Monday, December 28, 2009

Elementary, my dear Ritchie

Sherlock Holmes
My rating:

A couple weeks ago, I found two volumes of Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes at a Popular bookstore outlet - the complete novels, and the complete short stories. In hardcover, for only 30 ringgit each. Sweeeeet. I picked them both up immediately, of course, glad that I could finally fill that gap in my childhood literary memories. Y'see, I grew up with my dad's copy of The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, the second anthology of stories, so I reckon I have more than a passing familiarity with the literary Holmes. I also remember watching the British TV series starring Jeremy Brett, who is still many fans' definitive Holmes on screen.

So all this makes my opinion of this movie - that it's pretty good - a thoroughly informed and expert one. Recognize, yo.

After foiling a ritual human sacrifice and apprehending Lord Blackwood (Mark Strong), Sherlock Holmes (Robert Downey Jr.) finds himself bored and depressed - more so because Dr. Watson (Jude Law) is getting married and moving out of their famous apartment on 221B Baker Street. Then longtime adversary Irene Adler (Rachel McAdams) reappears to offer him a case (and reignite some long-simmering romantic tension), and furthermore Blackwood appears to have survived his hanging and literally risen from the grave with the help of supernatural powers. Both cases are of course related, and Holmes - aided by a now-none-too-enthusiastic Watson - must uncover Blackwood's megalomaniacal plans and foil them.

Yes, I enjoyed it, but the question on everyone's minds is: is it a faithful adaptation? Well, yes and no. Yes, in the sense that there's a lot to Doyle's Holmes that most people don't know, mostly because they haven't actually read much of him. Four novels and sixty short stories covers a lot of ground, and reveal a great deal more about him than is popularly known - and most of what's popularly known about him came from other depictions in film, stage and illustration. Yes, he's pretty badass in a fight; yes, he's always been a master of disguise; yes, he's always been a bit of a pompous dick; and no, Doyle never mentioned him wearing a deerstalker cap. So yes, director Guy Ritchie's Holmes is pretty faithful - all the elements are presented and accounted for in the source material, and this article does a good job at proving it.

But where all the online talk has been about how faithful the character is, few people have noticed that the biggest departure has been in the tone of the film - even the genre. Doyle's stories have always, first and foremost, been mysteries - the plots were driven by either who did the crime, or how they pulled it off. This movie is not a mystery. Sure, there are scenes where Holmes shows off his brilliant deductive skills, and they are as much fun as they were in the stories; there's even a bit at the climax where he lays bare all the villain's plans. But those aren't what drives the plot. What keeps you watching isn't who did it or how. What keeps you watching is how the good guys are gonna beat the bad guys. It's an action movie.

So yes, Sherlock Holmes is an action movie. And yes, it's a pretty good one. You don't see many action movies set in Victorian London for one, and the setting is quite nicely realized - the CGI backgrounds are a little too obviously green-screened, but the sets and locations look great. There's a fight scene in a shipyard, another in a meat packing plant, a climactic fight atop a still-in-construction Tower Bridge, and it's all quite well done and effectively thrilling. And yes, the plot is Sherlock Holmes vs Spooky Supernatural Shit (somewhat), which is also kinda cool. It's far from airtight - you're likely to reach for something in your fridge a couple days later and suddenly think "wait, that bit there didn't make any sense" - but it moves fast enough that you won't notice it at the time.

It's also a buddy action movie, starring whom may be the archetypal buddies, Holmes and Watson. And here's another departure from Doyle's canon - I don't recall their relationship ever being so contentious. You may have watched the trailer where Watson punches Holmes in the face; yes, he does, and yes, Holmes deserved it. Holmes behaves very much like a jilted lover here, all because Watson is leaving their carefree bachelor lifestyle - and bachelor pad - behind for marriage. Yes, it's just a little gay, but then again all close male friendships onscreen are a little gay nowadays. Watson is at least a smart and capable sidekick this time, rather than the bumbling dimwit he's often been portrayed as; he's even as badass in a fight as Holmes. And yes, their banter is fun, with plenty of that uniquely British bombastic wit.

Robert Downey Jr. isn't going to replace Brett anytime soon, but he's lots of fun here. Iron Man proved he's one of the most charismatic leading men in Hollywood today, and likewise here he commands the screen and never delivers a joke that falls flat with the audience. The rest of the cast are just kind of adequate, really. Jude Law is a perfectly serviceable Watson - his may be casting against type, since Law seems a perfectly reasonable candidate to play Holmes himself. The gamble... pretty much breaks even. Mark Strong bears an uncanny resemblance to Andy Garcia; he looks mean enough, but never really comes across as a worthy adversary to Holmes. Rachel McAdams is a little young to play Irene Adler, really, and here she's also just adequate.

Incidentally, that Irene Adler is in this movie is more proof that, despite its title, Sherlock Holmes isn't trying to be a definitive portrayal of Sherlock Holmes (she's only ever appeared in one story, it's the fans that have proclaimed her the One True Love of Holmes' Life). It's a pastiche - it takes beloved familiar characters, puts them in unfamiliar situations, and just has fun with it. But there's nothing wrong with that. Holmes has long been one of the most popular literary figures, not just because of the stories or the character - because he's also in the public domain. The key to making a successful pastiche is to get the right things right (the characters) and the other things fresh (the plot). So on that note, does Guy Ritchie succeed? Yes.

Expectations: hmmm

Saturday, December 26, 2009

As heroic as bloodshed gets

Bodyguards and Assassins
My rating:

I feel like I ought to watch more Hong Kong and Chinese films. Reviews of Hollywood movies are a dime a dozen on the internet, but good reviews - in English - of Asian films are rarer, and likely to earn my humble blog a few precious more hits from other countries. (I highly doubt they'd be interested in Malay movies.) But English is, for all intents and purposes, my first language, and therefore I'm much more inclined to catch an English movie than a Chinese-language one. Which is why I rely so much on LoveHKFilm, one of my favourite sites, to recommend me the good ones. I'm only watching Bodyguards and Assassins because of their favourable review of it.

And they were right.

