Sunday, May 31, 2009

Long terminator memories

So now that there's a fourth entry in the venerable Terminator series, now's as good a time as any to revisit the previous films in the franchise. I made sure to watch all 3 of them before catching the new one, so that I'm poised to judge it as a sequel as well as on its own merits. In any case, here's what I thought of them, what to expect from them, and which ones you should watch if you haven't yet.


The Terminator (1984)
My rating:




Sadly, the originator of the franchise has not aged well. Not only was it made in the '80s - and has a nightclub scene that is soooo '80s - it was made as a low-budget B-grade film, and it shows. There's a rushed, somewhat cheap feel to it that's a far cry from James Cameron's later oeuvre; the action scenes aren't particularly inventive, and the acting feels like Linda Hamilton and Michael Biehn had little time to really get into their roles. And somewhat jarringly, Arnold Schwarzenegger hadn't quite mastered that robotic emotionlessness yet.

But what shines through it all is the relentlessness and laser-sharp focus of the story. A near-indestructible robot wants to kill Sarah Connor, and although he comes from the same future, Kyle Reese seems woefully ill-equipped to protect her. In Reese's words, "it can't be bargained with. It can't be reasoned with. It doesn't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead." The movie is basically one long chase scene, and every time Sarah seems to have found safety, the Terminator brutally shatters that illusion. A police station full of armed officers doesn't stop it; and later, when Sarah and Kyle think they've found a safe hiding place, it uses a voice-mimicking ability to find them again in one of the film's most chilling scenes.

It's a deceptively simple formula - unstoppable bad guy chases good guys - yet it's terrifically well-executed. It's no surprise that it became a sleeper hit back in 1984, more so when it left the cinema circuit and became a bona fide blockbuster on home video. If you can overlook the dated and low-budget look of the film, you still get a suspenseful and thrilling action movie that at times comes close to horror. It's an early indicator of Cameron's mastery of combining suspense, action, plot, and characters you care about.


Terminator 2: Judgement Day (1991)
My rating:




Ladies and gentlemen, here is a true classic. In 50 years, movie buffs will still be raving about this film and holding it up as a near-flawless example of the action genre. It even has the distinction of being one of the very few film sequels that's better than the original.

James Cameron returned to helm this film fresh from what he learned making Aliens and The Abyss, and he learned all the right lessons. Not only did he have a budget of more than 10 times the first movie, he also brought a wealth of new ideas, new SFX techniques, and a keen sense of how to make a sequel that's true to the original yet takes us in new and unexpected directions. Thus, the villainous T-800 played by Schwarzenegger in the original is now the protector of Sarah Connor and her son John, and the bad guy is the T-1000 played by the far less physically imposing Robert Patrick.

Whoa boy, the T-1000. Gotta be up there amongst the greatest movie villains of all time. Made of "liquid metal", realized with then-pioneering CGI effects, and not only visually spectacular but used in fantastically inventive ways. From the various killing instruments it forms with its hands, to the scene where it literally rises up from the floor, the T-1000 is the epitome of SFX used in service of the story. It's cool, it's scary, and it's even more unstoppable - the T-800 seems as helpless before it as Kyle Reese from the first film.

And still it doesn't go the easy route and stick to the "one long chase scene" structure of the original. Sarah Connor, now a driven, traumatised woman, finds an opportunity to destroy the supercomputer Skynet and prevent the human-machine future war that started the whole thing from ever occuring. But it's her young son John who forms a bond with their robot protector and pulls her back from becoming a conscienceless killing machine herself. The plot is broader, and there's far greater emotional dimension here, competently performed by the actors - Edward Furlong overacts a little, but Linda Hamilton has never been better. There's a scene late in the film when the heroes go to the Cyberdyne offices, and she approaches the night guard with an utterly sweet and friendly smile... right before she whips the gun out. Now that's acting.

I can't say enough good things about this film. And the only bad thing I can think of is that the most commonly found version is the Director's Cut, with 15 minutes of additional footage. The film is slightly better without it - they're mostly character scenes and plot exposition that only slows down the pace a little without adding much. Bottom line, if you haven't seen this yet you are missing out, folks. And if you can watch it and not like it, you need never watch another action movie ever again. The entire genre simply isn't for you.


Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines (2003)
My rating:




Cameron wanted to end Terminator 2 with a coda that definitively ended the series - Judgment Day is averted, mankind is saved, and John and Sarah Connor live to ripe old ages. But producer Mario Kassar saw the possibility of more sequels, and so we have this second one - which Cameron wasn't involved with. And boy, does it show.

