Saturday, June 27, 2009

Exactly as much as meets the eye - no more, no less

Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
My rating:

I was not a fan of the first Transformers movie. What I remember most about it is an incredibly moronic plot hole during the climax that I can't believe no-one - not Michael Bay, not Orci or Kurtzman, not any of the hundreds of film crew, not any of the millions of people who watched it - spotted. I've also been getting seriously annoyed by the drooling fanboys, who've taken to flaming anyone who speaks a harsh word about it on forums. (And I'm actually in the perfect age group for it - I played the toys and watched the cartoon as a kid.) All these plus my latent cinephile snobbery equal a serious lack of enthusiasm as I sat in the cinema, waiting for the movie to start, surrounded by excited chattering.

Well, colour me surprised. I kinda enjoyed it - certainly better than I did the first.

Two years after the events of the first Transformers film, Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf) is leaving for college and the promise of a normal life, while Optimus Prime and his Autobots have been helping the elite U.S. Army NEST team to hunt down remaining Decepticons. A shard of the AllSpark that Sam finds in his old jacket downloads strange symbols into his mind, and soon the Decepticons are hunting him down for the secret hidden within the symbols. They revive Megatron from his watery prison, but the Decepticon leader is merely a servant to the Fallen - an ancient and extremely powerful Transformer with a plan to destroy the Earth.

Why did I enjoy this film? Three reasons, all of which are things I finally "get" about the franchise. Number one, the character of Sam Witwicky. He's the world's biggest dweeb who somehow scored himself the world's hottest girlfriend. This is by no means deep (or even actual) characterization, but I at least understood who he's supposed to be. This even explains every scene with his parents (Kevin Dunn and Julie White), particularly his cartoonishly over-protective mother - with a mom like that, of course he turns out to be a dweeb. LaBeouf knowingly plays him this way, and it's fun to watch.

Number two, the humour. Yes, it's broad and juvenile and slapsticky, but that's just the world that these people live in. Momma Witwicky gets high on pot and embarrasses her son, Sam's college roommate Leo (Ramon Rodriguez) is a snivelling coward, ex-Agent Simmons (John Turturro) is a strutting buffoon, there are two "comic relief" Autobot Twins who bicker a lot and speak in African-American-Stereotypese, and at one point a robot humps Megan Fox's leg. No, it's not always funny, but it all belongs in this cartoonish world - fitting, since it's a movie based on a cartoon. Accept that, and you'll laugh at a few bits, and the bits that don't make you laugh will at least not annoy you.

Number three, the robots. Another thing that bothered me in the first film was how little personality they were given. Now I finally understand - they are not characters. They're MacGuffins. Yes, even Optimus Prime, who gets the most screen time at the expense of every other Autobot. He - it - is ultimately just a Receptacle B for someone to plug Plot Device A into so that the bad guys can be defeated. And Bumblebee, the second most prominent robot, is there primarily to drive the characters around. Megatron slapping Starscream around may echo the '80s cartoon, but it's neither amusing nor consequential - and he shares villain duties with this Fallen dude, which means both have their roles diminished. Every other robot is basically a background special effect. Even the way their faces are designed bear this out - none of them are capable of displaying any emotion.

More proof of the above? At least three robots, whom we've gotten to know during the movie, disappear ignominously. It's literally now-you-see-them, now-you-don't. And maybe you'll wonder what happened to them, and maybe you'll just forget they existed. If the movie doesn't care about them, why should you?

This movie is 2-1/2 hours long, and it is long. Michael Bay may think himself an action virtuoso, but the more films he makes, the less he knows about pacing. I honestly started to get bored around the halfway mark - the whole bit about Jetfire is blatant padding, and the climactic action scene in Egypt just goes on and on. There's some stabs at character development for Sam and Mikaela, some guff about her getting him to say "I love you", and it is laughably bad. The thing about Sam telling his dad to "let me go" is even more inept. This stuff almost made me knock a half-star off my rating. Sigh... Bay is not an unskilled director; he has a signature style, and he obviously puts a lot of effort into every scene and setpiece - even every shot. But he really needs to leave the script alone.

Oh, and a note on Megan Fox: I'm as red-blooded as the next male, but she honestly doesn't do much for me. Her hotness is too artificial, like a walking brunette Barbie doll complete with bee-stung lips perpetually coated in garish lip-gloss. Neither can she act very well, although in her defence, her character has virtually nothing to do anyway.

But yes, I enjoyed it. There are no moronic plot holes (well, none that pissed me off this time), and since we are not expected to feel anything for these giant robots, there are no embarrassingly "emotional" scenes like Bumblebee getting captured in the first movie. So I have to say I enjoyed it despite itself; I only liked it because, by pure chance, it's not as dumb as the first.