It is 1906, and the dawn of revolution in China. Sun Yat-sen is planning a visit to Hong Kong to unite several rebel groups, but his arrival is heralded by an army of Qing assassins led by Yan Xiao-Guo (Hu Jun). Before revolutionary newspaperman Chen Xiao-Bai (Tony Leung Kar-Fai) can organise a defense, Yan launches a pre-emptive attack against rebel leader Fang Tian (Simon Yam) and kidnaps Chen. It falls to Chen's friend and financier Li Yu-Tang (Wang Xueqi) to put together a rag-tag band of bodyguards - rickshaw puller A-Si (Nicholas Tse), Fang Tian's daughter Fang Hong (Li Yuchun), seven-foot-tall street vendor Stinky Tofu (Mengke Bateer), beggar and former nobleman Liu Yubai (Leon Lai), and Li's own son Chong-Guang (Wang Bo-Chieh). And at the same time, Li's concubine (Fan Bingbing) seeks the aid of her ex-husband, ne'er-do-well gambler Shen Chung-Yang (Donnie Yen), whilst British police chief Shi (Eric Tsang) must decide whether to help or hinder his friend Li.

How 'bout that, I actually managed to write a plot summary that included every single member of the film's star-studded ensemble. And that's definitely one of it's major selling points. That's twelve characters there on the poster, many of whom are played by Hong Kong and China's biggest stars, each getting an iconic moniker such as "The Gambler", "The Tycoon", "The Revolutionary" or "The Rickshaw Man". (Which is a neat bit of marketing, by the way - it really makes the film seem epic.) The movie's biggest success is in balancing them all, giving each a dramatic subplot, and turning them into likable and well-drawn characters - all the better for the dramatic impact when the action scenes kick in.

It takes a while to get there though, but that's by no means a flaw. The first half is almost all setup, introducing each character as well as establishing the historical context. And if you're itching to get to the fight scenes, settle down and enjoy the character drama first, which is really quite well done. The script establishes a number of relationships - Li and his rebellious son, Chong-Guang and A-Si, Chen and his former student-turned-adversary Yan, Shen and his old flame, and more - that are quite effective, even if they're necessarily lightly-drawn given the ensemble nature of the film. They all have different reasons for putting their lives on the line for a man they don't even know, most of which have nothing to do with patriotism or revolutionary spirit. But those themes are also present and accounted for, giving them a worthy cause for which to fight. (And of course, Sun Yat-sen wasn't assassinated in Hong Kong in 1906, but the plot does a clever turn to sidestep that fact and still maintain suspense.)

But this is Hong Kong film; more broadly, this is Asian film, with its typically melodramatic style of storytelling. This is a film where a rowdy street protest by democratic activists suddenly become silent witnesses to a heart-rending father-son argument. It isn't enough that Shen's old flame tells him that the little girl she's raising as Li's daughter is actually his - he must also run down the street after their rickshaw just to get a closer look at the girl. And when our heroes give their lives to protect Sun during the action-heavy second half, they will do so in the most awesomely heroic manner possible. There's plenty of blatant tear-jerking in this film, and while it does often cross the line into cheesy and manipulative, it also often works. This is heroic bloodshed, folks - that uniquely Hong Kong genre that combines action with grand operatic emotion, and if you don't have at least somewhat of an appreciation for it you pretty much need never watch a Hong Kong film.

And speaking of the action-heavy second half - yes, this is practically a full hour of wall-to-wall action, as the rickshaw convoy carrying Sun crosses a gauntlet of vicious Qing assassins. Unfortunately, the action isn't up to what you'd expect from a Hong Kong film. Director Teddy Chen films the fight scenes with quick cuts and shaky-cam, making it impossible to enjoy the martial arts choreography. He may have done so to cover up the fact that neither Leon Lai nor Li Yuchun - who both star in their own fight scenes - are trained kungfu artists. But even Donnie Yen's big fight with MMA star Cung Le (last seen in Pandorum and Fighting) is as incoherently shot and edited. I fear many moviegoers expecting an all-action spectacle will be disappointed, if they don't get with the characters and the themes. These are the things that keep the second half compelling, if not spectacular.

Wang Xueqi is easily the standout amongst the cast. His character performs the most emotional heavy lifting in the film, and Wang is outstandingly up to the task - the movie owes much of its success to his gravitas and screen presence. Donnie Yen gets top billing, but Li Yu-tang is the real main character of the movie. The other actors all portray simple roles effectively - Nicholas Tse is surprisingly good as a loyal simpleton, NBA player Mengke Bateer is one of the most likable of the heroes, Fan Bingbing is ridiculously beautiful (okay, that says nothing about her acting, but damn, she is), and Hu Jun is an effectively hissable, yet noble, villain. Sadly, the film's largest misstep is in casting Leon Lai as the secret kungfu master Liu. He does his best, but he's simply the wrong actor for that kind of character. I thought he should've swapped roles with Yen.

I really ought to mention the set, a meticulously - and very expensively - recreated life-size turn-of-the-century Hong Kong. The streets, Li's palatial home, Chen's printing presses, even Shen's tenement apartment - it all looks terrific, and effectively transports you into a different time and place. The same care and polish that went into the production design is reflected in every other aspect of the film, enough to smoothen out the weak spots. Don't go in expecting a non-stop "ta kau" flick, and you'll be able to enjoy a historical action-adventure that's stirring and poignant and epic in all the right places. There's no movie like a good Hong Kong-style heroic bloodshed movie, and we're lucky they're still making 'em.

NEXT REVIEW: Sherlock Holmes
Expectations: looking forward to it

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Filem yang sungguh bersaja-saja

My rating:

So yeah, the buzz around this movie is all about lead actress Putri Mardiana's scene in which she eats maggots. Oh yeah, that reeaaallly makes me want to watch it. Seriously, I considered skipping this movie, but in the end I gritted my teeth and decided to go for it. I thought the trailer was actually half-decent, and hey, what's this? A glowing review from Cinema Online? Well slap me silly and call me Suhaila, let's check it out!

Cinema Online's reviews aren't worth shit.