The early scene with Arnold and the starry sunglasses is a huge WTF - what possessed director Jonathan Mostow and his screenwriters to parody its beloved predecessor like that, we'll never know. The film largely takes itself seriously after that scene, but the damage was done - Terminator fans always cite this scene as the suckiest thing about this third film. It's not, unfortunately - the suckiest thing about it is that there's so little of the inventiveness and creativity of the first sequel.

Take the Terminatrix; having the new villain be a female Terminator seems like a natural idea, but she simply isn't as cool as the T-1000 - or even the T-800 from the first film. She has a liquid metal exterior, so she can disguise herself; she has built-in energy weapons in her hands; she can infect other machines with viruses and remote control them; and all these merely give the impression that the movie is trying too hard to make her badass. Kristanna Loken tries to inject some wicked cattiness into her performance, but gets few opportunities - she looks mean, and that's all she's good for.

I suspect a lot of cutting was done to the film and the screenplay, especially of John Connor's scenes. There are hints of a character arc for him, a transformation from a loner running away from his destiny to the leader of mankind he will ultimately become. As it is, there's barely any meat to this subplot, and Nick Stahl's milquetoast performance doesn't help - Sarah Connor's boy was never this wussy. Claire Danes doesn't impress either. It's a far more shallow film than its predecessor, and ends up feeling less like a sequel and more like a rehash - even its story beats are almost identical.

Until we get to the ending; and that's where this film earns what little goodwill it has from fans. It's pretty daring, despite being incompatible with the "the future is not set" theme of the first two films. I pretty much hated this film when I first saw it, but I've since relaxed my views. It's an effectively thrilling action movie, and the crane chase scene is still really well done. It suffers only in comparison to its predecessors; one of which, unfortunately for Mostow, is one of the best sequels ever. It may have been unfair to expect this one to be as much better than T2 as T2 was better than The Terminator - but couldn't it at least have been as good as T2? I think it could have and should have been.

-----

Somewhere in an alternate universe, James Cameron came back to the Terminator franchise and made T3 and T4 every bit as good as the first two. But then again, I'm pretty sure that there's also an alternate universe in which not even Cameron could live up to the success of the first two. Such are the perils of making a sequel to not just one, but two really really good movies - they rarely ever live up to expectations. I'll be keeping that in mind when I watch Terminator: Salvation - I'll do my best to give McG a fair go.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Here's to the night we felt alive

Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian
My rating:




I didn't catch the first Night at the Museum. Never struck me as something worth watching. The premise sounded lame - museum exhibits come to life, terrorize Ben Stiller. And then what? What is Stiller supposed to do besides get freaked out by one thing after another? I'm sure the movie itself would answer that question, but I just couldn't be arsed to actually watch it - and I'm still not. Same goes for this sequel - I wouldn't even be watching it if I didn't have this blog to write.

So here's to having low expectations. It does make a movie better... somewhat.

Larry Daley is now a successful businessman and inventor of dubiously useful gadgets. When he visits his former workplace, the Museum of Natural History, for the first time in two years, he learns that the exhibits - his friends - are being packed up and shipped to the Smithsonian archives for storage. Unfortunately, the magical tablet that brings them to life at night went with them, and one of the newly-awakened historical figures there is the Pharaoh Kahmunrah - who has a plan to conquer the world using hitherto-unknown powers of the tablet. As Kahmunrah recruits Ivan the Terrible, Napoleon Bonaparte and Al Capone as his minions, Larry also finds a new ally in Amelia Earhart.

So there's an actual plot in this movie this time - a villain must be stopped, and a Macguffin must be kept from him. But it's really just an excuse to string a bunch of action and comic setpieces together, not all of which work. Most of the ones that do work are the comic ones - and that right there is the biggest problem with this movie. It's ostensibly a family-oriented comedy action-adventure - but the action-adventure part of it is pretty lame.

Here's an example: true to the film's subtitle, it climaxes with a big battle between the forces of good and evil. This should be a rousing action scene, with combatants from all over history duking it out - medieval knights, 1930s gangsters, Mongol warriors - plus a few statues come to life and a giant octopus. But instead, the battle goes on in the background while Larry has a heart-to-heart with a cowardly General Custer. Then he has a Three Stooges-inspired slapstick scene with two monkeys. And all this time there's an action scene going on, but this movie just doesn't seem interested in showing it to us. It really squanders its opportunity to provide us with some thrills to go along with the laughs.

And how about those laughs? Well... I did LOL a couple of times. I thought the few glimpses of Larry's ninja night guard skills were pretty funny. But overall, it's generally quite lazy with it's humour - for a comedy, it never really tries for a good gut-busting guffaw. Some of the living exhibits are quite clever, and good for a giggle, but giggle is all you'll do. If it's not really funny, it needs to be exciting - if it's not exciting, it needs to be really funny. It's just not much of either.

