religious allegory that it gets shaky. The "make you believe in God" part comes at almost the very end, after a late plot twist of the sort that's meant to call into question everything you've seen. And I'm not in the least bit convinced; I'm not even piqued. I can't imagine it persuading anyone to believe in God who isn't already a card-carrying member of a theist faith. (Which probably accounts for the novel's popularity; religious people love it because it affirms what they already believe.) Again, I have no problems with overtly spiritual films or stories per se; if I can accept a reality in which, say, superheroes exist, I can accept a reality in which God exists and is an ineffable omnipresent force in that story's world. But this whole movie builds up towards a six-word line of dialogue that is almost smug in its conviction that it will make a believer out of you - you, the audience. But it just... doesn't... work. 

And it puts into sharp relief all of the film's other weaknesses. The most immediately noticeable is that it's often kinda slow; I rarely felt truly immersed in the story, rather I was always conscious that I was watching a movie and waiting for what happens next. (Although this is usually not a problem of the film's pacing per se, but more its inability to fully capture my interest from early on.) Once that ending comes around however, I also realized how aimless its plot was. At one point during the ocean voyage, they land on an island that turns out to be literally carnivorous - a man-eating island. This is what earns this review the Fantasy label, and not only is it a strange and tonally incongruous plot development, it also adds no support to the proof-of-God allegory. Nor does the childhood sweetheart Pi leaves behind in Pondicherry, or the quirky interludes about Pi's and Richard Parker's names, or even the entire relationship between the boy and the tiger. And for all of Pi's interest in three major religions, there's nothing Hindu, Christian or Islamic about those final six words.

So what we're left with is a gentle, warm-hearted, quirky lost-at-sea adventure story that's heavy on CGI spectacle, but also a little too slowly-paced. It's worth viewing on the big screen in Digital 2D simply for the gorgeous visuals - and yes, again, this is one I wish I'd watched in 3D. But as an allegory that proves the existence of God? Or even as a story that convincingly presents a reality in which God exists? Nope. In fact, its allegory is so unconvincing that I can only ascribe the novel's popularity to the fact that religious people still make up a far greater majority throughout the world than agnostics or atheists. I think most people who loved this book, loved it because it merely affirms what they already believe.

NEXT REVIEW: Wreck-It Ralph
Expectations: man, sure took me long enough

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Even wallflowers can bloom

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
My rating:

So I think I really have become spoiled by the Digital 2D format. Almost every major Hollywood film (and a few Hong Kong and even local ones) are released in this format, and I pretty much exclusively watch Hollywood movies in Digital 2D now. Costs me an extra RM2-3 per ticket, but I reckon it's worth it. Unfortunately, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is not screened here in this format, and I wonder if the fact that it's also being released under the GSC International Screens label has something to do with it. I mention this because the quality of the prints GSC is screening isn't very good at all. There are scratches, as well as infrequent jump cuts that I'm assuming are caused by a not-very-good projectionist switching from one reel to the next on the projector. Which would bring back nostalgic memories of watching movies in good ol' analog, were I the slightest bit nostalgic about crappy obsolete technology.

All that being said, you should still absolutely watch it. In cinemas even. Because it's good.

Charlie (Logan Lerman) is facing the normal everyday indignities of a teenage boy starting high school: nervousness, awkwardness, social introversion, and lack of any friends. Only his English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd) shows him kindness; and though his family - his mom and dad (Kate Walsh and Dylan McDermott) and older sister Candace (Nina Dobrev) - are warm and loving enough, they can't understand what he's going through. But when he meets seniors Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller), he finally finds a place to belong amongst their quirky, insular clique. Patrick is gay and in a secret relationship with closeted football player Brad (Johnny Simmons); Charlie gets a girlfriend in emo goth girl Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), although it is the luminous Sam whom he is head over heels in love with. But through the entire school year, Charlie hides deep-seated emotional problems - possibly related to his beloved Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey) - that threaten to resurface and wreck his life once again.