Halim (Esma Daniel) is a successful businessman with a beautiful wife, Nina (Putri Mardiana) and a daughter named Echa (Farisha Fatin). But someone jealous of his happiness has placed a curse on his family, in the form of a demon possessing Nina's body. As Nina's condition worsens, Halim begins to suspect that one of his neighbours - friendly and helpful Usin (Riezman Khuzaimi), or cold and aloof Man (Zul Handy Black) - is responsible.

So it's a horror movie, right? Meant to be scary, yeah? Give you that good ol' feeling of dread, huh? That's certainly what writer-director Azhari Zain intended. From the very first scene, he aims for an atmosphere of constant tension and foreboding, even in something as innocuous as Halim and Nina throwing a little kenduri at their house. And to accomplish that, he employs jarring musical cues and everything up to and including the kitchen sink - no matter how little goddamn sense it makes.

Take an early scene, in which little Echa hears creepy noises from her bedroom and sees a long-haired, rotted-flesh ghost under her bed. Wooo, scary! But in the very next scene, Halim leaves for work, and Echa is right there playing with her toys like nothing happened. What was the point of the bed ghost? Damned if I know. Then Halim goes to his office, he thinks he's alone but suddenly a figure moves past the camera, so wooo, spooky. Turns out it's one of his staff, but the guy's all monotone and blank-faced and warning him about all this dengki khianat gonna get all up in yo' face - and then he disappears into thin air. Next day when Halim meets the guy again, guy says he wasn't in the office that day. So who was he? What was his deal? Damned if I know. Damned if the movie knows, or gives a shit.

The whole film is like this. Halim drives down a dark road at night, and gets spooked out by a lorry tailgating him. Why is the lorry scary? What's the point of that scene?? It's completely saja je. At one point Halim and Nina walk by a completely random old lady who can see the ghost that's possessing Nina. Why? Saja. Echa is terrified of her mum becoming more and more possessed - then at one point when Halim carries her up to her room, the little girl too looks all ghostly and shit. Why? Saja. First it looks like there's only one long-haired female (it's always female) ghost terrorising Nina, but sometimes there's two of 'em. Why? Saja. The guy who turns out to be the villain is also the guy who warned Halim earlier about a curse placed on his family. Why did he do that? Saja. Halim is a skeptic, but turns out Usin and Man and Man's wife have like mad ghostbusting kungfu skillz. Why? Saja.

It's at times like this that I'd rather occupy myself by observing the audience around me. They were full of derisive comments at the countless stupidities of the plot. (Power goes out in Halim and Nina's house, Halim wants to go check the fusebox, Nina is freaking out and begging him to stay - and someone in the audience yells, "Ikut je laa!") I was beginning to feel proud of my fellow Malaysian moviegoer, that they're smart enough not to buy this shit shoveled at them. Then we got to the climax of the film, in which an imam and a bunch of kopiah-clad guys chant Quranic verses to exorcise Nina - and the whole audience went quiet. I'm hoping they'd just gotten bored, like I was, but I suspect it was because any kind of Islamic-themed content is enough to shut them up and go "rasa filem ni bes jugak, ada nilai-nilai moral dan agama." Sigh.

I guess I gotta give it up to Putri Mardiana, who displays impressive dedication when she stuffs bloody maggot-ridden fried eggs in her mouth. Rest of the time, all she does is look psycho, and she at least does that well. Esma Daniel is terrible - Halim comes across as an insensitive, willfully oblivious moron, even given the fact that he's written that way. Hafidzuddin Fazil plays the imam who exorcises Nina, and he speaks to a raving, wild-eyed, demon-possessed woman like he's ordering lunch. Zul Handy Black glowers a lot, and Riezman Khuzaimi looks slimy.

But the real star of the show here is Azhari Mohd Zain. This is the second movie of his that I've seen, and it is as steaming a turd as the first. Guy doesn't know the first thing about telling a story, let alone a horror story, let alone putting it to film. All he's doing here is throwing a bunch of "scary" stuff at the screen and calling it a horror flick. En. Azhari, you're a hack, an incompetent, and an utter failure as a filmmaker - and I bet either you or your producer David Teo paid duit kopi to Cinema Online for that review. Why would I make such an unfounded and malicious accusation? Saja.

NEXT REVIEW: Bodyguards and Assassins
Expectations: if it sucks, I'm blaming LoveHKFilm

Saturday, December 19, 2009


My rating:

James freakin' Cameron. Know who that is? Only the man who directed The Terminator, Aliens, Terminator 2: Judgment Day, The Abyss, and Titanic. Those are some of the best sci-fi films ever made, and some of the best films ever period. It's been an even dozen years since his last movie, and that alone would've made Avatar the most highly anticipated film of the year - but add to that a four-year production, an over-$230-million budget, rumoured revolutionary new SFX technology and rumoured revolutionary new 3D filming technology, and expectations aren't just through the roof, they're through an entire 30-floor skyscraper.

Well, it met them. Didn't exceed them, but very much met them.

It is the year 2154. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic ex-Marine, is made an offer to join a corporate expedition to the planet Pandora. Their mining operation is being threatened by an indigenous race known as the Na'vi, ten-foot-tall blue-skinned humanoids who live in harmony with their environment. Sully gets the chance to operate an "avatar", an artificially-grown Na'vi body whom he controls remotely, who can survive in Pandora's atmosphere. He is nominally part of Dr. Grace Augustine's (Sigourney Weaver) scientific team, but the ruthless Colonel Miles Quaritch (Stephen Lang) orders him to infiltrate the Na'vi to learn their weaknesses. Sully gets his chance when he meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and is introduced to the rest of her Na'vi clan - and soon finds himself falling in love with her, as well as with their native way of life. But Quaritch grows more and more hostile and callous, and soon Sully must decide where his loyalties lie.

Y'know, it didn't occur to me till I was writing that synopsis above, that this is a pretty complicated story. So many concepts and ideas, so much backstory, and I haven't even mentioned a great many other supporting characters - Tsu'Tey (Laz Alonso), a Na'vi warrior and rival for Neytiri's affections; Norm Spellman (Joel David Moore), Sully's fellow avatar operator; Trudy Chacon (Michelle Rodriguez), a Marine combat pilot sympathetic towards Sully, Parker Selfridge (Giovanni Ribisi), the weaselly corporate drone; and more. So it's a credit to the film that none of this is confusing or overwhelming; you are effortlessly immersed into the story and the world.