NEXT REVIEW: gee, I dunno. Nothing looks good... but I'll think of something. Watch this space.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

An achingly lovely film

My rating:

I have been to only two funerals in my life: the first that of a school friend who was killed in a road accident, the second my grandmother's. Both times, I wasn't sure what to feel - I recall vague emotions of regret that I never spent more time with them, but they were just, well, vague. I was all of 17 during the first, and well into my adulthood during the second; but I'm not sure if I'll ever really know how to respond to the death of a loved one. I doubt it'll ever be as cathartic for me as you see in movies, or this one in particular.

It's a rare film that gets me introspective like this. And this is certainly a rare film.

Daigo Kobayashi (Masahiro Motoki) is a concert cellist who's out of a job when his orchestra folds. He persuades his wife Mika (Ryoko Hirosue) to follow him back to his hometown and the house his late mother left him, which holds uncomfortable memories of the father who left him when he was a child. Seeking work, he answers a classified ad put up by what he thinks is a travel agency, run by a Mr. Sasaki (Tsutomu Yamazaki) and his secretary Yuriko (Kimiko Yo). It turns out Sasaki is looking for an assistant in the trade of "encoffinment", the practice of cleaning, dressing and applying makeup to the departed at funerals. Although Daigo balks at first, he soon finds fulfillment in the job - but must face the prejudices of others, including his wife, at his "unclean" line of work.

From the very first scene in which Daigo performs his duties in front of the family of the departed, you'll know you're in good hands with this film. The encoffining process is a careful, respectful, almost ceremonial, and utterly lovely ritual. I can confidently say it's something you've never seen before in a film, and coming as it does in the very beginning of the movie, it effortlessly draws you into its story and its world. Later we see how this process affects those still living, even when it's done wrong. The first time we see a grieving husband weep over the body of his wife, meticulously restored to the beauty she possessed when she was alive, I am not ashamed to say I was brought to tears, and I'm sure most of the audience I saw it with was too.

Yes, it's an unashamed tear-jerker, and it's so honest and true that you should not be ashamed at all if it makes you shed tears. Yet there are also generous doses of humour, primarily from its early scenes of Daigo's initial squeamishness at handling dead bodies. There are no gross-out shots of corpses, but Motoki's performance is enough to make us both squirm and laugh. In fact, his very first job is to be the model for a corpse upon which Sasaki demonstrates his trade for a DVD. This is practically sitcom-level humour, but you forgive it because it's all executed in such a real and humanistic manner.

In fact, it succeeds at making you forgive quite a bit. As fascinating as the encoffining process is, we are shown just a tad too many scenes of it. The plot unfolds in an entirely predictable manner, and the conflicts are arguably resolved way too easily. And on just one or two occasions, it falls into self-conscious profundity. Yet none of this detracts from the sincerity of the film. When the climax comes along, in which Daigo finally comes to terms with the father who abandoned him... yes, it's predictable, but it still works at wrenching the necessary emotions from you. It's earned them.

Motoki's performance is, as mentioned, terrific. He starts off as almost buffoonish in his sad-sackness, but he never allows us to laugh at him instead of with him; we see how his heart breaks when his wife leaves him, and ours break right along with his. Hirosue too is a joy to watch; she may be playing an archetypical perky and borderline-infantile Japanese wife, but she imbues real strength and character into her role, all the while being cute as a button. Yamazaki puts a delightful spin on his Yoda-like role, and Yo shines in her few scenes as the secretary with a secret shame.

I don't believe I've mentioned anything about music in any of my reviews, but here I believe it deserves a mention. There is a solo cello piece that Daigo plays at one point in the movie, and the theme reoccurs often throughout. It's as lovely as anything else in the film, and if you're the type to tear up at music, that scene is as likely to make you cry as any other. The music is by Joe Hisaishi, which, if you've watched any of Hayao Miyazaki's movies, should constitute another strong recommendation for this film.

Only towards the end of the film are we given to understand exactly what the encoffining process means: it is a final act of love, performed for one whom we will always regret not doing more for when they were alive. Now I know why my vague emotions of regret were so vague. I can't engage the services of Sasaki and Daigo, but the next time a loved one leaves me, I hope I'll think of something I can do in its stead.

NEXT REVIEW: Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen
Anticipation level: bleh. That's right, I said bleh

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

A bloody mess of a movie

Blood: The Last Vampire
My rating:

I didn't watch the anime film that Blood: The Last Vampire is based on, but I have to wonder if the title makes any more sense there than it does here. There is no vampire named Blood, nor is there one who is the last of anything. Unless there's something the movie forgot to tell us, which, incidentally, it's very good at.