This film is an adaptation of Stephen Chbosky's 1999 novel of the same name, a bestseller among young teens at that time. And yes, Chbosky also wrote and directed the film; he is an accomplished writer and producer, having co-created the TV series Jericho. I can see why the novel was popular. It's about a lonely and awkward social outcast teenager who falls in amongst a group of equally socially outcast teens, gains self-esteem through their acceptance of who he is, and even finds love. Which can be a far too precious and Mary Sue-ish kind of story, appealing to the most self-absorbed instincts among teenagers (and the teenager in all of us). But this one is good. And what makes it good is a great deal of humour, sensitivity and warmth in the story and characters, as well as a willingness to delve into some pretty dark territory.

But our protagonist is surrounded by good people. He loves all his family members and they him; his teacher encourages his interest in writing by lending him books; and Sam and Patrick extend him their kindness and friendship the minute they learn of his past trauma - that his best friend in junior high committed suicide. Much of the first half is taken up by Charlie becoming part of their circle, experiencing their eclectic tastes in music, their participation in live performances of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and their casual drug use. But as nice as they are to him, they still have their own troubles to deal with, particularly Patrick and Sam - the latter whom is dating a college student, thus thwarting his romantic interest in her. In fact, it's Charlie who ends up doing something stupid and cruel when Mary Elizabeth somehow becomes his girlfriend.   

Because Charlie isn't just a normal awkward teenager - and what drives the story, for the most part, is the question of exactly what ails him. Aside from his friend committing suicide, he also lost his Aunt Helen to a car crash when he was little - but none of these seem to explain his stint in a psychiatric hospital before he started high school, or the "episodes" that Charlie tantalizingly mentions, in the letters he writes to an imaginary friend that serves as the film's ongoing narrative voiceover. It isn't till near the end, when he suffers a final emotional breakdown, that the truth is revealed, in a terrifically gripping scene. The film almost has the structure of a mystery in that sense, with the suspenseful buildup and cathartic revelation of that genre. 

As Emma Watson's first film that isn't part of the Harry Potter series, she acquits herself well. Her role isn't much of a challenge; she just needs to be luminously beautiful, which, well, she is. I'm a lot more impressed with Logan Lerman, whom I thought was terrible in two movies, but who was really good here. Where he was wooden and uncharismatic in popcorn fare, here he successfully plays a confused young man who simply doesn't know how to convey emotion; we're rooting for Charlie all the way, and we dearly want him to snap out of his depression and get the girl. And Ezra Miller is a lot of fun, a comic relief character whose flamboyant personality masks a deeper pain.

It's not a perfect film, to be honest. It occasionally lapses into cliché (do high school seniors really perform random acts of bullying on freshmen for no reason whatsoever?) and contrivances (when your friends have ostracised you after you did something awful, it's pretty convenient to suddenly have the opportunity to come heroically charging to their rescue). But neither of these things define it; what does is the sincerity and sensitivity it employs in telling a very familiar coming-of-age story. For some young viewers in those terribly confusing teenage years, this film may very well be a life-changer. As I bet the novel already was a generation ago.

Expectations: well, it looks really pretty 

Friday, November 30, 2012

Twilight falls on Twilight

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn part 2
My rating:

I said in my review of The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn part 1 that I would defend the entire film series as being not as bad as everyone thinks they are. And believe me, I have heard some very bad things about them. Well, TMBF always (has a tendency to, on occasion, be known to) keeps his promises, so here it is: seriously, they're not all that bad. They're not all that good either, but they're a lot better than the books. Now, granted, I have not actually read Stephenie Meyer's books, but I read plenty of online commentary on them - which also means I had the entire storyline spoiled for me - long before I started watching the movies. And on my objectivity as an amateur film critic, I will attest that the Twilight movies - the movies, not the books - have been muchly unfairly maligned.

And it's certainly easier to attest as such when the last movie happens to be as not bad as it is.

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) has become what she has always wanted to be - a vampire. She is also mother to the newborn Renesmee (Mackenzie Foy), her child with Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson) and a vampire/human hybrid who matures at an accelerated rate. And Renesmee has a guardian in Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner), who has "imprinted" on the child and is bound to her for life. Even as Bella adjusts to her new existence - learning the ropes of being a vampire, raising her daughter, easing the worries of her long-suffering father Charlie (Billy Burke) - trouble brews. The Volturi, led by Aro (Michael Sheen), believe that Renesmee's existence is a violation of vampire law, and are coming to Forks to exact deadly retribution. The Cullens seek help from other vampire covens from around the world, but even though their band is joined by the Quileute werewolves, the Volturi will not be deterred - threatening a bloody battle that many may not survive.