And woo boy, is immersive ever the key word here. Pandora is a world, stunningly beautiful and vibrantly, gloriously alive. A good part of the four-year production was spent working out the look, the ecology, and the flora and fauna of Pandora, and their efforts all pay off handsomely; not since Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy has there been such a well-realised cinematic world. (The Na'vi even have their own native language, developed by linguists.) And it's all brought to life with some of the most seamless CGI effects ever. Were you not impressed by the trailers? Did you think they still looked a bit rough, a bit fake, like a videogame cutscene? That's because they were still being rendered. Those were WIP shots, folks. The final product has all the kinks and bumps smoothed out, and everything looks perfectly, flawlessly real.

And that includes the Na'vi. Okay, I shouldn't really gush too much, the performance-capture hasn't quite matched the quality of a real-life actor yet. But good gravy, Cameron has come closer than anyone so far. Sam Worthington is not the most expressive actor, but his avatar self still captures the nuances of his performance in a more convincing manner than I've ever seen - and I'm a tough one to convince. And then there's Neytiri. Zoe Saldana's performance is fiery and passionate; she is alternately angry, mischievous, ecstatic, heartbroken and fiercely badass, and both actor and CGI combine to create one of the best digital creations ever put on screen. The rest of the Na'vi - Tsu'Tey, or Eytucan and Mo'at, chief and high priestess of the tribe respectively - are just as impressive. I could hardly recognise veteran character actors Wes Studi and CCH Pounder in the latter two roles. Whatever Cameron did different than Robert Zemeckis, it beats A Christmas Carol easily.

And then there's the 3D. Yes, it is worth the extra 8 bucks or so to watch it in 3D, although I wouldn't say it's essential. It's never used as a gimmick; no deliberate shots of things flying or jumping at the screen, so if you were wowed by Monsters vs. Aliens in 3D and want more of the same, you might be disappointed. What it's used for is, again, to immerse you in the story and the world - and it works at that. It's fun watching a typically masterful Cameron-directed action scene in 3D, but what impressed me the most were quiet scenes of people sitting around and talking; you can clearly perceive the depth of field between the characters, the furniture, and every object in the shot. And it is very much not blurry or dim like my other 3D viewing experience, which is exactly what I expected from Cameron.

And that's what you can expect from Cameron - a masterful technical, technological, even aesthetic, achievement. And here's where I talk about the film as a story, which isn't as successful as the nuts-and-bolts aspects, and which is where it fails to exceed expectations. It drags. The midsection feels long and drawn-out, and I felt myself waiting a little impatiently for the next big action setpiece. And I think this is because the plot is - has become - too formulaic. It's basically Dances with Wolves and The Last Samurai all over again, even a bit of Ferngully and Pocahontas sprinkled in. The film's midpoint is where the plot kicks into gear, when Quaritch and Selfridge finally start open hostilities with the Na'vi, and we all knew it was coming. And we all know a massive, all-out, nature vs. technology, natives vs. imperialists, bows-and-arrows-and-horses-and-flying-dragons vs. guns-and-planes-and-ships-and-mechs battle is coming, but it's taking its own sweet time to get there.

Cameron says the idea for this film has been in his head since 1994, and here's where it shows. The technology may be sparkling and new, but the story is somewhat tired. Even the oh-so-noble-savage Na'vi feel like a cliche, as does the we-must-be-one-with-nature theme. And I wonder when exactly it was that Cameron forgot how to write great dialogue. Aliens, Terminator 2 and True Lies had heaps of quotable lines; here, none. Not even in Sully's speech to the Na'vi to rouse them to war. "We will send them a message - that this... this is our land!" doesn't compare with "They may take our lives... but they will never take our freedom!" Or "But it is not this day! This day we fight!" Or "The line must be drawn here! This far, no further!" Or even "We will not go quietly into the night!" Why yes, I am very fond of this trope. And yes, Avatar disappointed me in this regard.

But see those three-and-a-half stars? That still means it's a very, very good movie. It is, in fact, an awesome movie. It is chock-full of awesome. The shuttle landing on Pandora was awesome. The mechs patrolling the base grounds were awesome. The first scene with Sully's and Norm's avatars is awesome. Sully's first encounter with Pandoran wildlife is awesome. Neytiri is awesome. The quirky, glowing Pandoran flora are awesome. The floating mountains are awesome. Sully learning the Na'vi ways from Neytiri is awesome. The taming of the flying dragon steeds is aaawwwwesooomme. I spent so much of the running time with my mouth open, my throat was dry when I left the cinema. This is the most spectacular film you'll see all year, and you owe it to yourself to catch it just for that.

And it's still James freakin' Cameron after all, not goddamn Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich. He may be a technical whiz, but he's still miles better at telling a story than either of those two hacks. Even if the story is formulaic and predictable, it's still told with far better care and heart than most directors who aren't also technical whizzes. I can almost forgive him for the dragginess, because he's using that time to ensure the maximum dramatic impact of the story's beats - Quaritch's first attack on the Na'vi, the avatar team's dismay at being shut down, Neytiri's feelings of betrayal toward Jake. It's a spectacular film, but it is in no way empty spectacle. On a scene-by-scene basis, there's nothing that doesn't work exactly as it's meant to - whether to wow you with cool visuals, thrill you with an action scene, make you laugh with a snarky line or sight gag, or make you angry at callous destruction and cruelty.

And he's pretty damn good with actors - flesh-and-blood ones - too. There's never a bad performance in a Cameron film, and always plenty of great ones. Worthington may be a little wooden, but he gives the film a grounding in reality that helps offset the fantastical settings and happenings. Saldana is, as mentioned, terrific, and I hope she doesn't miss out on the recognition she deserves just because Neytiri doesn't look like her. Sigourney Weaver is as good as ever, and it's nice to see Michelle Rodriguez in a role where she actually smiles. But the standout performance is definitely Stephen Lang's. Colonel Quaritch is a badass mofo from his very first scene; he starts out as someone you admire, then slowly and surely becomes a totally hissable villain. Lang plays him with just the right touch of larger-than-life that never crosses the line into over-the-top.

