Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Didn't quite get away with it

A Perfect Getaway
My rating:

Holy frijole, it's been a lousy September at the movies. Bad enough I had to watch two crappy Malay films, every other film I watched this month has been pretty blah as well. There hasn't been a genuinely good watch at the cinemas since Up, and I was really hoping A Perfect Getaway would be it. It's at least a competently-put-together production, which is sheer relief after Jin Notti, lemme tell ya.

But genuinely good? Nnnnnnot quite.

Cliff (Steve Zahn) and Cydney (Milla Jovovich) are newlyweds on honeymoon in Hawaii. As they embark on the remote hiking trail to a secluded beach, they come across two other couples - Kale (Chris Hemsworth) and Cleo (Marley Shelton), and Nick (Timothy Olyphant) and Gina (Kiele Sanchez). Kale is frighteningly foul-tempered, and Nick's Special Forces background intimidates the less macho Cliff. Suspicions begin to run high when they hear news of the murder of another newlywed couple - and the suspects are a man and woman.

I like David Twohy. After making his name as screenwriter of The Fugitive, Waterworld and GI Jane, he went into directing small, smart genre films like The Arrival, Below, and Pitch Black. He had a shot at creating a big-budget sci-fi franchise in The Chronicles of Riddick, which sadly wasn't a huge hit; now it's one of those movies in which the sequel is forever rumoured to be in development. (I enjoyed it.) I'm all for writers who ventured into directing so as to retain greater creative control over their own scripts, so I really wanted to like this movie. And I generally did, but... well, that "but" is what forces me to knock that half-star off my rating.

Let's talk about what the movie did right first. Great suspense. Solid acting. Terrific writing craft. For the most part, it's a movie that grabs you and never lets your attention slip. Gorgeous Hawaiian scenery too. And since the plot is that of a whodunit - or rather, "whodoinit" - misdirection is key. Films like these work like a 90-minute magic trick; it fools us into believing one thing, then reveals that the truth was something else all along. And it works quite well. I certainly didn't see the twist coming, because the misdirection was done so well that I bought into it hook, line and sinker. (Although my first reaction to the reveal was that it cheated, but I don't think it did. Twohy is too sharp a writer not to have verrrry carefully covered his bases in the early scenes, as I'm sure a second viewing would make clear.)

Where it went wrong? Was a 10-minute flashback that labouriously reveals everything that the film carefully hid from us, and there's just too much of it. It doesn't just tell us who the killers are and what they were up to all along, it also attempts some major heavy lifting in terms of exposition and character development - and it comes waaaay too late in the movie for that. This is structurally unsound. Clearly, what happened is Twohy fell prey to the typically writerly conceit of getting too enamoured of his own cleverness. This becomes more apparent given the fact that Cliff is a Hollywood screenwriter, and there are several wink-wink mentions in the dialogue of red herrings and act 2 twists.

What happens next is standard action-thriller stuff - well-executed, still suspenseful, but not quite as effective as it should have been (because we're still scratching our heads trying to work out the reveal). And then there's a climactic fight scene that's pretty much made of WTF. It involves a character who suddenly became stupid enough to almost fall for a trick that would've gotten him killed. I could forgive Twohy breaking the rules of structure, but - to paraphrase a movie quote that gets a shoutout in this film - what we've got here is a failure to think.

I mentioned solid acting, and there really is lots of it here. Zahn gets to take a break from his usual goofy sidekick roles, and plays a character you can root for. Jovovich also plays a character that's more real and likable than all the Action Girls she's done, and shows hitherto untapped range. The other performances are all impeccably effective, including newcomer Sanchez. They're all invaluable in making the first half of the movie work.

But ultimately, even if everything about it had worked, all you'd have is a formulaic, run-of-the-mill guess-the-killer thriller that's been done countless times before. I can respect Twohy for wanting to make something small and effective, but I thought he'd have more ambition than that. A movie like this couldn't get more than three stars from me even if it had been perfect. And it's not. Sorry, Mr. Twohy; I'll be back for your next one.

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

Anticipation level: looking forward to it

(There are spoilers in the comments thread. Beware!)

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Buang jin ni jauh-jauh

Jin Notti
My rating:

I really gotta pace myself when it comes to local films. Since there's two of them released simultaneously for Raya this year, I need to make sure there are some half-decent movies to watch before, between, and after them - since I fully expect them to be less than half-decent. And can you blame me? It's bad enough having to sit through one of them; watching two in a row can put me off movies for good. So here's the year's second big holiday release - and judging from the audience count, it looks like this one's beating Momok the Movie at the box-office.