Stiller has to take some of the blame for this. He's dull; he just never seems to get really involved in any of the proceedings. I can't imagine he was like this in the original film - granted, he's less freaked out by living museum exhibits by now, but his wooden expression is a large part of why none of the action scenes work. Amy Adams is a terrific actor, and she breathes life and spunk into Amelia Earhart - but she's also supposed to have a romance with Stiller, who barely seems interested. (Oh, and the denouement of their romance subplot is so hackneyed. Can't believe anyone thinks that sort of thing still works.) Hank Azaria hams it up as the villain, and does an adequate job - he's funny, just never really funny.

On the whole, it's just an unremarkable, unambitious, fitfully entertaining movie. Never as funny as it could have been, not as clever as it could have been, nowhere near as thrilling as it should have been. Only my low expectations kept me from giving this a 2-star rating. But should I not expect more? Is it unfair of me to think a movie like this should be better? I don't think so. Comedies should be funnier, and action-adventures should be more fun - and the family-friendliness should be no excuse to not try hard enough.

NEXT REVIEW: Terminator: Salvation
Anticipation level: let's see if that "low expectations" thing works again

Monday, May 25, 2009

Dammit!

It appears that Monsters vs. Aliens is no longer showing in cinemas in the Klang Valley region.

Fwoar. What happened? I don't think it's been out longer than 2 weeks. Have sales been that bad? And isn't 2 weeks far too short a time to give it a chance?

Anyway, this will be the first time I've had to renege on a promised review. I certainly hope there won't be too many more.

NEXT REVIEW: Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian
Anticipation level: bleh

Update: It appears I was mistaken. Monsters vs. Aliens has actually not opened yet, and will only do so this 28th.

I blame Cinema Online.

In any case, I will dutifully watch it and post my review.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Argue, quarrel, fight, brawl

Gadoh
My rating:




Gadoh is a film produced under the auspices of KOMAS, an NGO dedicated to human rights in Malaysia. The screening I attended was preceded by a speech from Datuk Zaid Ibrahim - yes, the man who quit a Cabinet post in protest over the ISA himself. He spoke on racism in Malaysia and the growing ethnic divide, issues I personally feel strongly about. His very presence was, dare I say, inspiring. So as the lights dimmed and the movie finally started, I found myself praying, "Please don't suck, please don't suck, please don't suck..."

Sigh.

Racial tensions are running high at a Malaysian secondary school - two gangs of Malay and Chinese boys are constantly getting into fights and causing headaches for the principal. One teacher, Ms. Anne, suggests starting a theatre club for the boys, and ropes in old friend and theatre activist Azman to run it. Both gangs, in particular the leaders Khalil and Heng, will confront their own racial prejudices, face temptation to take up a life of crime, and put on a show for their self-serving principal.

The film basically follows the "inspirational teacher" formula, a path well trodden by dozens of Hollywood movies. The key element of this genre is the gradual transformation of the troubled kids to decent, well-rounded young men via the dedication of their teacher... and this is Gadoh's biggest failing. The two gangs can barely stand to be in the same room together at first - then suddenly, everyone's the best of friends. Aiyoo, movie, what laa??

I remember my secondary school days. I remember the rough kids, the gang fights, and the racial tension. This film's portrayal of it simply fails to convince. It's partly the fight scenes, which are in sore need of some stunt choreography, or at least some convincing blood-and-bruises makeup. It's partly their posturing and tough-talk, which is more giggle-inducing than menacing. But above all, it's the fact that this film isn't so much interested in telling a story as it is in preaching. Thus, we are hit over the head with the message that both gangs, violent racists all, aren't so different after all. Kum Ba Yah.

The preaching extends to the laughably heavy-handed script. Yes, everyone's a racist in this film - the kids' parents, the clueless teachers, the criminals who attempt to recruit some of the boys. And they'll express their racism in point-black, on-the-nose, in-your-face dialogue. Then we have the heroic Ms. Anne and En. Azman who will expound on the virtues of racial integration - as well as, for bonus points, the need for someone to believe in these kids - with equal lack of subtlety. There's the one kid who gets bullied sadistically by both gangs - and guess what, he's Indian! And then there's Azman's introduction; on an arty dark stage lit by overhead lights, delivering a ridiculously pretentious monologue that's supposed to let us know how "deep" he is.

The story takes an interesting turn with the aforementioned criminal elements - Heng has friends in the "ah long" business and gets a firsthand look at how they conduct it, and one of the Malay boys Zahir also keeps none-too-savoury company who persuade him to quit school and join them. The film seems to want to contrast the petty quarrels of the schoolboys with the genuine violence of the older gangsters, and this had the potential to work better. Zahir's story, as the most unrepentantly racist of the boys, is engaging - up till the moment when he too embraces his newfound Chinese best buddies, replete with tearful apologies.