And this is getting to be the longest review I've written yet, but this film deserves it. If it were an unqualified triumph, I wouldn't even have so much to say; I'd just rave about it. But the first James Cameron film in twelve years is just that intricate a film, exhaustive a subject, and momentous an event. So yes, not an unqualified triumph, but undeniably a triumph. And hey! Is there not talk of a sequel already? Now this is something to look forward to - the same world, the same characters, the same technical perfection, but a whole new story. But first, go watch this. Go watch it now. (And try to watch it in 3D.) It is the film of the year. Even if it's not - in my not-so-humble opinion - the best.

Update: Rating revised to reflect my new five-star rating scale.

Expectations: siiiiggghh

Thursday, December 17, 2009

2D is still groovy

The Princess and the Frog
My rating:

I watched Aladdin only about a year ago. That'd be the 1992 Disney animated version, the one that came between Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King. Yes, I'm quite the slow poke, but I have to say I didn't much like it. Beauty was gorgeous and sweeping, Lion King was epic, but I found Aladdin kiddish and cliched. I've watched only a couple more Disney traditionally-animated films since then, and while I enjoyed them, I wasn't too upset when they announced that 2004's Home on the Range (which I didn't catch) would be their last movie to employ hand-drawn animation. Of course it was dumb of them to blame an entire medium for their last few movies' lack of success, but it wasn't just the medium; Disney's entire approach to animated storytelling had just become too tired and formulaic.

The Princess and the Frog proves there's still life, not just in the medium, but in the formula itself.

It is 1920s New Orleans, and Tiana (Anika Noni Rose) is a waitress who cares only about working hard and saving up to fulfill her late father's dream - opening her own restaurant. When Prince Naveen (Bruno Campos) visits the city, her wealthy friend Charlotte (Jennifer Cody) is excited at the prospect of becoming his princess, but Tiana couldn't care less. Unfortunately, the fun-loving and irresponsible prince runs afoul of Dr. Facilier (Keith David), a voodoo witch doctor who turns him into a frog while Naveen's servant Lawrence (Peter Bartlett) impersonates him as part of Facilier's plot to take over the city. And when the frog prince meets Tiana and persuades her to kiss him... she too turns into a frog. Now they must travel together through the bayou to meet voodoo priestess Mama Odie (Jenifer Lewis) who can help remove the curse, aided by jazz-loving alligator Louis (Michael-Leon Wooley) and lovesick firefly Ray (Jim Cummings).

Credits to Ed Catmull and John Lasseter - president and chief creative officer, respectively, of Walt Disney Animation Studios and Pixar - for reviving the hand-drawn animated film. And especially to Lasseter, who acts as producer here and whose experience making some of the best 3D-animated films of all time for Pixar must have surely influenced this movie. For those who saw the mid-'90s Disney renaissance come to an ignominous end, the improvements are obvious: a strong and independent heroine, no cute animal sidekicks (Louis and Ray are characters, not cliches shoehorned in for the cute factor), a decent dramatic conflict, an engaging plot, likable characters, and an emphasis on telling a story instead of simply throwing things at the screen to keep the kiddies in their seats.

But it's not like all that is anything new. This is very much the Disney formula through and through, right down to the Broadway musical-style songs (penned by Randy Newman) - it's just executed well. And as my viewing of Aladdin proved, I'm not a big fan of the formula. Frankly, I found the opening scene cloying and sappy, with an oh-so-cute young Tiana and her oh-so-loving family and their oh-so-heartwarming dream. Pixar would never be this corny. And I think I've confirmed once and for all that musicals are my least favourite film genre. I dunno, I just can never suspend my disbelief whenever the characters break into song and start cutting the rug.

So it helps a lot that the song-and-dance sequences are lively and filled with lots of funny sight gags. Which is one thing the Disney formula has always been good at, and this time credits go to directors John Musker and Ron Clements, veterans of Disney traditionally-animated films. The film improves greatly once the plot gets into gear, and Musker and Clements steer it with sure hands and keep the proceedings fun and fast-paced. It's too bad that none of the music is especially memorable; two hours after leaving the cinema, I couldn't remember any of the songs anymore. Randy Newman does a solid job, incorporating jazz, gospel, zydeco and other native New Orleans music - but if you ask me, the last really good soundtrack and score for a Disney animated film was Beauty and the Beast.

But another thing this film gets right is the casting - as in, not getting carried away with stunt casting or letting any particular actor's performance overpower the movie (*coughRobinWilliamsEddieMurphycough*). All the actors do fine work, in both the acting and singing departments. I bet it was tempting to cast some A-list comedians in the comic-relief roles of Louis and Ray, but Michael-Leon Wooley and Jim Cummings are great; Cummings' Cajun accent especially is a hoot. And there's been much ado about the fact that Tiana is Disney's first African-American "princess" - which is apparently some marketing label that targets young girls - but it makes no never mind to us Asians.

So yes, welcome back Walt Disney Animation Studios' hand-drawn animation unit. It's good to know you haven't lost the knack for making films that are funny, thrilling, heartwarming, romantic, and greatly entertaining - in other words, the Disney formula. But even though they've breathed new life into it, I wonder how long they can keep it going. Even if this starts a new Disney renaissance, how long can they make it last before another Treasure Planet or Brother Bear or Home on the Range brings it to an end again? 'Cos after all, it's not the medium that's the problem, it's the stories. And you can't keep telling the same story over and over again.

Expectations: James freakin' Cameron wooo

Monday, December 14, 2009

Thunder! Lightning! Awesome! Not!

The Storm Warriors
My rating:

I had a friend back in high school who was into Chinese comics. I couldn't read them - I don't even know if they were the ones this film is based on - and I only ever flipped through a few of them, but I didn't like them at all. There was hardly any actual story, just a bunch of ridiculously over-the-top fights in which guys get thrown into mountains that subsequently explode - and a single fight scene could stretch across five issues. Granted, they were weekly issues, but it all struck me as boring and repetitive and utter fail at being awesome.

So if they were the ones The Storm Warriors is based on, I guess the film's a pretty faithful adaptation then.