Tapi dua-dua sama macam sampah.

Notti (Fara Fauzana) is a jin, and a pretty lousy one; whereas all her kind are devoted to mischief and evil, she's blessed with empathy and a good heart. Thus a court of her jin peers send her to Earth on a mission to perform as many heinous deeds as possible. Aided by her "lawyer" Jinbara (Cat Farish), she takes over the bodies of three people, one after the other - a teenage girl, a gangster's moll, and a defense attorney. In the process, she meets Zulu (Sazzy Falak) the rebellious goth punk girl, Bobby (Adam Corrie Lee) the gangland boss, Hisham (Aziz M. Osman) the rich sleazebag, and dashing Ajiz (Mawi) with whom she falls in love.

It's hard to write reviews for shitty Malay movies. Not just because there's only so many synonyms for "shitty", but also because it's so tempting to just tar them all with the same brush. Which is unfair, even to an appallingly bad movie like Jin Notti. What sucks about it aren't the same things that suck about Momok the Movie, which aren't the same reasons why Skrip 7707 or Syurga Cinta or Bohsia suck. So I actually need to think hard about what I watched, and highlight exactly where the movie went wrong; in other words, I need to do my job as a film critic. Even though I'd much, much rather forget about this cinematic abomination as much as possible without controlled substances.

Right then. Jin Notti is a shitty movie because director Azhari Mohd. Zain is a total incompetent. Guy isn't only hopelessly unimaginative with his shots, he has no goddamn clue how to direct actors. Almost everyone in this film acts like a moron, especially the jins. The actors are not acting - they're just doing schticks. They mug shamelessly for the camera, behave like retards, annoy the living hell out of the audience, and Azhari is right there yelling "Lagi! Lagi! Buat perangai bodoh lagi!" This is what passes for comedy in this film. There is no wit, or cleverness, or even any actual jokes. All you're given to laugh about is Cat Farish smelling a woman's underarm and fainting.

Three actors emerge with their dignity intact. One is Sazzy Falak, who has horrible dialogue - and later in the film, seems pretty unperturbed about the fact that she was raped - but at least appears to be taking the role seriously. Aziz M. Osman also plays a convincing sleazebag. And then there's the one-man marketing machine known as Mawi, who actually has some decent screen presence. Even when Azhari puts him in a godawful fight scene and tells him to do a bad kungfu impression ("Buat muka 'fierce!'"), you get the impression that he could do well with a good script and a director with a brain. As for the rest - halfway through I wanted to strangle Cat Farish. And Fara Fauzana should stick to her radio announcer day job.

The plot had potential, actually. It could've been a morality play in which the innocent Notti is tempted by greed and lust and the desire to be accepted by her own kind, but redeems herself out of her love for Ajiz and her friendship with Zulu. But Notti is just an idiot from start to finish; she hasn't a clue how to act evil, her motivations are murky, none of her relationships are developed, and whatever good deeds she does are only because the script says so. And it's an utterly moronic script. The courtroom scenes in which lawyer-Notti defends Hisham are just head-hurtingly stupid.

I rarely mention the cinematography, but here I just can't overlook how bad it is. In so many shots, the picture is noticeably fuzzy; I don't know if it's bad lighting or bad cine transfer, but it is seriously bad. It's bad enough to even make Bohsia and Syurga Cinta look good - at least those two had the initiative to shoot on 35mm film. Setem looked fine on digital video, but directors like Azhari use it as an excuse to half-ass their shoots. And the music was so frickin' intrusive, it was virtually yelling at us how funny every scene was supposed to be. Considering how little humour the movie actually had, Azhari probably thought it necessary. ("I rasa, scene ni, Fara tak cukup buat bodoh lah. Bubuh muzik kelakar, bagi kuat sikit.")

If Momok the Movie was an insult to Islam, both these movies being released for Raya is a goddamn desecration. What is it with the Malaysian film industry?? Why is almost every movie so dreadful? It's not that we don't have the resources; it's not even that we don't have the onscreen talent. It's that the folks behind the cameras are such talentless, lazy, mouth-breathing hacks. Malaysian audiences deserve better. Malay audiences deserve better than this trash.

NEXT REVIEW: A Perfect Getaway
Anticipation level: please be good

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Ebbs, rises, then sinks again

Tsunami at Haeundae
My rating:

I have a pretty high opinion of Korean films. I've seen some really good ones, like Shiri, A Tale of Two Sisters, JSA, Oldboy, and The Host. South Korea has perhaps the most exciting movie scene in Asia right now; they constantly make films that are unique yet accessible, they're doing some amazing things with genre, and they can even adopt the Hollywood blockbuster formula and outdo Hollywood while they're at it. All the movies mentioned above have been highly acclaimed in both East and West; all are prime examples of the cream of Korean film.