None of the characters are anything other than two-dimensional, including the boys who actually have (ineffectual) character arcs. Anne does nothing but deliver speeches. Azman's supposedly inspirational teaching techniques are non-existent; also, there's some backstory about him being a former student of the school that amounts to nothing. There are precious few acting standouts - Zahiril Adzim as Khalil is the most convincing as a troubled and violence-prone young man. Nicholas Liew Davis' Heng is less successful, mainly due to his baby-face looks. Amerul Affendi does the best he can as Zahir, but then he has to do that tearful apology scene. Intan Diyana plays the one female member of the theatre club, and gives an impressively natural performance - too bad her character is the very definition of superfluous.

The film climaxes with the show that the club puts on, for the benefit of their principal and the Education Ministry official he wants to impress. And good Lord, is it made of facepalm. Every talking point the film wants to make about racism is trotted out once more and delivered with the force of a falling anvil - and on an arty dark stage lit by overhead lights, no less. These kids took drama lessons for this?

I can't recommend this film. I wish I could, because I'm more than supportive of KOMAS' mission - but I simply can't. Even if it was meant to be a homily on racial harmony, I have to believe that its message would've been more effective if it had simply been a better movie. (And damn if this isn't the second locally-produced movie I've seen in a month that's a thinly-disguised sermon.) The "inspirational teacher" genre is a perfect fit for a Malaysian secondary school milieu, and one day such a film could be made that's truly inspiring and uplifting. This isn't it. It is far from it.

Note: I saw this film at its launch screening at HELP Institute, where DVDs were also given away. I'm afraid I don't know of any other screenings or where else the DVD would be available. Anyone who knows, please drop a note in the comments thread. I'd like to keep this post updated on the movie's availability, for anyone who wants to catch it.

NEXT REVIEW: Monsters vs. Aliens
Anticipation level: fingers crossed

Friday, May 22, 2009

Pusher, Mover, Watcher, Sniffer, Bleeder, Shifter, beggar man, thief

Push
My rating:




I guess this movie can't help looking like a B-grader. It's very much a comicbook movie - it's a flashy, fantastical film about folks running around with superpowers - but it isn't based on any established comic character or property. This alone means it'll be overlooked and disregarded by most moviegoers in favour of something like X-Men Origins: Wolverine. I only watched it myself because of positive reviews I've read on some of my favourite sites.

It's better than Wolverine. Seriously.

In the world of Push, there are people with secret superhuman abilities: Movers (telekinetics), Watchers (people who can see the future), Pushers (people who can plant thoughts and even memories into others), Sniffers (people who can track where an object has been and who has touched it), and many more. Nick is a Mover who has been hiding out in Hong Kong from Division, the government agency that deals with superpowers - until one day, a young Watcher named Cassie involves him in a plot to rescue a girl who has stolen something valuable from division. They are alternately pursued by a superpowered Triad gang with a Watcher of their own, and Division agents lied by Carver, a powerful and ruthless Pusher with whom Nick has a history.

Unlike Heroes and X-Men, which is most likely what this movie will be accused of ripping off, Push has superpowers that aren't meant to just be flashy or used for SFX-heavy fight scenes. Ablilities like those possessed by Watchers and Sniffers are used to build the plot and create complications that the characters must resolve, using the very same abilities that they have at their disposal. The girl that Nick and Cassie are looking for is Kira, a Pusher (and old flame of Nick's), and soon they are joined by a few others who all get to use their superpowers in intelligent ways.

Of course, "intelligent" here is relative. It's certainly smarter than Wolverine, in which the superheroes only use their powers when a fight breaks out. What this movie attempts to do is develop incredibly complicated plans that employ each superpower at exact circumstances and times, especially the gambit devised by Nick halfway into the movie to beat both the Triads and Division. And since there's Pushing and Watching and Wiping - the ability to erase memories - involved, there are ample opportunities for characters to deceive each other as well as the audience, leading to scenes where what we've previously been told is revealed to be false (or is it?). It's a lot of fun to watch...

...thing is, it doesn't all quite hang together. There are holes in the plot that I could see right through even as I was watching, and some of the "it was part of the plan all along!" scenes don't work as well as they should, because the revealed "plan" just isn't made very clear. And occasionally the characters get stupid - at one point, the bad guys handcuff Nick and lock him in a car boot, somehow forgetting that he's a Mover and that handcuffs are no obstacle to him. (Although he did need help getting out of the boot.) Poor plotting was the same criticism I had of Angels and Demons, so why did I like this one better than that movie?