Lord Godless' (Simon Yam) armies are ravaging China, having already captured the Emperor and his family. He is opposed by Nameless (Kenny Ho), Wind (Ekin Cheng) and Cloud (Aaron Kwok), but the tyrant - and his son, Heart (Nicholas Tse) - are too powerful. Aided by Piggy King (Lam Suet) and Wind and Cloud's respective lovers Second Dream (Charlene Choi) and Chu Chu (Tang Yan), they seek to improve their skills - Wind under the tutelage of Lord Wicked (Kenny Wong), and Cloud under Nameless. But even as Lord Godless seeks an artifact that will complete his conquest, Wind's training leads him down a path of evil that will grant him power, but at great cost to his soul.

I remember little of this film's predecessor The Storm Riders; only that I rather enjoyed it, despite some cheesy CGI and borderline incoherent plot. I have two pieces of good news: first, The Storm Warriors is a pretty much stand-alone film, requiring little to no knowledge of the first installment. Second, the plot is easier to follow. There are still a lot of superfluous characters and unexplained concepts, but nothing that'll make your head itch too much. Unfortunately, that's about all the good news there is. The movie sucks. It's dull and silly and overly portentous until can die.

Take the opening scene. Godless has captured Nameless and Cloud (and a bunch of keh leh feh), who then escape their chains and kick off the first fight scene. Which consists of its combatants taking a good sixty seconds (each) to power up their attacks while their opponents wait politely. This will be repeated in every fight scene in the movie; it's laughable the first time and boring as hell every other. And it's not like their various superpowered special-effecky kungfu techniques make any goddamn sense either. What is Godless' power? What's that weird thing Cloud does with razor wire? Are Wind and Cloud's swords magical? Why can't Nameless' sword-storm thing beat Godless, but Wind's insta-freeze power can? The film isn't interested in answering any of these questions. It's completely arbitrary.

And it's nowhere near as cool or thrilling as it thinks it is either. A lot of scenes go for a stylized comicbook look a la 300 - and indeed, directors Danny and Oxide Pang have cited that film as an influence - and it all just looks and feels fake. Not to mention unintentionally hilarious - there's an utterly LOLworthy freeze-frame of Charlene Choi's O-face. Not to mention dull - the fight scenes take forever, and feature more posturing and posing and CGI than actual fighting. Production values are hit and miss; the costumes look decent, but the sets are all clearly cheap-looking soundstages and bluescreens, even the "outdoor" scenes. Does a deliberately comicbook-stylized film always have to end up on the "cheesy" end of the awesomeness curve?

I dunno. Frankly, I didn't much like 300 either. I like to think a film like this could still work, so long as it has a solid emotional core and convincing performances. This one has neither. Do Wind and Cloud even like each other? What is their relationship anyway? Why does Cloud act like a dick around his nominal girlfriend Chu Chu? And why do the women keep calling them "Fung tai kor!" and "Wan tai kor!!" like a couple of nine-year-olds? Yes, that last bit annoyed me a lot. Both the female characters are so weak and simpering, the whole film comes across as sexist. In fact, are there any strong female characters in Ma Wing-Shing's entire body of work? Do I hear crickets?

And the performances are uniformly poor; everyone acts like they just showed up to cash a paycheck. Nicholas Tse can't even do a properly hissable villain, Simon Yam can't even chew some decent scenery, Lam Suet can't even provide much comic relief. The two actresses are, as mentioned, bloody irritating. Aaron Kwok does nothing but brood and grimace and grit his teeth through his oh-so-fashionably-windswept hair. I'm only slightly impressed by Ekin Cheng, whom normally I can barely stand. He unleashes the histrionics quite well in the closing scene, and does a decent maniacal grin during his turn to the Dark Side™ - the rest of the time he does his usual impression of a wooden plank. Oh, and I quite liked Kenny Ho, who at least looked like he belongs in this world. But honestly, none of the actors had anything to work with.

I have one final piece of bad news: the movie ends on a cliffhanger. Pretty ballsy of the Bros. Pang, assuming their film would be successful enough to engender a sequel - but I'm just gonna say I hope there won't be one. The one good thing about it is the music, which is quite effectively epic and valiantly tries to provide the awesomeness that the rest of the movie lacks. So pick up a soundtrack CD and give the movie a miss. Or go back to the original comics, if they're any better than the movie - and at this point, I'm leaning towards the source material being as sucky as their adaptations. Remember A Man Called Hero? This one's just about as bad.

NEXT REVIEW: The Princess and the Frog
Expectations: fingers crossed

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Land of the damn fun dead

My rating:

I have a friend who (not quite, um, legally) watched this on DVD about a month ago. While he didn't unreservedly recommend it, he very adamantly told me not to watch it in cinemas. All the best parts are the goriest and most vulgar, according to him, and would surely be brought to the attention of Big Daddy National Censorship Board. I decided to go anyway, since I've already made it a point to review the local cinema scene - and that includes the Malaysian versions of films that have been censored for our own fragile little sakes.

But I'll be picking it up on DVD too. Because it's very much worth it.

The zombie apocalypse has come; hordes of once-human, insanely ravenous cannibals roam the remnants of civilisation. One survivor is Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), a nerdy shut-in who relies on a list of his own rules to survive. He meets Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), a badass redneck who enjoys killing zombies perhaps a little too much - and who sets the precedent of calling everyone by the names of cities to avoid "getting too close" - and they decide to travel together. And before long, they are joined by Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin), sisters and con artists, whose only goal is to reach the supposedly zombie-free amusement park Pacific Playground.

I said in my Pandorum review that the zombie genre is pretty much played out, and that new zombie movies need to find fresh angles on the idea. Well, Zombieland is just the breath of fresh air the genre needs. There's no central brilliant twist to it; even the idea of doing a zombie parody-comedy has been done before in Shaun of the Dead. Instead, this film is fresh and inventive in a dozen little ways that all add up to a terrifically fun whole. For instance, Columbus' rule no. 1: cardio - because you need to be able to run to get away from zombies. I saw that in a trailer months ago, and that was all I needed to look up Cinema Online's "Coming Soon" page hoping to find it. (Also, I'm thinking of taking up jogging.)