The sole and only reason I am giving this movie a 3-½-star rating is that climactic battle scene. Wouldn't you know, turns out Twilight is at its best when it gives us proper action scenes that acknowledge the awesomeness of vampires vs. werewolves vs. vampires. (I say "acknowledge", because the rest of the time, they sparkle.) That is one big, long and epic battle scene, bigger and longer and epic-er than the last time the Cullens and the Quileutes joined forces against Victoria's army of newborns. That is also a battle scene that does not happen in the original book - and the fact that the plot built up to it only to chicken out at the last minute is one of the biggest complaints against the book. Director Bill Condon and screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg find a way to show us the battle and yet stay true to Meyer's ending. Some may think it a cheat, but I thought it was pretty clever and cool.

Which is exactly what Condon and Rosenberg should have done in adapting the book; and which is exactly what Rosenberg has been doing for five movies now. And these five movies, while never really very good, have been leaps and bounds better than their source material. There's none of Meyer's widely reviled prose; Bella Swan is much more tolerable, even sympathetic, when she's played by a human actor than when she's a first-person narrative stream of incessant self-pity and self-absorption. Kristen Stewart is even quite good in this, displaying more life and energy in her performance than ever before; perhaps Bella is right about the fact that she was born to be a vampire. As a matter of fact, I've never had any problems with Stewart's acting in these movies, and I think there's something sexist and ugly in all the hate she's been getting. Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner sure don't get as much vitriol (and I personally think Lautner is the weakest actor among the three).

And I am certain that Rosenberg and every director on the franchise is fully aware of all the WTFery in Meyer's storyline, and has been doing their best to mitigate it. As much as Meyer's Bella is a spineless, feckless wet rag of a heroine, movie-Bella actually has moments of strength and courage. In Breaking Dawn part 1, Bella insists on keeping the baby that is slowly and gruesomely killing her - and Americans in particular went nuts arguing this is a metaphor for the pro-life side of the abortion debate, because America goes insane over the abortion issue like few other countries do. But Stewart and Rosenberg made it the choice of a young girl that is understandable and consistent with her character, even emphasising her strength of will in holding to that choice despite overwhelming objection from Edward and the Cullens. And then there's the part when Jacob imprinted on the newborn Renesmee - an astonishingly tone-deaf plot development that is unavoidably paedophiliac. But Condon stages the scene as a moment of divine grace, in which Jacob falls to his knees, humbled by the higher power that has transformed his murderous hate into love.

Okay, there's only so much a good screenwriter and director can mitigate that, since they're still hobbled by the need to stay faithful to the books. (If they weren't, I'm sure they'd cut out the whole grown-man-falls-in-love-with-a-baby-and-waits-till-she-conveniently-grows-to-adulthood-super-fast-to-marry-her thing.) In fact, their efforts to make palatable this, the single most insanely stupid thing Meyer has ever written, don't entirely succeed this time. Bella rages at Jacob once she learns of the imprinting, but the scene is played for laughs - and includes the line "You nicknamed my daughter after the Loch Ness Monster?!" that I don't know whether to laugh at or not. It's also very cagy about showing the relationship between Jacob and Renesmee - which, on one hand, is a relief - but on the other, it also means this hybrid human-vampire child, on which the entire plot revolves, is never more than a blank. She has no personality whatsoever; we're only told that everyone loves her, but we're never given any reason why we should.

It doesn't help that when she's a baby, she's this hideous inhuman CGI creation that is the movie's single biggest misstep. Was it too hard to find a real baby?? Whose idea was it to overlay an unnaturally wide-eyed, creepily smiling, computer-generated thing onto a goddamn baby?? Yes, there are things about this movie that that climactic fight scene can't make up for. The small army of sympathetic vampires that join the Cullens include several characters that look interesting, but don't get nearly enough screentime. (Maybe if Rosenberg had cut out that useless fan-pandering scene of Bella and Edward exploring their oh-so-pretty new house...) For all that Stewart tries to play Bella as a stronger-willed person this time round, she still isn't; when Edward credits her for bringing their small army together, it rings hollow. And truth be told, as cool as that fight scene is - made even cooler with the deaths of many long-time characters, and some of those deaths are pretty damn satisfying - there's a distinct sense that it was filmed by a director with little experience making action films.