Well, because the characters were more likeable, for one. Not much better-developed - Nick's thing about how Carver killed his father is as old as dirt, and his relationship with Kira is tissue-thin - but the actors, Chris Evans in particular, invest as much personality and charm into their sketchy characters as they're capable of. Cassie is alternately tough, world-weary, precocious, frightened and brave - Dakota Fanning is scary good in the role, especially in one LOLtastic scene where she gets drunk. There's a palpable sense of danger; the villains are suitably menacing, and the heroes' straits suitably dire. None of this is particularly remarkable here, of course - except to highlight the fact that, when absent, what you get is Angels and Demons.

While it ends with reasonable satisfaction, it's clearly meant to be the first part of an ongoing story - Hollywood almost never makes one-off films these days, everything's gotta be a franchise. This is one I don't mind following. The world that we're taken into in Push is developed well enough that we can sense the wealth of stories yet to be told, and if they're told as wittily and cleverly as this one, I'm certainly along for the ride. Prospects for a continuation of the franchise don't seem too good though - U.S. boxoffice takings haven't been encouraging, and Malaysian moviegoers aren't going to make much of a difference. Still, I'll say it again - it's better than Wolverine, and much more deserving of your time and money.

NEXT REVIEW: Gadoh
Anticipation level: fingers crossed

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

No angels, no demons, but plenty of facepalm

Angels and Demons
My rating:




I'm not a fan of Dan Brown. I read The Da Vinci Code, and the best I can say about it is that it's a page-turner. The writing is lame, the plot is nonsensical, the factual claims are total bullshit, and it panders to the worst conspiracy-theory-loving impulses in all of us. I didn't bother to watch the movie. To me, Brown embodies perhaps the widest gulf between talent and success in modern popular culture.

Yes, I'm biased. You have thus been warned to take this review with that in mind.

Harvard professor of "symbology" Robert Langdon is brought to Vatican City on the eve of the appointment of a new Pope to assist on a matter of great urgency - four of the most favourite candidates have been kidnapped, and the kidnapper who claims to be part of the secret society of Illuminati has promised to murder one every hour via the four elements of earth, air, fire and water. He is also threatening to destroy the city using antimatter, a substance created by, and stolen from, an experiment in which physicist Vittoria Vetra was part of. She and Langdon must solve the riddles of the Illuminati and save the city, as they are alternately aided and hindered by Camerlengo Patrick McKenna, the "acting" pontiff, and Commander Richter, head of the Swiss Guard.

So there's a lot of running around, a lot of pretty Italian church scenery, a lot of Tom Hanks' worried looks, a lot of music that tries valiantly to pound the pulse - but I honestly couldn't be arsed to care. A lot of it had to do with the lack of characterization - nobody in this movie has anything resembling a personality, only a plot purpose. A great deal had to do with the structure of the story - there's no doubt that Langdon and co. will race to save each victim and fail, because clearly we need to move on to the next elaborately "symbolic" death. A fair bit had to do with how ridiculously simplistic the riddles and clues are - if every location of the murder is an ancient church with an obelisk, and the obelisk is, like, significant and stuff, then why can't you just search every damn ancient church with an obelisk??

The problem I always have with these "treasure hunt" movies is this: if you want to hide your treasure, why would you leave clues? Why would you craft a ridiculous series of puzzles that anyone with access to Wikipedia (much less a professor of "symbology") could decipher? Only in this movie, it's not even a treasure hunt - it's a criminal who supposedly wants to kill four cardinals then blow up the city, yet gives the police a 5-hour timeline to prevent it. Yes, yes, they sorta explain it with the final twist at the end - in which, just like the final twist in Code, the bad guy is revealed to be the unlikeliest person possible no matter how little sense it makes.

There's this theme of the conflict between science and religion that goes nowhere,except for one embarassingly heavy-handed speech scene. And part of the reason why every character is dull is that every actor - Hanks, Ewan McGregor, Ayelet Zurer, Stellan SkarsgÄrd - is sleepwalking through the film. Y'know, to be fair, I wonder if I'm not being unduly harsh on the film because of my dislike for Dan Brown (and his undeserved billions, and that perpetually stupefied look he has in every photo of him, and the fact that after Code hit it big he basically rested on his laurels for years). As ludicrous as the plot is, I wonder if my belief-suspending muscles were simply slacking off this time round. But a movie is more than just the sum of its parts - a serviceable plot can be rendered ineffectual if the other elements aren't pulling their weight. Elements such as characterization and acting - and those, I can unequivocably say are made of suck.