Fresh and inventive thing number two is acknowledging the wish-fulfillment aspects behind zombie movies, and the post-apocalyptic genre as a whole. It is a pretty appealing fantasy; being a survivor of the collapse of civilisation, taking and doing whatever you want from the deserted stores and houses and buildings. Not to mention having an easier time scoring with any cute female survivors you meet too. But it wouldn't be as much fun without some ass to kick as well, so yeah, zombies! And this movie plays that up most enjoyably, as personified in the character of Tallahassee. His zombie-killing methods are riotously funny, from playing a banjo to draw them out to turning a roller-coaster into his own personal rail-shooter game.

This is director Ruben Fleischer's debut, and I predict a long and illustrious career for him. What my aforementioned friend was most impressed with was the opening credits sequence, a montage of various slo-mo scenes of the zombie apocalypse - and yes, it is gloriously and gorily beautiful. The little supers of Columbus' rules every time a scene demonstrates one of them is also clever and funny. But Fleischer also knows how to tell a story with heart, particularly in regards to Columbus and Wichita's budding romance. He even gives Tallahassee an emotional moment, one that acknowledges that a world in which everyone is either a zombie or has been eaten by one won't be all fun and games. And when the zombies attack en masse, he knows how to craft an exciting action climax.

I'm old enough to remember Woody the dimwitted bartender from Cheers, but there's not a trace of that character in Harrelson's performance here. Tallahassee will likely be the most iconic character he's ever played to date; this is the stuff pop-culture legends are made of. Jesse Eisenberg is once again a nerdy, instantly likable hero - putting him, and the characters he normally plays, in a zombie movie may well be fresh and inventive thing number three. Emma Stone is smokin' hot, not just for her looks but for the smart, cunning, gun-toting character she plays. Abigail Breslin is one of the finest child actors working today, but I like to think she took this rather minor role simply because the script was so much fun. And I would be remiss not to mention the hilarious celebrity cameo, which I shall refrain from spoiling (if it hasn't been spoiled for you already). Suffice it to say that you'll enjoy it best if you were a child of the '80s.

I wondered about labeling this as horror - there are some jump scares, but overall it's very much a (very funny) comedy. But it doesn't skimp on the blood and gore, and the zombies are still scary, so horror it is. (Don't bring your 5-year-olds-and-below to this.) It's a rare film that leaves me wanting more when it ends, and this is one. Screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick originally envisioned this as a TV show, and it shows; it's greatest flaw is that it's too slight, somewhat shallow, and way too short at just under 90 minutes. But it's a rollicking 90 minutes of terrifically good fun. And with its confirmed box-office success, a sequel is almost guaranteed - perhaps even lots of sequels. Hope they hurry up. I want one like Tallahassee wants a Twinkie.

NEXT REVIEW: The Storm Warriors
Expectations: meh

Friday, December 11, 2009

The '80s, but far more real

My rating:

I said in my Twilight review that I've yet to see Kristen Stewart in anything (that doesn't involve sparkly vampires). I figured there's no better movie with which to rectify that than this one, one of the best-reviewed of the year - check out what James Berardinelli and AV Club had to say. This film has actually been on my radar since it was first released in the States in April, but it never made it to our shores. I've never even seen "Coming Soon" posters in cinema lobbies, like I have for The Hangover and Coraline; looks like our local distributors didn't even try to bring it in.

So go look for it through your "alternative" sources. It's worth it.

James Brennan (Jesse Eisenberg) was all set to tour Europe for the summer before starting graduate school, until his parents drop the bombshell that they won't be able to finance his trip due to money problems. He's forced to get a shitty job at Adventureland, and becomes part of the microcosmic world of the second-rate amusement park. He works for managers Bobby (Bill Hader) and Paulette (Kristen Wiig), befriends fellow overeducated nerd Joel (Martin Starr), does his best to avoid annoying childhood friend Frigo (Matt Bush), admires rock star maintenance man Connell (Ryan Reynolds), lusts after sexpot co-worker Lisa P. (Margarita Levieva) - and falls in love with the sweet and sensitive Em (Kristen Stewart). But Em has problems of her own, and in fact is secretly having an affair with the married Connell.

The remarkable thing about this film is how deftly it avoids stereotypes and contrived comedy to tell a story that subverts all your expectations. So much about its premise - geeky hero, geekier sidekick, sensitive romantic interest, jock romantic rival, airheaded hot chick - calls to mind dozens of lame teen and college-age comedies that Hollywood has been making since the '80s (and hasn't stopped yet.) In fact, the film's 1987 setting only heightens that impression. But what writer-director Greg Mottola (Superbad) has done is to deepen each of the abovementioned characters and make them real, three-dimensional, relatable people. The geeky hero is well-liked and reasonably self-assured around women. The romantic rival is not a grade-A asshole, and is even somewhat sympathetic. Even the airheaded hot chick has an unexpected depth to her.

And the sensitive romantic interest could very well come off as a sneaky bitch, once we see that she's sleeping with another guy. But Mottola paints her character so well that we understand her self-destructive impulses fully, without ever having to spell it out. He has more than able support from Stewart, who is terrific in this. Her ability to play emotionally troubled young women was probably what scored her the Bella Swan role, but it's in films like this that her talent truly shines. And don't think Em is a Bella - oh hell no. She's a far, far more richly-realized character; she's likable, she has a spine, she has her own inner strength, and the fact that she can also be vulnerable and foolish only makes her more real.

She's also pretty hot, in a way Bella never was, which is why I'm gushing about her and therefore I should stop and talk about some of the other characters. As played by Jesse "the other Michael Cera" Eisenberg, James does at first come across as a typically pathetic geek - but he's not. He's sweet and charming enough to score a date with the hottest girl working at Adventureland - which may have something to with the stash of weed his friend left him and which he's very generous with, but he's also bold enough to pursue Em, the girl he really likes. (And yes, this does complicate the plot beyond nice-guy-is-cheated-on-by-girl.) Eisenberg is great at keeping our sympathies with him, but his performance could very well fool people into thinking this is exactly the kind of movie it's subverting. I wonder if another actor would've done better.