And then there are the non-prime, non-cream, unacclaimed Korean films.

Man-shik (Sol Kyung-gu) is in love with Yeon-hee (Ha Ji-won), but is wracked with guilt over his involvement in her father's death in a fishing boat accident. His brother Hyong-shik (Lee Min-ki) is a junior lifeguard who clumsily rescues Hi-mi (Kang Ye-won), a spoiled rich (and somewhat psycho) girl, and she starts stalking him for it. Dong-choon (Kim In-kwon) is a good-for-nothing friend of Man-shik's who lives with his long-suffering mother. And Kim Hwi (Park Joong-hoon) is a geologist who learns of disturbing seismic activity in the nearby ocean floor - but must also deal with his estranged wife Yoo-jin (Uhm Jung-hwa) and their daughter. All these people must struggle for their lives when a massive tsunami hits their seaside resort city of Haeundae.

Yes, it's an ensemble disaster movie in the grand tradition that includes The Day After Tomorrow, Deep Impact, Titanic, and goes all the way back to The Poseidon Adventure (1972) and Airport (1970). I guess being in Korean gives it points for originality. There's a very rigid structure for movies of this genre: first you introduce a bunch of characters and their various interpersonal conflicts. Then the disaster strikes, and the aforementioned characters are thrown into death-defying action scenes. How well this formula works depends on how well-drawn the characters are, which makes their subsequent life-and-death struggles all the more thrilling.

And frankly, during much of the first hour it wasn't working well at all. There's a lot of dumb slapstick and ill-defined drama, and it was all pretty tiresome. Man-shik's mother hates Yeon-hee for some unknown reason, there's an old guy who wants to develop the seaside district and is trying to evict all the residents (or something), Hi-mi goes all My Sassy Girl on Hyong-shik, Kim Hwi delivers some inane geological technobabble, and Yoo-jin is a royal bitch. The somewhat suspect subtitles didn't help either; for all I know, all of Kim Hwi's scenes may have had rigorously accurate scientific terminology in its original Korean. But I still don't know who the old guy is and why everyone hates him.

(As a matter of fact, according to this Wikipedia summary, there's an entire subplot that was excised from the movie. I have no idea why or what gives.)

Then a curious thing happened. The tsunami hit, and I found myself actually caring about these folks. (Actually it happened a little sooner, during a fireworks display the night before that everyone watches entranced. It neatly brings together all these disparate characters into a common narrative thread.) Sure, the CGI is bad - or at least, not so good that you can't see the seams - but the massive destruction still delivers a visceral thrill. And these characters' goofy charm had actually grown on me enough that their struggles through storm-tossed oceans, trapped and flooding elevators, and flooded streets with fallen electrical cables kept me engaged.

But then the real waterworks started. See, the one defining characteristic that sets Asian commercial cinema apart from the West is that it always goes for broad; broad melodrama and broad comedy. They're not afraid to put slapstick pratfalls and heartrending tragedy in the same movie, and the best ones can make it all of a consistent tone. This one goes way overboard. A rescue helicopter's winch malfunctions for no other reason than to allow the rescuer to heroically sacrifice himself, which he only does so after a long and tearful goodbye to his love interest. Two parents hoist their daughter to safety on another helicopter just before a second tsunami hits, and there is much weeping and bawling and slow-mo. Both scenes are shamelessly, artlessly manipulative. Just because you're painting with a broad brush doesn't mean you don't need skill to wield it.

For some reason, the female actors all consistently fare much worse than their male counterparts. Ha Ji-won is wooden as hell; Kang Ye-won attempts to channel Jeon Ji-hyun and fails; and Uhm Jung-hwa is, as mentioned, little more than a royal bitch. The male characters all have a sadsack charm that works, although Park Joong-hoon never gets to do anything more than look worried a lot. The standout is Kim In-kwon, who plays an effective lovable loser; he gets to be in the movie's best scene, involving falling shipping containers.

I guess your enjoyment of this movie will depend on how cynical you are. Do you laugh at goofy slapstick, or do you roll your eyes? Do you weep at tear-jerking melodrama, or do you check your watch? Me, I'm pretty goshdarn cynical, and I can call out mawkishness and schmaltz when I see it. And even I almost liked this movie. So I guess this counts as a tentative recommendation - but you'd really be better off watching something like The Host instead.