Also, I refuse to call Jeon Ji-hyun "Gianna". It's a stupid name.

Saya (Jeon Ji-hyun) is a 400-year-old half-breed vampire employed by the mysterious Council to kill demons and vampires wherever they may lurk. Her latest assignment is to go undercover as a high school student at an American air force base in Tokyo, where minions of the vampire queen Onigen (Koyuki) are massing. There she befriends Alice (Allison Miller), the rebellious daughter of the base's general, and remembers her childhood tutelage under her father's retainer Kato (Yasuaki Kurata). And soon, she begins to arouse the interest of Onigen herself.

Wow, that synopsis really makes the film sound better than it is. It fails in many of its most crucial aspects - the action scenes are edited to incoherency, the CGI effects are laughable, and the plot is annoyingly obtuse. Here's an example of how shoddy the storytelling is: in one of the numerous flashbacks to Saya's youth, we see her romance with a childhood friend... and then later we're told she murdered him in vampiric bloodlust. But we never see this murder. We don't even see the body. And we're expected to empathize with her conflict between her human and vampiric sides? Aiyoo, movie, what lar??

I don't know who Chris Nahon is, but if this is any indication he's a pretty crap director. He has no sense of how to frame an action scene, so that many times we can barely make out what's going on. Not that there's ever much going on; there's hardly any effort put into the fight choreography. Saya slashes her way through hundreds of vampires with her samurai sword, and it's all just kinda boring. Cory Yuen is a respected martial arts choreographer from the golden age of Hong Kong films, but here he really isn't trying at all. The final fight scene is especially unsatisfying.

Jeon is... well, she's not too bad actually. She's hampered by having to deliver English dialogue which she's clearly not comfortable with, but at least her diction isn't as bad as Koyuki's. (Why couldn't they have spoken in Japanese during those scenes?) She's an experienced Korean drama actress, and she handles her dramatic scenes competently - but as a sword-wielding badass? Well, if she trained for her action scenes, it sure doesn't show. Allison Miller's acting doesn't impress, but it's not so much her performance as the fact that her character is basically useless. Koyuki does her best to play chillingly evil, but she looks about as scary as a schoolteacher. I haven't even mentioned the two faux-CIA agents who work for Saya's employers (Liam Cunningham and J.J. Field) - they could've been edited out of the movie and no one would've noticed.

I think what really sinks this movie is the fact that they failed to recognize the inherent cheesiness of the premise. A Japanese schoolgirl killing vampires with a samurai sword? That sounds like fun! Instead they tried to go all serious and gloomy and emo, and had neither the skill nor the budget to pull off their vision. Nobody who looks at this movie will expect anything more than a few good thrills, but it doesn't even deliver those. It is very much a B-grade film in all aspects.

NEXT REVIEW: Departures
Anticipation level: it'll be good to see Japanese actors speaking Japanese for a change

Sunday, June 21, 2009


Who's been snapping up all the tickets to Departures?

I failed to get into the 3:15pm screening at GSC 1Utama New Wing, and I arrived an hour before showtime. Monday night's screening is also sold out, and I finally got tickets for Tuesday night at the same venue. There are a few screenings on that day, and you should still be able to get seats if you hurry.

I wonder if it's all Yasmin Ahmad devotees acting on her glowing recommendation of the film. I can't think of any other explanation - no other film in GSC's ongoing Japanese Film Festival is selling out like this. Curious.

In any case, I think I'll catch something else before then...

NEXT REVIEW: Blood: The Last Vampire
Anticipation level: have a bad feeling about this

Saturday, June 20, 2009

What the grownups are into these days

State of Play
My rating:

Counter-programming: the practice of releasing a movie at a time when every other movie currently playing is wildly different from yours. E.g. a smart, mature thriller like State of Play when cinemas are inundated with the likes of Blood: The Last Vampire, Drag Me to Hell, and Terminator Salvation. I like smart thrillers, but there's been little buzz on this one; the few reviews I've read of it say it's good but unremarkable. Still, I picked this film for my next review so that someone who's tired of killer robots and stuff blowing up and blood and gore might read this, and not overlook a movie they might enjoy.

I provide a valuable service, don't I? Yes I do. You're most welcome.