Still, I pronounce Breaking Dawn part 2 an actually not-bad movie, and I feel no shame in doing so. I still feel the best of the series is Eclipse (no uncanny-valley-plunging CGI baby there, for one thing), but this one's a close second. And I feel no shame in saying the whole series is far from the trainwreck the books are. The first two are definitely the weakest, but the rest does offer some satisfaction for fans of supernatural thrillers, especially of the vampires 'n werewolves variety. (Maybe if you liked the Underworld franchise, but you wanted more Selene/Michael and Sonja/Lucian romance.) In any case, the saga is over; it ends with a credit sequence showing every actor who played every character throughout all five movies, which is pretty cool and a nice ode to fans. I'm not one, and you may never be one either - but give it a try, and you may just find yourself not hating them any more.

NEXT REVIEW: The Perks of Being a Wallflower
Expectations: can't miss a movie like this when it makes it to our screens

Thursday, November 22, 2012

"Best 3D Animated Feature Film" my ass

War of the Worlds: Goliath
My rating:

As soon as I got home from this movie, I Googled the Los Angeles 3D Film Festival straight away. Y'see, these are the guys who named this movie their Best Animated 3D Feature Film, beating out nominees that included major Hollywood releases such as ParaNorman and Madagascar 3. From what I can tell from their website, their raison d'etre is, indeed, the 3D film medium, the promotion of such, and the defense against any intimation that it's just a fad whose time will pass. So I'm guessing here that their idea of "best", when it comes to giving out their awards (and I have not been able to find out who their judges were - if they had any), refers to the purely technical quality of their 3D effects. And since I didn't watch this movie in 3D, I guess I missed out on its international-award-winning qualities.

Because by every other standard of filmmaking, War of the Worlds: Goliath suuuucks.

In 1899, the Martians attacked Earth - but were defeated by infections from the bacteria in our air. Fifteen years later, our technology has improved by leaps and bounds due to reverse-engineering the Martian war machines. As a child, Eric Wells (Peter Wingfield) witnessed the death of his parents during the first invasion; now he is a Captain in the A.R.E.S. (Allied Resistance Earth Squadrons) multinational force formed to combat the extraterrestrial threat, led by Secretary of War Theodore Roosevelt (Jim Byrnes) and General Kushnirov (Rob Middleton). He and his crew - comprising Jennifer Carter (Elizabeth Gracen), Patrick O'Brien (Adrian Paul), Shah (Tony Eusoff) and Abraham Douglas (Beau Billingsley) - receive command of the Goliath, their latest and most advanced battle tripod. But it comes not a moment too soon - because the Martians have returned, this time stronger than ever.

Yes, this is indeed a made-in-Malaysia film, because it's production company Tripod Films is a homegrown outfit. This despite the fact that its director (Joe Pearson), screenwriter (David Abramowitz), executive producer (Kevin Eastman) and majority of the voice cast (a bunch of former cast members of that '90s Highlander TV show) are all, um, "import players". Not that hiring import players is a bad thing, had it actually produced a good movie. But Joe Pearson is an animation director of much experience but little distinction; David Abramowitz is known only for the aforementioned Highlander TV series, several episodes of MacGyver and V from the '80s, and a direct-to-video Highlander anime spinoff movie; and Kevin Eastman is a co-creator of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but it appears his name is attached to this solely because he holds the film rights for the Heavy Metal comic magazine, and this movie is based on one of the comic storylines. Not that I want to get nasty on these gentlemen, or imply that they are incapable of producing good work. But the fact is, they did terrible work here.