Anticipation level: ...for thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Taik Kucing: The Movie

Momok The Movie
My rating:

Hot on the heels of Skrip 7707 comes another locally-made horror anthology film. One wonders if one ripped off the other, or if there was any rivalry (friendly or otherwise) going on between writer/director M. Jamil and Prof. Madya Razak Mohaideen. I wouldn't be surprised if there was a bit of a competition going on between both productions.

Said competition would be akin to the Special Olympics - win or lose, you're still retarded.

Adlin (Faizal AF4) has just returned to his kampung in Temerloh, and runs into Pak Ajis (Dato' Aziz Sattar) who invites him to his warung for an evening meal of mee calong. Upon hearing from his mother that Pak Ajis has become mentally disturbed since the death of his wife - whom he speaks of as if she were still alive - Adlin drags his friend Kadir (Abon) along. The three of them then completely forget the mee calong and start trading ghost stories, nearly all of which involve virtually identical long-haired white-robed female spirits with faces covered in bedak sejuk (and in one case, what looks like sweetened condensed milk and raspberry jam).

First of all, may I just say how annoying I find Malay celebrities with names like Faizal AF4, Nabil Raja Lawak 2 and Mama Rina AF6. Korang takde nama sebenar ke? Is your fame so ephemeral that you need to constantly remind people where you got your first break? Does the Malay entertainment scene treat its personalities as so disposable? (Sadly, the answers are most likely yes and yes.) Second of all, one other thing the movie has in common with Skrip 7707 is that both are the only Malay movies I've watched this year that had English subtitles. (Strangely enough, the one good Malay movie I watched this year had none.) Not that it helps, because the subtitles are about as facepalmingly inept as the rest of the movie.

This film has more padding than a Bintang RTM contestant's bra. Time and again, scenes take forever to get to the point, even after we can see the point coming and know that it's not frickin' worth the wait. M. Jamil has no clue how to create suspense, which you'd think might be somewhat necessary in a goddamn horror film. There's a bit in which a guy runs right smack into a ghost. He doesn't run away screaming. Oh no. He gives us a good 10 seconds of gelabah-ing before he runs away screaming. The movie runs 1 hour and 42 minutes, feels like 3 hours, and was likely made from a script of about 30 pages. This is a remarkable feat of space/time manipulation, but it makes for a shitty movie.

As for the stories themselves? Well, Adlin and Kadir take so goddamn long just to get to Pak Ajis' warung that I almost forgot this is supposed to be a horror anthology. In any case, each story is really bodoh sampai nak mampus. One tale is of a lorry driver who gets lost, apparently because a bird that flew into his windshield caused his entire truck to teleport from the highway to a trunk road. In another, a dead girl turns into a ghost at her wake and scares away the mourners. And that's it. I don't think M. Jamil knows the difference between a story and a scene. I'm not sure if he even knows the difference between scary and funny, because as the movie progresses it seems to give up all effort at being the former and just goes for the latter - with roughly equal success.

What's there to say about the acting, given that the dialogue and characters are about on par with a sekolah kebangsaan drama production? Whatever glimmers of talent that the Akademi Fantasia and Raja Lawak-spawned cast possess are drowned by the flood of crappy filmmaking. On the other hand, I may be clutching at straws here, but I found Dato' Aziz Sattar to be the man. Guy's been in movies for over 50 years, and was no less than one of the original Bujang Lapok. He has enough gravitas and presence to make even the dumbass dialogue in this movie sound believable, and there's a scene in which he mourns his late wife that effectively brought the pathos. I want to say that this steaming turd of a movie is an indignity to him, but frankly he emerged unsoiled by it. Dato', you are win and awesome personified.

I cannot fathom why it's called Momok The Movie. Was there previously a Momok the TV series/comic strip/album/brand of kitchen condiment? I think they called it that just to remind people that this is, in fact, a movie. This likely points to its true reason for being - it is a stupid movie, made by stupid people, who think audiences are equally stupid. The fact that it was released for Raya is an insult to Islam. M. Jamil should have his hands chopped off if he ever touches a film camera again.

NEXT REVIEW: Tsunami at Haeundae
Anticipation level: still meh

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

G for gag-worthy

My rating:

(I don't know why I still do the "Next Review" thing. It's getting harder to plan my movie-watching schedule. Rest assured, I will watch and review Tsunami at Haeundae eventually.)

Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott are screenwriting partners who have worked on some of the most successful big-budget Hollywood blockbusters of the past 15 years, including Disney's Aladdin, The Mask of Zorro, Shrek, and the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy. They also run the Wordplayer website, a compendium of screenwriting advice articles and a lively forum frequented by both aspiring and pro Hollywood screenwriters (and which my ISP can no longer access, drat). So when I heard that they were involved in this movie, it was all I needed to make me want to watch it - despite my misgivings.