Connell is also a superbly well-drawn character; we understand why he does the things he does, but it neither excuses him nor condemns him. He's ultimately just a big fish in a very small pond - and he knows it. But lest you think there are only three characters in the entire film, there's also Joel, whose cynicism doesn't protect him from being emotionally vulnerable. There's also Bobby and Paulette, who are pretty good bosses even though they run a crummy theme park. And there's Lisa P., who may be the closest thing to a truly dislikable character, but even this is handled with restraint. (And most guys would probably still like her.) Mottola does an incredible job with all these characters, their dialogue and their actors' performances; they do what the story demands of them without ever having giant "LIKE" and "HATE" signs above their heads.

The only reason why Adventureland isn't getting a higher rating is that it's not very funny. There are funny scenes with funny characters, but it's all pretty low-key and deadpan; plenty of chuckles, but no LOLs or ROFLs. But also plenty of heart and warmth and genuineness. (Also lots of pot smoking, so maybe the distributors were merely prudent not to try bringing this film in after all.) And it features some great lesser-known '80s music; the songs punctuate the emotions of many scenes beautifully. This is the cinematic equivalent of a really good salad - you may not enjoy it because you want a burger and fries. But give it a chance and you might find it's actually quite yummy, and also pretty damn good for you.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

The spies who annoyed me

My Spy
My rating:

One Malaysian blog I visit often is Bin Filem. (Admittedly, I only found it because they link to me. Thanks, braders!) Their opinions are a lot more academic than mine, but it's a terrific pleasure to know I'm not the only Malaysian who thinks deeply about film. Anyway, I was reading their review of Papadom (which I thought had way too much axe-grinding. Jangan marah ye?), and who should I find in the comments but selambakodok himself. That's Afdlin Shauki's blog! Dude! Jeles giler aku. I want Afdlin Shauki reading my reviews of his movies too!

So, um, if you're reading this one... jangan marah ye, En. Afdlin.

AJ (AC Mizal) and Salleh (Harun Salim Bachik) are two rival, equally-not-very-successful private investigators. After their latest case ends in disaster and a chewing-out by Supt. Adnan (Adlin Aman Ramlie), they both take on a new one - trying to catch Datuk Osman (Ridzuan Hashim) having an affair with his secretary Maria (Hannah Tan) while they "buat projek" in Langkawi. But in fact, Datuk Osman is plotting to steal a US$40 million painting with the aid of two sexy cat burglars, Amber and Jade (Carmen Soo and Daphne Iking).

Afdlin is a gifted comedian. On screen he's effortlessly funny; behind the cameras, he knows how to set up and pay off a joke, elicit a comic performance from his actors, and even write some funny dialogue. All of these talents were in evidence as the movie started - I was laughing harder than I did watching most Hollywood comedies. I said before in my review of Setem that a joke in Malay is funnier simply by virtue of the fact that we're Malaysians, and it's in full force here. It's goofy, silly, deliberately B-grade, Salleh's gadgets were dumb but funny, Adlin Aman Ramlie was stealing the show with his take on Da Chief - I was digging all of that.

Then the actual plot kicked in, and it highlighted Afdlin's biggest weakness - he doesn't know how to tell a story. None of the characters are well-drawn or even interesting, and the plot is neither clever nor has any momentum. Rule no. 1 of buddy comedies: the two buddies need to have clashing personalities. They need to be two different kinds of people whose differences lead to conflicts, and these conflicts are where the comedy comes from (and better yet, drives the plot). AJ and Salleh don't even have personalities. Salleh just has a thing about being a bumbling gadgeteer, and his gadgets aren't even used much except during the beginning and ending. They (initially) hate each other just because the script says they hate each other.

And their hate turns into... um... I want to say something like "mutual respect" or "friendship", because that's where a buddy comedy is supposed to go. But this movie settles for just making cheap jokes about it rather than develop an effective on-screen relationship. AC and Salleh get into various wacky hijinks, and by movie's end they're giving each other ambiguously gay hugs. (Yes, they play teh gay for laughs. Very original.) Their wacky hijinks also take up time that could've been used for an actual plot - say, for example, one in which they foil the bad guys. They don't. They're just a couple of morons from start to finish. I know their cluelessness is meant to be funny, but come on Afdlin, would it kill ya to make your heroes heroic?

Production values are generally high - it's got a couple of helicopter shots, so yeah, bajet besar siut. But who the hell did the music?? There's a blatant ripoff of Monty Norman's James Bond theme and a blatant ripoff of Mike Post's Magnum, P.I. theme - both of which employ that cheap trick of varying just enough notes to avoid getting sued. Eh, korang rajin sikit, boleh tak? How 'bout composing some original music for a change? The CGI is pretty bad, but I can forgive that - it's just part of the movie's goofy sensibility. But the lame action scenes are just lame, and sadly that's par for the course for local movies. Dear Malaysian filmmakers, have you heard of Merantau Warrior? Indonesian movie, scheduled to screen here in January, trailer's playing in cinemas right now. Watch it and be ashamed.

Harun Salim Bachik was the funniest thing in Papadom; he was actually acting, playing a character with a personality, rather than just doing a comic schtick. I was actually looking forward to seeing him in a lead role, but sadly he has nothing to work with here. AC Mizal, on the other hand, does just do a schtick; his perpetual muka gelabah got bloody annoying fast. And it pains me to say this, but none of the ladies make an impression. Hannah Tan is wooden. Daphne Iking does an over-the-top Chinese accent, but not the comic performance to go with it. Carmen Soo has the looks but not the dialogue delivery - she sounds more like a perky teenager than a badass action girl. And may I say, I found it annoying that Que Haidar plays a Chinese guy. Tak cukup pelakon Cina di Malaysia ke? You could've given a rookie actor his big break, instead of having an unfunny star cameo.

And you know what else annoys me? That local movies almost always aim for the wacky and goofy and silly. How about a film that's meant to be taken seriously? How about a film that aims for something deeper than the funny bone, a film that earns its emotional payoffs, a film with gravitas? Not even Afdlin, admittedly one of our better filmmakers, seems capable of that. I'm giving it two-and-a-half stars, mostly for the funny first half hour, and that's generous considering the fact that I pretty much stopped laughing for the rest of it. Sorry En. Afdlin. Hope Bin Filem goes easier on you.

NEXT REVIEW: Zombieland
Expectations: pretty high!