I had misgivings the moment I laid eyes on that poster. Look at those character designs. Do they look any better than a cheapo '90s Saturday morning cartoon? Oh, I thought, maybe they'll look better in motion, maybe the animation could be good. But it isn't. And it isn't even just the technical quality that's lacking; everything about the animation is lame and uninspired. From the way the characters move, to the palette of about 4 or 5 emotions each character's face is limited to, to the boring and unimaginative - and interminable - action scenes, to the fact that every male character has broader shoulders than a WWE wrestler. This is TV-quality animation; worse, it's TV-quality animation from at least 15 years ago. Charging cinema ticket prices (and 3D cinema ticket prices at that) for this is criminal.

Okay, there are the 3D-animated mechs, airships, WW1-era triplanes and Martian walkers - and the animation on these is jerky and cheap too. Which I could forgive if their designs were more imaginative, or even more true to the steampunk aesthetic that the movie is being advertised on. Considering the time period - and considering the fact that none of these vehicles appear to be running on steam - it's closer to dieselpunk, and this distinction is actually important to the fans you're advertising your movie to. Worst of all, the designs are dull. Every mech is a similar-looking, three-legged, boxy mass of guns that doesn't even look like a credible piece of early-20th-century technology.

And the storyline, the dialogue... good God, is Abramowitz really an experienced and produced Hollywood screenwriter? Was Highlander ever this bad? (I only watched a few episodes; I know the show has its fans, but I was never one.) Or did he just half-ass this screenplay? I think he half-assed this screenplay. The plot is slapdash, the characterisation is nonexistent, and the dialogue sounds like an extremely rushed first draft that Abramowitz never bothered to turn into a second draft. Even the character names are dull; they might as well have names like Girly McFemale and Paddy O'Stereotype. Like the animation quality, it's all lame and uninspired. The voice actors certainly can't do a damn thing with the dialogue - not even geek-cred luminaries like Adam Baldwin (Firefly, Chuck) and Mark Sheppard (Battlestar Galactica, Supernatural), both wasted in extremely minor roles. Adrian Paul sounds positively bored out of his skull reading his lines. 

Oh, there's a Malaysian character in here. Shah is actually Raja Iskandar Shah, a Malay prince exiled from his royal court for joining A.R.E.S., and he's played by our very own Tony Eusoff. And at one point, he kills a Martian with a keris. Yay, Malaysia Boleh! (He also delivers one laughable line of Malay dialogue that I bet my right pinky will get cut out of international releases.) So with this ridiculous attempt at pandering to the homebase, are we supposed to be proud of this movie? No. There is nothing to be proud of - not even your meaningless award from an inconsequential film festival. Sorry guys; your movie sucks. It will satisfy no one other than 7-year-old children of harried parents rummaging through discount DVD bins looking for something to keep the little brats quiet for 82 minutes. 

NEXT REVIEW: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn part 2
Expectations: well, it's finally over 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Komedi, mana engkau pergi?

Istanbul Aku Datang
My rating:

Pembikin dan cendekiawan filem Amir Muhammad menggelar filem ini, bersama dengan Gol & Gincu dan Pisau Cukur, sebagai "Gedik Trilogy" terbitan Red Films. Ketiga-tiganya diarah oleh Bernard Chauly, ditulis oleh Rafidah Abdullah, dan memaparkan watak utama perempuan yang muda, periang dan (ofkos) gedik. Saya tidak menonton Gol & Gincu tapi saya menyukai Pisau Cukur, dan saya ada memuji saudara Chauly sebagai salah satu pengarah filem yang paling cekap dan berwibawa. Namun Chauly dan Rafidah nampaknya jarang mengeluarkan filem; sudah tiga tahun sejak Pisau Cukur baru muncul Istanbul Aku Datang, babak ketiga dalam Gedik Trilogy ini. Saya sebenarnya tidak merancang untuk menonton filem ini, tapi mujurlah ada pembaca blog memberi komen yang merekomenkan filem ini. Saya gembira kerana sempat menontonnya - tapi bukan kerana ia best sangat.

Kerana saya berpeluang menulis tentang apa yang membuat sebuah filem komedi romantik bagus, dengan memberi contoh apa yang kurang dalam filem ini.