A political scandal befalls Congressman Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) - his aide is found killed, suspected of committing suicide, and it is revealed that they were having an affair. Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe), a reporter for the Washington Globe newspaper, investigates the possibility that shady military contractor Pointcorp, whom Collins is investigating, may be involved. Aided by his paper's blog writer Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) and pressured by his editor (Dame Helen Mirren), McAffrey's interest in the story is more than strictly professional - the Congressman is an old friend, and Collins' wife Anne (Robin Wright Penn) an old flame. As they get closer to the truth, they begin to realize that billions of dollars - "wrath of God money" - are at stake, which is enough for some parties to commit murder.

Director Kevin Macdonald previously helmed The Last King of Scotland. One of the credited screenwriters is veteran Tony Gilroy, of Michael Clayton and the Bourne trilogy. It's based on a highly-acclaimed BBC miniseries. And you've got Russell Crowe and Helen Mirren starring. All these names spell quality cinema, and for the most part none of them disappoint. The dialogue is smart and snappy, and the plot moves at a pace meant for people who pay attention. The subject matter - private military contractors with all the skills and resources of the U.S. military, but claiming allegiance only to the almighty dollar - strikes a chord in this day and age of Blackwater and its misadventures in Iraq. The film is at its best when watching McAffrey and Frye at work; apparently, the ability to charm and bluff your way into other people's confidences is what it takes to be a good journalist. I don't know if this is true, but it's certainly fun to watch.

The fact that this is a 2-hour film made out of a 6-hour TV miniseries shows at times. McAffrey's complicated relationship with both Collins and Anne seems to have suffered the most editing. It feels like there's a wealth of undercurrents and conflicting emotions between all three, and the movie only gives us the outcomes without really explaining the motivations. At one point, Collins accuses McAffrey of investigating the story merely to redeem his guilt at having had an affair with Anne. This would've made for terrific characterization, but we don't really see much of it. Some of this might have to do with Crowe's performance - he does a solid job, but someone who's more of a character actor might've done better. During the film's sole action scene, we don't quite buy him as a schlubby journalist being menaced by a cold-blooded killer. This is a guy who played a Roman gladiator, after all.

The rest of the cast do solid jobs. Rachel McAdams holds her own amongst Crowe and Mirren - her scenes with Crowe provide most of the film's quota of humour and wit. Mirren herself is, as always, terrific. So is Robin Wright Penn, who seems to know more of what's really going on between her character and Crowe's than the movie tells us. Affleck, like Crowe, gives a competent but unremarkable performance - it won't atone for Daredevil and Gigli, but he's getting there. Jason Bateman (of TV's Arrested Development) makes a surprising appearance - I honestly hadn't read anything about him being in this movie, and his character is a hoot.

On the whole, "competent but unremarkable" just about sums up the movie. It's good, but it doesn't really stand out amongst other examples of its genre. Then again, this whole genre - the smart, serious thriller that caters to adults and not teenage boys - is pretty damn rare, even outside of Hollywood's summer blockbuster season. So if loud, flashy and dumb is not your cup of tea, this is what you should spend your moviegoing money on. (And if loud, flashy and dumb is your cup of tea, perhaps this film might upgrade your tastes a little.)

NEXT REVIEW: Departures
Anticipation level: looking forward to it

Friday, June 19, 2009

Deserves a fighting chance

My rating:

Fighting. What a great title. Fighting. It's so straightforward. Fighting. It lets you know exactly what kind of movie it's gonna be, yet the sheer lack of pretentiousness tells you it has more to offer than the same old same old. Fighting. No less than Roger Ebert, the Grand Old Man of film criticism, recommended this movie. Fighting. For that reason alone, I made sure to catch what looked like a B-grade "ta kau" flick, expecting to be pleasantly surprised.

And I was - by the fact that it's not a "ta kau" flick at all.

Shawn MacArthur (Channing Tatum) ekes out a living on the streets of New York selling whatever crappy merchandise he can get his hands on. One day he gets into a brawl that is witnessed by Harvey Boarden (Terrence Howard), who invites him into the world of underground no-holds-barred prizefighting. As he begins to earn more and more money from his fights, he begins a romance with nightclub waitress Zulay (Zulay Henao) and crosses paths with another fighter (Brian White) with whom he has an ugly history.

Right from the opening scene, the movie hits you with how gritty and real it looks and feels. You know those guys along Jalan Tuanku Abdul Rahman or Bukit Bintang, busking or selling cheap crap or even just begging? This movie is about people like them, even if it is set thousands of miles away from KL. There is no glossy Hollywood sheen to this New York - even the extras look like real people from the real Brooklyn and the Bronx and other parts of the Big Apple that you'll likely never see - unless, like Shawn and Harvey, you move there hoping to pursue a dream, only to end up trading your dignity for every cent you can scrape off the streets. Their mutual struggle for respect forms a distinct theme that runs through the film; they're both on the low rungs of the social and economic ladder, and we see them both get stepped on by those above. The fact that a movie like this has an actual theme, and an effective one, is pretty damn pleasantly surprising.