The movie does one thing right - a spectacular and reasonably thrilling climax. That scene almost, almost, made me give the movie an extra half-star. And then the final twist came and made me go "aiyoo, movie, you blew it". Don't be fooled, folks; this movie is only pretending to be smart. And above all, please, please, don't give Dan Brown any more of your money.

NEXT REVIEW: Push
Anticipation level: fingers crossed

Monday, May 18, 2009

Ya gotta be true... but ya also gotta be competent

Sell Out!
My rating:




Sigh. I wanted to like this movie, I really did.

Sell Out! chronicles the parallel lives of Rafflesia Pong, a TV host, and Eric Tan, a young inventor. Both are employees of the FONY megacorporation, led by two cheerfully unethical CEOs. When her arts-based show falters at the ratings, Rafflesia hits upon the idea to film dying people in their final moments and capturing their death on film. Meanwhile, Eric's invention of a 10-in-1 Super Soyamaker (that makes 10 different soybean-based products, including a mean cup of soya milk) is rejected by his bosses until he installs a "built-in breakdown mechanism". Both struggle to maintain their integrity - although Rafflesia never had much to begin with.

The film is primarily a comedy, and what enjoyment you'll get out of it will be in how much you laugh. Call me a curmudgeon, but while the rest of the audience were whooping with laughter, I was pretty much stony-faced most of the time. Its idea of comic timing is to drag a joke out long past the point where it's funny. Two big comic setpieces - a CEO chasing a sales assistant who doesn't want to actually assist, and two old ladies fighting for a taxi - are more tiresome than funny. (I suspect people were laughing more at the pointed jabs it makes at Malaysian society, rather than any actual comedy value). The more subtle sight gags work better.

The story, such as it is, simply doesn't work. At one point, Eric's personality is split into his practical side and his idealistic side, which pushes the film into the realm of fantasy. But there just isn't enough conflict between them for this subplot to have any point. Nor is it very consistent in showing the two sides - sometimes there's two of him, sometimes only one. Rafflesia is fun to watch, but after 90 minutes of her shameless tastelessness, we're asked to believe she has a last-minute change of heart. Nope. Not buying it. At all. Too little time is spent on developing their stories, and too much on comic scenes that have no relevance to the plot whatsoever (and aren't very funny).

Oh, and I should probably mention that it's also a musical. Yes, people do break into song for no reason, and hanging a lampshade on that is good for at least one funny gag (during the CEOs' song). The songs aren't bad - you won't be humming any of them as you leave the theatre, but the lyrics are clever, the tunes are melodic, and they're an effective way to hit an emotional cue. And if the actors are doing their own singing, then some of them are surprisingly good at it.

The actual acting, though... haiyoo. One big heap of fail. Peter Davis is awful. He's completely expressionless, and he reads every line in the same nasal monotone. Calling what he does here 'acting' would be an insult to actors. Kee Thuan Chye and Lim Teik Leong (the CEOs) may be veterans, but their performances are artificial and stilted. Hannah Lo (as Hannah Edwards Leong, a rival TV celebrity to Rafflesia) isn't much better than Davis, but at least she gets some entertainingly bitchy dialogue. Only Jerrica Lai really shines. She has the juiciest scenes, and makes Rafflesia likeable despite her repugnant personality. And she totally rocks that impish grin.

The direction is uninspired, and the camerawork is dodgy. The whole film opts for a hand-held 'shaky' look, and it's distracting from the very first shot. There's one part where we pan across a number of posters featuring the various divisions of the FONY company - they're clearly meant to be funny and we're clearly meant to see them, but we can't because the goddamn camera can't stay still. And during Eric and Rafflesia's big musical duet scene, every time Lai is singing her parts the camera is inexplicably pointing at the back of her head. Aiyoo, movie, what laa??

The movie also has plenty of satirical jabs at the culture of our times, and boy is the satire ever dark. Cynical does not even begin to describe its view of Malaysian society - except for Eric, everyone is venal, shallow, self-centred, apathetic and stupid. And yet it's all played for laughs. It seems as though in aiming for the funny bone, the movie doesn't realize how pitch-black its vision actually is. The ending is equally bleak. (Or at least, what passes for an ending. Talk about abrupt; it doesn't so much end as it just stops.)

What works about this movie? The humour (some of it). Jerrica Lai. The satire. The songs. The dialogue - I was pleasantly surprised by the intelligence and wit of it. The sheer ambition of attempting a Malaysian musical comedy satire with an actual message. Props to director Yeo Joon Han, whose next work I'm looking forward to. I hope he won't sell out his vision, but I'm hoping even harder that he gets better at realizing it.