Dian (Lisa Surihani) membuat keputusan yang terburu-buru untuk mengembara ke Istanbul, Turki agar dapat bersama kekasihnya Azad (Tomok) yang sedang belajar di universiti di sana - tetapi dia kecewa dengan sambutan dingin dari Azad. Ketika mencari tempat tinggal, Dian tertipu oleh seorang lelaki Turki (Mert Yavuzcan) dan terpaksa tinggal serumah dengan Harris (Beto Kusyairy), seorang lelaki dari Malaysia yang langsung tidak senang berkongsi tempat tinggal dengan Dian. Tetapi sambil hubungan Dian dengan Azad bertambah renggang, hubungan Dian dengan Harris pula bertambah mesra - sehingga Dian harus memilih siapa diantara mereka berdua yang memiliki hatinya.

Kekuatan tulisan Rafidah adalah dialog yang lucu dan bersahaja, yang berjaya menggelikan hati penonton-penonton dalam panggung saya. Arahan Chauly juga menampakkan sentuhan ringan yang efektif, mewujudkan suasana kelakar bagi filem ini. Tapi saya rasa keistimewaan filem-filem terbitan Red Films yang utama ialah watak-watak heroin yang menarik dan mendalam, yang juga memberi peluang bagi pelakon-pelakon wanita memberi persembahan yang mantap dan mencabar. Watak perempuan sebegini jarang dilihat dalam filem tempatan (dan bukan sahaja dalam filem tempatan), jadi sayanglah kalau Red Films tidak lebih kerap mengeluarkan filem. Humor dalam Istanbul Aku Datang adalah bernada mesra dan murah hati; jenakanya tidak memperli sesiapa, dan tiada watak yang benar-benar jahat atau patut dibenci. Ini semua benda yang saya suka.

Apa yang saya tak suka ialah jalan cerita yang tidak teliti dan tidak tekun. Kita tahu ini sebuah komedi romantik, jadi kita tahu Dian dan Harris akan jatuh cinta. Tapi kita tidak melihat mahupun merasainya. Mula-mula mereka saling membenci, tiba-tiba timbul perasaan cinta. Watak Harris pun tidak terbina; siapa sebenarnya mamat ni? Apa personalitinya, apa bezanya dari Azad sehingga Dian memilihnya sebagai kekasih? Mengapa sampai hampir babak klimaks baru kita tahu apa pekerjaannya? Dan mengapa Rafidah dan Chauly hanya menggunakan adegan-adegan montaj berlagu bagi menceritakan kisah cinta mereka? Bagilah mamat dan minah ni betul-betul berkenalan, bersama dialog yang mencuit serta menyentuh hati. Kalau harapkan montaj saja, ini penceritaan yang sungguh malas. Cerita ini malas!

Sifat malas inilah yang amat mengecewakan saya. Genre filem ini ialah komedi romantik, tetapi komedinya setakat separuh pertama sahaja. Lepas pertengahan jalan, langsung tiada lawak jenaka lagi. Mengapa, saudara Chauly dan saudari Rafidah? Ini bukan cara nak buat cerita romantic comedy; walaupun dilema percintaan heroin anda makin serius, unsur komedi tetap perlu ada. Separuh keduanya bertukar menjadi melodrama yang sappy dan telalu sentimental - dan masalahnya, jika separuh pertama adalah komedi, begitulah jangkaan penonton terhadap cerita seterusnya. Penonton sudah bersedia untuk ketawa. Penonton dalam panggung saya ketawakan adegan Harris mencuci rambut Dian, dan pasti ini bukan niat anda bukan, saudara Chauly dan saudari Rafidah? Anda ingatkan adegan ini sedih dan pilu, bukan?

Pemilihan pelakon juga agak ragu-ragu. Lisa Surihani adalah antara pelakon wanita yang paling popular dan berkarisma; tiada masalah bagi beliau membawa watak heroin Red Films. Tetapi kedua-dua pelakon gandingannya pula kurang sesuai. Tomok Indrawan sering kelihatan kayu, terutama bila berlakon disamping Lisa yang ceria. Beto Kusyairy pula, mungkin beliau dihampakan oleh skrip yang tidak membina wataknya, seperti yang dikatakan. Tetapi saya tetap rasa Beto salah dipilih sebagai watak utama lelaki dalam filem komedi romantik. Raut mukanya sentiasa serius dan garang. Lakonannya dalam babak-babak komedi adakala tidak natural, dan beliau tiada banyak chemistry dengan Lisa.