The realism extends to the dialogue and acting as well. The dialogue has a raw, improvised feel - people mumble, talk over each other, start sentences without ending them, and this has the effect of eliminating any artificiality in the story. I'm totally overusing the word, but the dialogue feels real - which makes the story, the characters, and their whole world feel real as well. This is a rare accomplishment. And the actors sell it. Howard does his usual excellent work, and although Tatum is a little wooden, he is never unconvincing. And he does his best work here with Henao - there's a terrific chemistry between them, and the way he approaches her is at once bold yet respectful. Her interfering old mother, played by Altagracia Guzman, is also great fun.

I haven't even talked about the fight scenes yet. There's no fancy moves or Hong Kong-style choreography here - it's bone-crunchingly brutal, employing grappling techniques as much as punches and kicks. Strangely, Shawn's final fight (which, as usual in this kind of movie, is personal) isn't the most thrilling. That would be the one against Cung Le, a Vietnamese-American MMA champion. That fight is filmed with the most flair, and has the most imaginative choreography. It's strange that the film pulled out all its stops for this scene, and not the climactic one - which highlights a problem with the movie's ending as a whole. It feels truncated, as if director Dito Montiel had suddenly run out of film.

I know this movie is going to be a tough sell. The plot is formulaic, the action scenes are competent but unexceptional, and most people will never see it as anything other than a "ta kau" flick. But where this movie shines is in the execution - dialogue, acting, characterization, even art direction. And of course, that great title. Fighting! It's not so straightforward a title, actually. There's plenty of fighting in the movie, only not all with fists.

NEXT REVIEW: State of Play
Anticipation level: fingers crossed

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Hell and back

Drag Me to Hell
My rating:

Yours truly is old enough to remember the golden age of VHS - when video rental stores were everywhere, and a whole new world of (mostly B-grade) movies could be enjoyed in the comfort of one's living room. My dad was and is as much a film aficionado as I am, and back then his favourite genre was horror. And I was a foolhardy kid who just couldn't miss out whenever my dad watched a new video, regardless of whatever movie it was. So I spent many a night huddled behind a sofa cushion next to my dad as we enjoyed such classics as Evil Dead, Nightmare on Elm Street, Hellraiser, and countless other video nasties.

Thanks Dad, for the psychological scars. They haven't healed.

Christine Brown (Alison Lohman) has her eyes on a promotion at the bank where she works as a loan officer, but faces competition from an unctuous co-worker (Reggie Lee). To impress her boss (David Paymer) by "making the hard decisions", she turns down the elderly Mrs. Ganush's (Lorna Raver) plea for a mortgage extension. In revenge, Mrs. Ganush places a gypsy curse on her that subjects her to three days of torment by the demon Lamia, at the end of which she will be literally dragged to hell. And she has only her devoted but skeptical boyfriend Clay (Justin Long) and the mystic Rham Jas (Dileep Rao) to help her.

I admit it - I am a huge, huge chicken. I spent a good third of this movie covering my eyes, finding the best way to position my fingers so as to reveal just enough of the screen to see what's happening, but not too much in case I see something scary. This is an embarrassing thing for a grown man (who calls himself a film critic) to admit, but what's even more shameful to me is that I have always been like this, and somehow I forgot - and blissfully marked this as my next movie to review. That makes two torturous movie-going experiences in a row, in entirely different ways. Blog, how I suffer for thee.

So I'm afraid my rating isn't entirely fair, because I don't think I can be properly objective about this movie. I chose to give it 2-and-a-half stars simply because it's an average score. Sorry, gentle readers. I am the fail.

I can tell you this though: this movie is as much comedy as it is horror. It'll take you a while to realize this, but the scary scenes are so over-the-top in their sheer gross-outery that you may find yourself stifling a laugh. Don't; feel free to let it out. Director Sam Raimi definitely wants you to, which you'll know if you've watched his Evil Dead trilogy. Fans of that series have been hailing this film as his return to that same brand of horror-comedy after "going soft" with the Spider-Man series, and I think they'll be quite satisfied with the scares.

I don't know if they'd be too keen on the plot though, especially a final twist that's so transparent it renders much of the last 20 minutes an exercise in waiting for the other shoe to drop. Also, there's an exorcism scene that really feels like the climax, but isn't - that's some odd pacing there.