Should've listened to my misgivings.

The G-Force are a team of super-intelligent tiny animal spies, comprising guinea pigs Darwin (Sam Rockwell), Juarez (Penelope Cruz), Blaster (Tracy Morgan), a mole named Speckles (Nicolas Cage) and a fly called Mooch. When nasty FBI agent Killian (Will Arnett) threatens to shut down their program, their handler Ben (Zach Galifianakis), plus another guinea pig they pick up along the way named Hurley (Jon Favreau), must help them complete their first mission - to uncover and foil the nefarious plans of Leonard Saber (Bill Nighy), evil household appliances magnate.

Some movies just aren't worth writing plot synopses for. There are talking guinea pigs, and they're like, secret agents, okay? There's also a talking hamster, a talking mole, some talking mice, a fly (who fortunately doesn't talk) and some cockroaches (who unfortunately dance). And just as there are audiences who see cute talking rodents performing action hero antics and go "uaaahh, must watch must watch", there's also a sizable segment who are like "gaaahh, stay away stay away". And then there's the tiny percentage, comprised mostly of myself, who think "yes, it's an incredibly stupid idea and shamelessly calculated to appeal to the kiddies, but hey, it all depends on the execution, y'know?"

The execution sucks. The jokes aren't funny. The characterization is non-existent. The emotional themes are lame. Only the action scenes are somewhat competent, and the plot moves fast enough to keep you just above the threshold of boredom. I can't imagine why anyone looking for family-oriented entertainment would go for this when Up is still playing in cinemas. The Pixar film has cute, has thrills, has laughs, has heartwarming, and makes it all work. Ted and Terry, I am disappointed in the both of you.

Incidentally, G-Force might've worked better as an animated film rather than a live-action one. The world in which it is set is an utterly preposterous one, in which all animals - not just our "genetically-engineered" superspy heroes - are sentient and intelligent, and merely need some gadget to be able to communicate with humans. Put that in a cartoon, and we can buy it. Put it in a live-action world, and it just becomes silly. Babe pulled it off, but it takes just the right touch of whimsy and fantasy - something that has eluded every other cute-talking-animal movie since.

I feel sorry for the cast. The actors who voice the rodents are given some truly painful dialogue. Rockwell and Cruz are bland, and only Morgan seems to deliver his lines with relish. Favreau plays yet another goofy sidekick. There's a hamster character played by Steve Buscemi, whose voice is instantly recognizable; however, Nicolas Cage's isn't. I had no idea he voiced Speckles the mole till the end credits, which may make this one of his better performances in recent years. Galifianakis seems downright embarrassed to be in this movie, Arnett glowers a lot, and Nighy seemed ready to do a good fun scenery-chewing over-the-top villain role - but strangely enough, the film doesn't give him much opportunities.

And now I gotta mention the 3D. Yes, this is my first 3D film, and I find myself spectacularly unimpressed. The picture was blurry and out-of-focus, and the colours were dimmed and murky; I can't imagine watching a film as bright and colourful as Up like this. The 3D effect itself wasn't much to shout about; it's only effective when things are flying towards the screen, so all it can do is throw things at the screen. The glasses sat rather precariously over my own spectacles; it wasn't entirely uncomfortable, but I was still glad that it was a pretty short movie. All this for almost twice the price of a normal ticket? Feh.

I am loath to say only kids will enjoy this movie, because I think that's an insult to kids. They may like the cute guinea pigs and they may enjoy the action scenes, but I can't imagine they'll find the dialogue-based jokes any funnier than I did. And I'm pretty certain they'll get bored by Darwin's disillusionment over his bogus genetic superiority, or by Hurley's need for love and acceptance. As for the adults... well, the final scene is of all the CGI animals boogieing to the musical stylings of Flo Rida. If you've passed puberty and didn't find that scene embarrassingly bad, you'd have to have the mind of an infant - and maybe that's who G-Force is really aimed at.

NEXT REVIEW: Momok The Movie
Anticipation level: yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Ugly? Somewhat. Truthful? Kinda-sorta. Funny? No.

The Ugly Truth
My rating:

The romantic comedy is one of the most critic-proof genres in film. Say you don't like any one of them, and you'll be instantly labeled a typical oafish male who disdains "chick flicks" just because things don't blow up. Never mind your protests that you do like rom-coms, you've seen some really good ones, that's why you're so disappointed when you see a bad one. And so very, very few people can tell the good ones from the bad. So many, many people actually think that The Wedding Planner is on par with Four Weddings and a Funeral, or that The Proposal is just as good as While You Were Sleeping...