NEXT REVIEW: Angels and Demons
Anticipation level: meh

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Star trekkin' across the universe, pt 2

Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country (1991)
My rating:




Story: When a chance for peace with the Klingons emerges, Kirk must face his own prejudices against the Federation's long-time enemy. But when he and Dr. McCoy are framed, it is Spock and the rest of the crew who must rescue him and the hopes for peace.

The Trek franchise recovers nicely from the fiasco of STV with this entry, a film that makes no apologies for being a metaphor for the fall of the Soviet Union. Yes, the Klingons are the Russians, and the destruction of Praxis - the moon on which lies their most important energy facility - is meant to be Chernobyl. It works quite well, and lends a familiarity and authenticity to this tale of interstellar politics and diplomacy.

But there's a lot more to it, and that's what's remarkable about this entry in the Trek saga. There's a trial scene, a prison sequence, and a murder mystery, and it juggles all these elements fairly well. Although the focus is once again on Kirk - and the theme of prejudice and racism is handled nicely - the other members of the crew also get time to shine. (It's especially a pleasure to see Sulu as captain of his own ship.) Kim Cattrall as the newcomer Valeris is a disappointment though - she's too smug for a Vulcan, and her character never really comes together. She was clearly meant to be Saavik from STII and III, and it's clear how much better it would've been if they'd gotten Kirstie Alley back for the role.

The weakest part of the film is the murder mystery - it's simply not very smartly plotted. But the overall pace of the story, and the pleasure of watching these characters work, are what carries the film. It's also conscious of the fact that it's the last movie with the original cast, and there are hints throughout that the characters are now much older and nearing retirement. Which is why the story about forging peace with an old enemy works so well - the future will be a very different place for Kirk and company, and they must prove that they're not so old that they can't embrace change. It's this kind of intelligent exploration of serious issues that Trek is best known for, and the fact that this instalment does it so well makes it a fine send-off for the crew of the Enterprise.


Star Trek: Generations (1994)
My rating:




Story: Almost a hundred years after Kirk is presumed dead, the new Enterprise commanded by Captain Picard must stop a madman from sacrificing millions of lives for his obsession - a task for which they will need a little help from another illustrious captain.

And so we begin the cinematic adventures of another crew of another Enterprise, that of the Star Trek: The Next Generation TV series. Despite the presence of Kirk, this movie was deemed a disappointment by many fans, especially regarding the manner of Kirk's death. Although I don't think getting a bridge dropped on him deserves to be the trope namer for a beloved character who dies an unsatisfying death, I have to wonder who thought 3 old men in a poorly-choreographed fight scene would make an exciting climax.

What struck me most was how lacking the TNG crew was in terms of chemistry and camaraderie. Even though the TOS (The Original Series) portion features only Kirk, Chekov and Scotty, they're so much more fun to watch than Picard, Riker, Data, Troi, Worf, Geordi and Crusher. It's partly the acting and partly the writing - the dynamics of the crew don't seem as well-thought-out as Kirk and gang. Troi, Worf and Crusher in particular always tend to end up being superfluous or otherwise ill-served by the story in every TNG movie, this one included.

The plot suffers serious pacing issues too - right where things should be getting exciting, we get an oh-so-precious scene of Picard living out his dream life of a wife and family. Poor guy, he goes through a great deal of anguish in this movie, but you never really feel it despite Patrick Stewart's best acting efforts. Data's struggles with his emotion chip are annoying, and the villain is dull. The saving graces are some exciting space action scenes, but on the whole this movie really squanders the potential for a truly worthy TOS-TNG crossover. What could've been...


Star Trek: First Contact (1996)
My rating:




Story: The Borg, an implacable race of cybernetic zombies, travel through time to Earth's past with a plan to prevent a pivotal moment in its history. The Enterprise must stop them, and Picard must deal with the trauma of having once been "assimilated" by them.

I must admit, my first impression of this movie was not good at all. Might have had something to do with the fact that I first watched it on a crappy pirated VHS. But even now, those first 15 minutes really bug me. It has one of the best space battles seen in Trek to date - and I'm usually a sucker for space battles - but it also has some truly brainless dialogue and bad acting. I dunno, maybe it's just me.

Having since given it a second chance, I can see now that it's by far the best of the TNG movies. It was the most action-oriented of the Trek films at the time, it contains the uniquely Trek-ish theme of a better future for humanity, it has the best character interaction and humour between the crewmembers, the nature of the Borg veers the film close to horror at times, and Stewart gives perhaps his finest performance as a man consumed with hate and vengeance. These are not easy elements to balance, and it's a small miracle that it does this well.