There's something of a morality play going on in this story too, in which Christine basically brings the curse on herself by being callous to a poor old lady. Yet I'm not sure if she entirely deserves what happens to her - at one point, she has an opportunity to do something truly heinous, but consciously chooses not to. Maybe this is because of Alison Lohman's performance - she radiates wholesomeness and innocence, and I think a little more edge to the character might've made the story's resolution more satisfying. I certainly felt for Christine, since the movie seems to delight in treating her as its whipping girl. She gets beaten up, thrown around, scared shitless, humiliated in front of her co-workers and her boyfriend's parents, and mud is the least nasty thing she gets covered in.

However, all this is done in good fun - as I mentioned, once you realize that it's going for laughs, you'll get into the movie's vibe. But once again, Lohman is the weak point here. What Christine goes through brings to mind the travails of Ash, the hero of the Evil Dead series, as played by Bruce Campbell - sadly, Lohman is no Campbell. Campbell's gonzo performance is a big part of why Raimi's brand of horror-comedy worked in the Evil Dead movies, but Lohman doesn't go far enough over the top. The scary scenes are meant to be funny, but the vibe is a little harder to get into because of her.

I'm afraid this is the last horror movie I'll be reviewing, at least as a cinema release - although I may catch something on DVD and review it. On the big screen however, I simply cannot handle the scares; I revert to my 8-year-old self again. As much as I've listed the things that didn't work in the movie, I can't judge whether the things that did work outweighed them. This is not up to my usual standards of criticism. So no more horror movies for me, for a while - and this means I won't be watching Jangan Pandang Belakang Congkak. Try not to be too disappointed.

Anticipation level: yeah!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Syurga kepala HOTAK engkau!

Syurga Cinta
My rating:

(Warning: this review contains copious profanity. Apologies for not keeping the blog family-friendly, but believe me, this movie deserves it.)

So the premise of this movie isn't exactly original: hip young dude falls for demure God-fearing chick. It's your basic opposites-attract romance, and how the formula works is that guy and girl find that their differences complement each other. Naturally the dude will learn humility and develop a more spiritual outlook on life, so therefore the chick must also learn to let her hair down, be more spontaneous, and have fun.

Yeah, and pigs'll fly outta my ass and do the Hokey Pokey.

Irham (Awal Ashaari) is this spoiled rich asshole who's such a playa, he makes thousand-ringgit bets with his equally asshole friends on which chicks he can pull. One day he makes a bet to seduce the sweet, virginal, tudung-clad Syuhadah (Heliza), then dump her exactly a month later in front of his dumbass friends just for the lulz. Luckily, she happens to be his 8-year-old brother Ikmal's (Hadziq) schoolteacher, so he ropes in the fucking annoying kid to help him get in her pa--I mean, win her heart. But whaddya know, he starts falling for her for serious reals yo, and along the way he's all like, say, aren't I supposed to be, y'know, Muslim?

Ya Allah, this was the worst movie I've seen in a loooong time. Preachy, heavy-handed, pretentious, misogynistic, filled with horribly on-the-nose dialogue, populated by one-dimensional caricatures played by crap actors, and possessing a truly fucked-up sense of spirituality and morality. Where should I start??

Well, let's tackle the basic spine of the story first. As Irham gets closer to Syuhadah, he begins to realize the emptiness of his hard-partying, womanizing lifestyle, and finds solace in religion. Irham's crisis of faith and conscience is developed in a gradual, believable mannaaaHAHAHAHAAAAHA!! Um, sorry. That was not happy laughter.

And this Syuhadah chick. She is not a person. She has no personality, no interests, no hopes or dreams or ambitions, no distinguishing characteristics other than schoolteacher (nor do we ever see her do any teaching). There isn't a word that escapes her lips that isn't a homily on the importance of remembering Allah. Her relationship with Irham has literally zero impact on her life - after all, the fact that she's nothing more than an idealized model Malay woman and wife means she can't have any meaningful character development. 'Cos then she'd have to change, and she can't change when she's already perfect.

And we have this moronic and hackneyed plot about the guy tackling the girl just to win a bet. So Irham goes ahead with it - he takes her to meet his douchebag friends, tell her the entire past month was all an act, humiliate her and send her off in tears. Fucking why?? What do those two jerkwad friends have over him anyway? We already know he's rich, it can't be because of the money they're betting. He's learning how to sembahyang from her, reading the tafsir al-Quran book that she bought him, listening to ceramah with her, falling in love with her - then he goes ahead and emotionally brutalizes her. Irham may be nowhere close to a realistic character, yet this act of his makes no motherfucking sense given what we've seen of him up to that point.