Tetapi saya tidak patut terlalu keras mengkritik filem ini. Dahlah saya memberinya 3 bintang, kerana ia tetap sebuah filem yang menghiburkan - malah saya ingin melihat banyak lagi filem tempatan sebegini. Selain komedi yang bersahaja dan dialog yang kelakar, ia juga memaparkan keindahan kota Istanbul dimana ia difilemkan; filem ini boleh dilihat sebagai travel porn yang berjaya. Chauly juga boleh berbangga atas kejayaan ko-produksi ini bersama kru dan pelakon Turki. Dan sudah tentu saya tidak mahu menunggu tiga tahun lagi sebelum keluar filem seterusnya dari Chauly, Rafidah dan Red Films. Kekuatan mereka amat dialu-alukan - dan kelemahan mereka pula sesuatu yang perlu diperbaiki dengan lebih banyak latihan. Kita tunggu babak seterusnya dalam Gedik Quadrilogy nanti.

NEXT REVIEW: War of the Worlds: Goliath
Expectations: man, I have nooooo idea 

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Let James Bond fall where he may

My rating:

You know what I was planning to do? Do a Retro Review series on the entire James Bond 007 series to date. That would be 23 movies in total (and yes, I'd include the "unofficial" Never Say Never Again), an arduous task even before my current reduced reviewing schedule. (Let us not speak of my lengthy hiatus, shall we?) My initial plan was to write them and time the last one to just before the release of Skyfall, in conjunction with Bond's 50th anniversary - which, well, too late for that now - but I may still do it. Because I'm a Bond fan, man; I have 'em all on DVD, I've seen 'em all, and man, there ain't much to compare to the joy of seeing how the world's longest-running film franchise has evolved over half a century. But first, Skyfall - the latest instalment in the world's longest-running film franchise, much delayed after its parent studio MGM ran into financial troubles. And hailed by early reviews as the best one yet.

Well, no, it isn't. But I can see why they're calling it that. And it is very good - perhaps even very very good.

James Bond (Daniel Craig), aided by fellow MI6 agent Eve (Naomie Harris), is in pursuit of a terrorist (Ola Rapace) who has stolen a list of names of undercover NATO agents around the world - and fails. Wounded and left for dead, he returns to active duty to help his superior M (Dame Judi Dench) fight the shadowy figure who has declared war on MI6 - although M has troubles of her own, pressured to resign by government official Gareth Mallory (Ralph Fiennes) due to her current failures. With a little help from the new Q (Ben Whishaw), Bond gets on the case and meets the seductive Sévérine (Bérénice Lim Marlohe), mistress of the very man he's seeking - Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem), whose vendetta against MI6 is intensely personal, and whose machinations are skillful, intricate, and nigh unbeatable.

The thing about being the world's longest-running film franchise is that it has evolved in many, many ways over its run - ways that may be surprising to someone who hasn't seen them all. There are Bond films in which Bond does not use any gadgets; there are films in which Bond sleeps with only one woman throughout the film; there are films in which Bond does not drive an expensive sports car with tricked-out weaponry. But the greatest variation has been in tone. Some Bond films are largely serious spy thrillers, even though most are the over-the-top, wildly fantastical action movies with larger-than-life villains plotting world-conquering schemes that the franchise is known for. The biggest tonal shift has been in 2006's Casino Royale, which rebooted the series with a new actor in Daniel Craig, an origin story, and an emphasis on gritty reality as well as a much more human and fallible James Bond. Skyfall, however, is a conscious effort to bring back the classic elements of Bond - as well as pulling back slightly from the grittiness and seriousness.