...or that The Ugly Truth is actually funny.

Abby Richter (Katherine Heigl) is the producer of a morning TV news show. In an effort to recover from failing ratings, her boss hires Mike Chadway (Gerard Butler) as a new host. It's hate at first sight between uptight control freak Abby and gleefully crass and chauvinistic Mike, so the latter offers to coach the former in how to capture the attention of Abby's hunky neighbour Colin (Eric Winter). But it isn't long before opposites start to attract.

I usually watch movies alone (I am quite comfortable with my own company, thankyouverymuch), but this one I saw with three friends. And I owe them an apology, since I was pretty much stony-faced throughout it while the whole cinema was laughing uproariously. Sorry guys, but what can I say? I didn't find it funny. When Abby goes on a date with Colin and has Mike feeding her instructions via earphone, I checked my watch to see what year it was - I could've sworn I went back to 1986 and I'm watching The Facts of Life or Who's the Boss? Sitcom clichés aside, everything about this movie just felt artificial.

F'rinstance, there's the big comic setpiece of the movie, in which Abby ends up wearing vibrating panties to a dinner with her bosses. First of all, this scene tries to be the new Meg-Ryan-fakes-an-orgasm-in-When-Harry-Met-Sally, and it doesn't hold a candle to that one. Because secondly, it's so much more contrived. It only works if super-anal-retentive Abby somehow forgot her big important corporate dinner, and conveniently has Mike and her boss pick her up at her door to remind her. And lastly, I'm not a fan of humiliation comedy - especially if it's the entire goddamn female gender being humiliated.

Why yes, I do have feminist leanings, and they make for sparkling conversation fodder at parties, I assure you. The fact is, the successful career woman who is ironically a failure at relationships and needs a good man to set her straight isn't just a character in this one movie, it's practically an archetype. The traditional rom-com formula is of two people who become each other's catalyst for becoming better people, thus proving that they're meant for each other - but it's so very often, and in so very many films, the female side that has the more to learn and whose lesson is the more painful. No, it's not just the orgasm scene - throughout the movie, Abby is far more often made the laughingstock than Mike. This, in a genre that caters to women. This, in a movie written by three women.

Sigh... once again, I end up writing a deeply split-personality review. Two-and-a-half stars doesn't mean I hated it. I can still believe that Mike and Abby could fall for each other; while everything they go through is contrived and unbelievable, their connection feels genuine. Heigl and Butler do have solid chemistry, and Heigl especially is a lot of fun - she totally deserves the title of reigning rom-com queen, and even makes the inherent sexism of the script easier to swallow. Butler is fine as a romantic male lead, but I don't think he cuts it at comedy quite yet.

My ambivalent feelings about this film are best represented by the big romantic climax at the end. Yes, it's very very artificial - a professional TV producer suddenly takes it upon herself to appear in front of the camera, just because the script says so. But when Mike and Abby finally drop their defenses and reveal their true feelings to each other, I'm forced to nod and concede that, hey, they got that right at least. There's a germ of a good romantic comedy in here, a solid insight into how falling in love can expose superficial gender views for what they are. But it settles for showing us a dorky hot chick and a smirky hunky guy - and sadly, most people are happy to have just that.

NEXT REVIEW: Tsunami at Haeundae
Anticipation level: meh

Monday, September 14, 2009

First-person stinker

My rating:

I don't know why Golden Screen Cinemas brought in this movie at all. (Instead of a few others I could name. Pussies.) Every review I've read says it's a hard R-rated film, full of gory violence, nudity and profanity - everything our Lembaga Penapisan Filem works so admirably hard to keep us from seeing. But, well, I like action movies and I like sci-fi...

...but I also like my head to not hurt, tenkiu.

It is a future in which Nanex technology has developed a means for brain cells to receive remote signals that allow people to be controlled like literal puppets. Its inventor Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall) has created two real-life "games" that employ this technology - Society, a Second Life-like environment in which "actors" fulfill their controllers' depraved fantasies; and Slayers, in which convicts slaughter each other in FPS-type combat. Kable (Gerard Butler) is the most famous Slayer, and he's close to surviving his 30th game which will guarantee freedom - but Castle has other ideas. And in the meantime, a group of rebel hackers called Humanz enlist both Kable and his teenage gamer controller Simon Silverton (Logan Lerman) in their plans to take down Castle. But Kable merely wants to find his daughter and his wife (Amber Valletta), who pays the bills by renting her body out in Society.