The regular cast do an adequate job - the Troi-getting-drunk scene gets a solid LOL - but its the newcomers who almost steal the show. Alfre Woodard is the perfect audience viewpoint character into the TNG Trek world, James Cromwell is terrific as the irresponsible drunk destined to become a hero, and Alice Krige as the Borg Queen - fwoar. Hands down the best Trek villain since Khan, she is deliciously, seductively evil. The first 15 minutes still bug me, and the climax contains a major plot hole (involving a character doing something for seemingly no other reason than creating suspense), but it's a solid movie nonetheless, and one I'd easily recommend to a non-Trekker.


Star Trek: Insurrection (1998)
My rating:




Story: When Starfleet orders the forced relocation of the Ba'ku, a simple people who live on a planet that is a literal fountain of youth, the Enterprise defies both their orders and the evil Son'a.

There's a tradition in the Trek films that the "even-numbered" instalments are the good ones, while the "odd-numbered" ones are lousy. It's certainly true that II, IV, VI and First Contact are fan favourites while TMP, III, V and Generations have been deemed disappointing (although III gets unfairly lumped in there). And now here's the 9th Star Trek film - and it's another disappointment. Except for a few effective space battle scenes towards the end, this movie is little more than a two-hour episode of the TV series, and suffers greatly for it. It's just too small and inconsequential a story for a theatrical release.

Insurrection tries to be the STIV of the TNG crew, and doesn't succeed very well. Humour just doesn't come as naturally to these characters as they did in the TOS era. Data sings, Riker and Troi get frisky, Picard has a little romance with a Ba'ku chick, and none of it's very funny or effective. There's a noticeable lack of budget that exacerbates the TV-quality feel - the Ba'ku village is an unforgivably cheap-looking set, and quite a lot of the CGI effects look shoddy. F. Murray Abraham is a respected veteran actor, but his villainous Ru'afo character is pretty lame. The whole movie just feels so twee.

The plot is reasonably smart and well-paced, and the space battles are exciting. There's also a mid-air chase scene between two shuttles that's also well done, and these are the movie's saving graces. Overall, your enjoyment of this film will depend a lot on how much you like Picard and gang. This is their most earnest attempt to be charming and fun - me, I thought they tried a little too hard.


Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)
My rating:




Story: A murderous faction of Remans engineers a coup on Romulus, and the Enterprise must investigate. There Picard will face an enemy with a deep personal connection to himself - as well as a grudge.

So if the even-numbered ones are supposed to be the good ones, this 10th film should be one of them, right? Wrong, unfortunately. Not only was this movie excoriated by the fans, it flopped badly at the box-office. This is the movie that sent the Star Trek franchise into the doldrums from which it has just recovered. What's surprising is how a film written by an avowed Star Trek fan (John Logan) and sporting the biggest budget of any Trek film to date could fail so badly. The general opinion among critics is that the Trek formula has simply gotten old and worn out.

I thought hard about where exactly this movie went wrong, because I couldn't accept that criticism - surely what worked in 9 previous films (well, the good ones anyway) could still work here? But it's a valid point. There's always been a certain staginess and stiffness to Trek - what should be fast-paced space battle scenes are intercut with a lot of Picard barking orders, crewmen responding with technobabble, and everyone staring balefully at the bridge viewscreen.

But again, this is the Trek formula, and it's lasted for 9 movies. What I thought really sunk this movie is simply a lame story. The fact that the villain Shinzon is a clone of Picard really isn't as interesting as the filmmakers thought it was - there's no thematic richness to it, it doesn't take Picard's characterization in any new directions, and Tom Hardy doesn't impress. Once again, it squanders its own ensemble - those characters are there simply because they're part of the TNG crew, not because they get to do anything. And as a long-time Trek fan, I simply have to mention the dune buggy chase sequence. That scene was just full of WTF - how could Logan forget about the Prime Directive?

At least it was an exciting scene. And that's what this movie has - some thrilling action setpieces that show us things we've never seen in Trek before. None of which saves this film, unfortunately, not even a heroic sacrifice of a beloved character that tries too hard to imitate the climax of STII. Nemesis is everything that J.J. Abrams tried to reinvent for the 2009 Star Trek - dynamic instead of stiff, warm instead of cold, new and fresh instead of old and tired. The best compliment I can give this film is to watch it so as to appreciate the new one even better.

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Whew! That was longer and harder than I expected. Apologies for the lateness of pt 2 - I found it necessary to rewatch a few of the movies to decide more accurately how I felt about them. In any case, I certainly hope these 10 movies get a little love in the wake of the adulation the new film's been receiving. There's no movie quite like a Star Trek movie - smart, funny, thrilling, thought-provoking, moving - and above all, fun. So remember - there are 11 Trek movies, not just one. Check 'em all out.

(Okay, maybe not STV.)