And then she takes him back. She takes him back. Sure, she's all righteous and pissy with him for a while. But then the movie gives us its final moral lesson for every good Malay Muslim woman - a man can deceive you, manipulate your emotions, publicly humiliate you and break your heart, but if he apologizes really really hard, then it's okay. You should forgive him. You can love him. Heck, why not even marry him!

I have barely even mentioned the kid. The kid is not cute. The kid is not funny. The kid avoids the distinction of being the most annoying character in the movie because Irham's two buddies win that title by a landslide. And then there's Irham and Ikmal's parents, and I gotta say this about them - the movie tries hard to make them look depraved and sinful, what with their drunken nights out and their evil, evil karaoke singing (of Frank Sinatra's My Way, no less. Evil!). But they come across as nothing more than a happy old couple still in love enough to enjoy each other's company. Is it maksiat if they're married?

Awal Ashaari sucks. He's believable as an idle rich douchebag, but no amount of tears and melodramatic sobbing can convince us when it comes time for him to bertaubat and stuff. Heliza is awful. I can count the number of her facial expressions on one hand. Their dialogue may have been atrocious, but I can quite confidently say that their acting truly made the least of it.

That's it. Enough. I'm done with this piece of shit. I want to bleach the 90 minutes I spent watching this movie out of my brain. This is a wretched stain on the Malaysian film industry, a truly worthless waste of celluloid. Fuck you, Syurga Cinta. Fuck you and everyone who helped spawn you.

NEXT REVIEW: Drag Me to Hell
Anticipation level: please redeem my faith in cinema as a valid artform, pleeeeaase

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Great character design vs. lame script

Monsters vs. Aliens
My rating:

I was looking forward to this movie at first. The premise sounded like a smart and funny take on 1950s monster movie conventions, and the first released pic of the adorably cute Insectasaurus looking like it's about to eat the Golden Gate Bridge looked... well, adorably cute. Then the reviews started coming in, and the consensus opinion seemed to be that it's nowhere near as smart - or funny - as it looked. So my expectations were considerably lowered as I went to watch this.

Turns out, adorable cuteness goes a long way with me.

On her wedding day, Susan Murphy is hit by a meteorite, and the mysterious substance inside it causes her to grow to giant-size. Now dubbed Ginormica, she is captured by the army and put in the company of other captured monsters - the (literally) brainless B.O.B., the mad scientist Dr. Cockroach, the fish-like Missing Link, and the even bigger and monstrous Insectasaurus. As she mourns for the normal life she left behind, an alien named Gallaxhar makes plans to extract the meteorite's substance from her - and may just decide to invade Earth while he's at it.

I'm kinda ashamed that I liked this movie as much as I did. The other reviews were right; there's so much potential in the sci-fi and monster movie conventions that it touches upon, but all of it is criminally unrealized. The script - the product of five credited screenwriters - is a pretty lazy piece of work. There's also a distinct feeling that the movie has been dumbed down and kiddified - I noticed more than one joke or sight gag that had an extra line tacked on to it to make extra sure that we, y'know, get it. It really feels like there's a much smarter and funnier story trapped somewhere inside this made-for-the-kiddies movie.

So kudos to the animators and designers, who picked up where the writers slacked off. I really liked the character designs; Susan is terrifically brought to life, and dare I say pretty hot for an animated chick. The blob-like B.O.B. made me laugh with nothing more than his idiot grin. Insectasaurus' enormous size only amplifies his tremendous cuteness. Dammit, maybe I'm just a sucker for cute - the other characters such as Link and Dr. Cockroach, or General W.R. Monger and the fatuous President clearly aren't meant to be cute, and I thought they were... adequate. The voice acting generally came through, although with such terrific talent as Hugh Laurie and Stephen Colbert, it's a shame the script didn't give them better lines. (I'd love to see some footage of Kiefer Sutherland in the recording booth though - he sounded like he was having fun.)

The plot is entirely by-the-numbers - alien bad guys are defeated, and in the process Susan finds courage and badassery and learns to accept her new monstrous self - but is executed with competence, if little flair. The same can be said of the action scenes; they get the job done, and are never extraneous, but neither do they ever really raise the pulse.

I wonder if what I'm missing out on is the 3D experience. I really did want to catch this in its 3D format, but just didn't have the opportunity (also, I wear glasses, and I'm not sure how it'll work with that). Maybe I would've enjoyed the movie more if I did. Then again, I did enjoy it - I had a couple good LOLs, and I liked Susan and her monster friends. Even the flat jokes and wasted potential didn't detract from that.