Wow, that's a pretty dense summary. And I'll give it credit for this much - it does a decent job of setting up its premise and the world it's set in. But once the exposition's out of the way, the plot kicks in, and... there isn't much of one. Or at least, not much of one that hasn't been done. Decadent future presided by megalomaniacal villain? Gladiatorial death-games that dangle the promise of freedom which turns out to be a lie? Rebel group that aids hero in overthrowing villain, but then all die so that hero has to fight villain alone? Supposedly super-rich, super-powerful villain whose forces are easily defeated and is killed by one person? Death Race, Equilibrium, Aeon Flux, The Running Man and probably half a dozen others. Seen it all before.

Still, nothing wrong with a seen-it-all-before sci-fi action movie if it offers some fun action scenes, but... oh, the pain. See, I consider myself a pretty "with it" kind of viewer. I am a child of the new millennium, trained to process visual information faster than my forebears. I sat through The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield (okay, that one on DVD), District 9, and all 3 Bourne movies without flinching. And this movie made me nauseous. Directors Neveldine/Taylor's directing style is beyond spastic. Far from putting the viewer in the midst of the chaos - which is the usual excuse for this kind of shaky-cam three-cuts-per-second action - it actually betrays the fact that there is no choreography, no coordination, no planning, no coherency to the action scenes at all. It's just a lot of noise and gore and stuff blowing up.

Now, I have to admit that the censors may have had something to do with this. In fact, I'm pretty sure they did, since it's during the action scenes where the violence is bloodiest. And the absolute most headache-inducing scene is a chase-and-firefight through a rave club in Society, which has nudity and sexually explicit scenes (and strobe lights) to boot. So this may not be entirely the movie's fault. But it can't excuse the fact that, for a movie that satirizes gaming, it's shockingly ignorant about FPS game conventions. The objective of the battles in Slayers seems to be to get to "safe zones", which... um, hello? This is why game developers invented things like Team Deathmatch and Capture the Flag. If getting to a safe zone means you survive and win, why does anybody need to shoot anybody? Why don't they just put down their guns and walk there together??

And it also can't excuse the fact that this movie is ugly. Kable's wife - which Wikipedia tells me is named Angie, something I didn't pick up from the movie itself - is controlled by a sweaty, obese man, and we get lingering, disgusting closeups of his naked flab (he just has to be naked) and his equally disgusting eating habits. The movie just loves to show us sweat and oil and grease, colour-corrected and sharpened to look as gross as possible. But hey, it's thematically appropriate! It's an ugly world, an ugly future! That's why the movie is trying to make you puke! 'Cos it's got a message!

The only acting standout is Hall, who seems to be having fun playing the insanely evil Castle. Butler could play badass action hero in his sleep. I haven't even mentioned Kyra Sedgwick as a muckraking TV host, which brings me to another problem with the plot. She's one of a number of ancillary characters, including Simon and the Humanz leader (Chris "Ludacris" Bridges, whose character doesn't even have a name), and... okay, they each do have a story purpose. But they're so thinly developed that we have no idea what motivates them to do what they do, other than that the screenplay demands it of them. They're as much puppets to the plot as the players in Society and Slayers. Huh. Irony.

Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor won... well, not exactly kudos, but some reviews of their previous movies Crank and Crank: High Voltage noted that they were smart and imaginative in how they satirized action movie conventions while simultaneously taking them over the top. I've not watched either, and having seen their latest film, I doubt I'm going to. Whatever's smart and imaginative about Gamer is wasted in clichés, by-the-numbers plotting, and tissue-thin characters. Even then, I might've given it two stars, or possibly even two-and-a-half. But this movie... this movie almost made me sick. I don't see why anyone should pay 10 bucks and sit through 1-½ hours of this shit.

NEXT REVIEW: The Ugly Truth
Anticipation level: more Gerard Butler. Whoop-tee-doo

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Beyond a reasonable plot

Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
My rating:

"I will frame myself for murder if it means I get to 'rely on the love and trust' of Amber Tamblyn. Mmm. She hawt. And she definitely deserves better than Jesse Frigging Metcalfe." That's the penetratingly witty comment what won me the free invite to this movie's premiere screening. So hey, thanks and big ups to Nuffnang and Tayangan Unggul. You guys rock. Let's do this again sometime.

Too bad the movie sucks.