It still walks a fine line between the two tonalities though. The plot is by no means fluff; Bond engages in meaningless sex and self-loathing alcoholism during his time presumed dead, which we certainly didn't see in You Only Live Twice when the Sean Connery Bond similarly faked his death. And the physical toll his wounds take on him suggest that he's gotten too old, and that the entire era of the two-fisted Double-0 agent has been eclipsed by the new age of cyber-security and techno-terrorism. (Seems a little early to get into that though; this is only Craig's third outing as Bond.) But the storyline's real meat deals with M and what she did to earn the enmity of the villain Silva. It elevates M to a full-fledged supporting character for the first time, and gives us an uncharacteristically small-scale climax at a remote Scottish manor in which Bond's goal is merely to protect her, rather than an explosive action scene at the villain's headquarters of world domination. Nor does this subplot overshadow our hero; M's history with Silva raises questions regarding Bond's own contentious relationship with his superior - and the Scottish manor illuminates a part of Bond we've never seen before in 50 years of films.

But then there are those returning classic elements. Some are given a welcome new spin; the new, younger and nerdier Q is terrific, who gets to be Bond's partner in scenes beyond just the requisite gadget-supplying one, and that also showcase Ben Whishaw's enjoyable chemistry with Craig. However, there's a scene involving komodo dragons - yes, komodo dragons - that feels more suited to a Roger Moore-era film than part of the current gritty reinvented Bond. (In fact, it's a deliberate reference to a bit in Live and Let Die.) And then there's the return of the Aston Martin DB5. Which I initially thought was a callback to the DB5 that Bond won in a poker game in Casino Royale - only, it isn't that DB5. It's Goldfinger's DB5, with the ejector seat and hidden machine guns. I may be alone amongst long-time Bond fans in being less than thrilled by its appearance, because where the hell did that thing come from? It plays merry havoc with the notion that the series from Casino Royale onwards is a brand new, internally consistent continuity. Is this the same DB5 that was used against Auric Goldfinger in 1964? Was that the same James Bond as this one??

(Yes yes, I know there's a fan theory that states "James Bond" is a codename given to several other MI6 agents over the decades. I'll have no truck with that theory. I can't imagine any of the other James Bonds have names other than James Bloody Bond. But one thing I did like about Skyfall is how it both nods to and disproves it. Good.)

Sam Mendes - he of arthouse fare such as American Beauty and Revolutionary Road - seemed an odd choice to direct a Bond movie at first, but he does a fantastic job here. Aided by cinematographer Roger Deakins, this may be the most gorgeously-filmed Bond film ever; a fight scene in a Shanghai high-rise tower shot entirely in silhouette, and the climactic sequence set on a Scottish moor at night lit only by a burning building, are two of the most drop-dead beautiful scenes in a film full of them. Mendes himself succeeds at putting a personal stamp on this franchise entry, with deliberately slow and methodical shots and editing - all the better to show off Deakins' cinematography, probably. Mendes has also acknowledged the influence of Christopher Nolan's Batman trilogy on this film, and it's noticeable - most evidently in one mid-point plot twist, a villain who's simultaneously eccentric, terrifying and mesmerising, and who's always two steps ahead of the good guys. If you're a Nolan hater, you might find this annoying. I'm not and I don't.

If it weren't for the komodo dragon scene and the DB5 - and really, I'd've been fine with a DB5 that didn't sport the ejector seat and machine guns - Skyfall would be a 4-½-starrer. See, I'm a little concerned. I like Classic Bond, and I even like Cheesy, Campy, Fantastical Bond when it's done right. (The Spy Who Loved Me is one of the best, and certainly Moore's best.) But I really, really like Gritty Reinvented Bond. If there's one thing I learned from having watched all 24 Bond movies, it's that the cheesy, silly, gratuitously male-fantasy-pandering elements are never far behind the wings. I thought they'd put that all behind with Casino Royale. I thought Gritty Reinvented Bond is here to stay. But now it looks like they're back to Classic Bond, which takes it a step closer to Cheesy Bond. Can you imagine Craig in something as over-the-top goofy as Die Another Day? It'd be an embarrassment on the level of, well, Die Another Day. As I said, Skyfall is very good, perhaps very very good; I'm just worried what it heralds for where James Bond 007 will go next. But, if the overwhelming acclaim for this instalment is any indication, I may be the only one. After all, I'm the one who liked Quantum of Solace and don't understand why no one else did.

NEXT REVIEW: Istanbul Aku Datang
Expectations: oh, Bernard Chauly ye? Okay jugak