NEXT REVIEW: Syurga Cinta
Anticipation level: bleuurrraaarrggh

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

You're terminated, franchise

Terminator Salvation
My rating:

The new Terminator movie distinguishes itself in a number of ways. First of all, there's no time travel - it's set in the post-apocalyptic future of 2018, during the human-machine war. Secondly, there's no one unstoppable Terminator - there's a whole army of them, from flying ones to aquatic ones to 'moto-Terminators'. Finally, it's not a chase movie like every previous film in the series - it's essentially a sci-fi war movie. So to be fair, it deserves to be viewed and judged on those terms...

...aaaand it still falls short.

The war between the remnants of humanity and the forces of Skynet are in full swing. John Connor heads his own Techcom unit, but his is only one part of the Resistance. While the Resistance leaders plan to use a signal that acts as an "off switch" for Terminators, a mysterious man named Marcus Wright awakens - after having been executed for murder 15 years prior - and meets up with the young Kyle Reese. But when Reese is captured by Skynet "harvesters", Wright and Connor must join forces to rescue Connor's future father - and Wright will discover the secret of who and what he is.

A little behind-the-scenes info should shed some light on why this movie falls short: Christian Bale was originally cast for the role of Marcus Wright, who was meant to be the main protagonist. But Bale insisted on playing John Connor, and brought in screenwriter Jonathan Nolan (most well known for writing The Dark Knight) to beef up the Connor character. And that right there is the movie's biggest problem - it simply doesn't know who's the main character in this story. Wright seems to have the more compelling character arc, whereas for all the time we spend with Connor he barely has anything to do for much of the film besides look emo and yell a lot. Then again, which genius thought it would be a good idea to make a Terminator movie in which the hero is some unknown guy instead of John Connor??

The trailers have basically spoiled the reveal that Wright is actually a machine himself; that's his arc and the film's theme, his struggle to maintain his humanity in the face of evidence that he is anything but human. I should rather say, the film's attempts at a theme, because Wright's story has clearly been truncated. There are a number of key relationships in this story: Wright and Reese, Wright and kick-ass female pilot Blair Williams, Wright and Connor. The bonds that (are supposed to) form between them drive much of the plot, but none of them are well developed. Williams defies her comrades to free Wright and help him escape after it's been revealed that Wright is a machine... why? Because she feels for him? Nope. Not buying it.

And if that escape isn't the longest scene in the movie, it sure feels like it. It's a decent action scene and all, but it's boring - because by then, you'd already know that Wright and Connor are going to join forces. You'll just be sitting there while things are blowing up on screen, thinking "Stop fighting and get on with the plot already!" It's a prime example of an unnecessary action scene.

What McG and his writers are obviously attempting here is a bold new take on the Terminator mythos, and all due kudos for that; unfortunately, the direction they took is simply misguided. Trying to make Marcus Wright the hero - and John Connor a minor character - was a bad idea from the start. And where they would've taken the story, if this rumoured original ending is to be believed, is such an epic fail you want to smack them for ever getting their hands on the franchise. The ending they settled on isn't much of an improvement - in fact, it's downright lame. There's little humour in this film, but the ending is likely to make you LOL at the sheer cheesiness of it all. (On the other hand, the rumoured ending would've made you throw your popcorn at the screen.)

I wish I could say something good about Christian Bale's performance, but the best I can offer is that he's convincing; the role itself is so underwritten that he never gets to do any actual acting (besides the aforementioned yelling), and so never really wins us over. Sam Worthington has the juicier role in Wright, but he doesn't really impress - he was just kinda wooden most of the time. I was expecting to hate Anton Yelchin's Kyle Reese, but I didn't - he's nowhere near as tough as Michael Biehn, but he's supposed to be a much younger Reese anyway. Moon Bloodgood is solid as Williams; I would've liked to see more of her. Bryce Dallas Howard as Connor's wife Kate had nothing to do, and neither did that cute mute kid besides look cute.

Okay, okay - I gave it the same rating I gave Terminator 3: Rise of the Machines, so the movie isn't all suck. The action scenes kick appropriate ass, and the variety of Terminators display impressive creativity. The post-apocalyptic landscape is quite effectively realized. A digital Arnie makes an appearance towards the end that's downright cool. And it does successfully prove that you don't need time travel and sticking to the unstoppable-bad-guy-chases-good-guys formula to make a Terminator movie. All of this is potential that the film squanders. The story is fatally flawed, and raises questions as to whether the filmmakers even get the franchise at all. It's still an enjoyable movie all in all, especially during the action scenes - but in the end, there's still only 2 Terminator movies, and they were released in 1984 and 1991. Any other is a pretender.

NEXT REVIEW: Monsters vs. Aliens (finally)
Anticipation level: meh