C.J. Nicholas (Jesse Metcalfe) is a TV reporter pursuing a story on District Attorney Mark Hunter (Michael Douglas), whom Nicholas believes is fabricating DNA evidence to win cases. Discouraged by his editor's lack of interest, he enlists his producer friend Corey Finley (Joel David Moore) in a ploy to frame himself for murder and expose Hunter during the trial. When the plan goes wrong, Nicholas' girlfriend - and Hunter's assistant DA - Ella Crystal (Amber Tamblyn) must step up and uncover the truth.

Here's another movie with a surprising pedigree - it's a remake of a 1956 Fritz Lang film, and apparently not a very well-regarded one. There's a spoiler-filled summary of it here, and it seems that movie has many of the same problems as this one - primarily, a ridiculous plot. I can actually buy the reason why intrepid investigative reporter C.J. would attempt a stunt like this for the sake of a story, even though my first impression was, why don't you try, like, I dunno, investigative reporting?

But even after I suspended my disbelief for the premise, the movie ran into problems. C.J. and Corey work out a plan, they tell us what the plan is, and for the entire first half all we see is them carrying out exactly what they planned. It's boring. No tension, no suspense, nothing to do but wait for when their plan goes awry, which of course it's going to. And when it does, it brings forth another of the film's biggest problems - namely, head-slapping stupidity.

So they've framed C.J. for the murder using entirely circumstantial evidence, right? The plan is to wait till Hunter introduces his planted evidence that supposedly links C.J. to the murder, and once he does, Corey is supposed to come in with the DVD they shot of how they faked the whole thing, right? So when Hunter does exactly that at the trial, C.J. turns around and excitedly nods to Corey, who... runs out of the courtroom to fetch the DVD. Why didn't he already have it with him?? The answer is, of course, because here's where the plan goes wrong. It even throws in a car chase at this point, because the movie thinks action can substitute for suspense.

And at this point, the movie does one thing right - the transition from C.J.'s point of view to Ella's. This could've been jarring, but it works largely due to how likable they made her in the first half. Or maybe it's because of how hawt I think Tamblyn is. (Doe-eyed redheads totally do it for me.) The thing is, although she does well in the role, she has absolutely zero chemistry with Metcalfe. The dialogue - by Peter Hyams, who wrote and directed - is clever and (fitfully) entertaining, but entirely too clever. The constant wisecracks undercut the emotion in scenes where Ella and C.J. are meant to be falling in love, and in fact lends a jokey sensibility to the entire film that undercuts everything. (The audience at my viewing kept chuckling even during serious scenes.)

Speaking of Hyams - what a hack. Just look at his track record. (I liked 2010, but that was 25 years ago.) I don't know if it's him or his editor, but the editing in this movie is awful. Even in a quiet romantic conversation scene, the camera keeps cutting back and forth so much, I kept thinking it's our Censorship Board's doing. But it's done on purpose, and it's disjointed and distracting and annoying as all hell.

Jesse Metcalfe plays the stereotypical smirky and wisecracking all-American hero, the kind of character Tom Cruise used to play before Cruise himself started looking for roles with more substance. I suppose the ladies will find him a worthy protagonist the same way I liked Tamblyn. Douglas plays smarmy villain effortlessly, but he's pretty much wasted - he simply doesn't get enough screen time, and even his comeuppance is given short shrift. Moore is the standard-order goofy sidekick, whose goofiness is highlighted in a cringe-inducing scene of him sucking up to the boss for yucks. Yuck.

I suppose the ending worked reasonably well, in that I didn't see it coming - but it also means that, for it to work, Ella has to have been incredibly blind and stupid not to spot a crucial clue until the screenplay allowed her to. This is the very definition of Idiot Plot - it only works because every character is an idiot. And what does this say about Hyams? Here's one last titbit - C.J. keeps harping about how this story will win a Pulitzer Prize. In the real world, they don't give Pulitzers for TV news. To miss this little nugget of info - or to not care about it at all - you'd have to be an idiot.

Anticipation level: I anticipate it'll be damn near unwatchable

Thursday, September 10, 2009

You suck, Chris Columbus

I Love You, Beth Cooper
My rating:

This movie has a surprising pedigree. It's based on a novel by Larry Doyle, former writer for The Simpsons and Beavis and Butt-head as well as Looney Tunes: Back in Action. The book has gotten some pretty rave reviews, and has even won a Thurber Prize (apparently some high mucky-muck literary award for humour writing). And Doyle adapted it himself for the screenplay. So yeah, this movie had a lot of potential...

...until its director got his dirty hands on it.

While giving his valedictorian speech, Denis Cooverman (Paul Rust) declares his love for long-time crush Beth Cooper (Hayden Panettiere). This leads to an eventful graduation night with Beth, his possibly-gay best friend Rich (Jack Carpenter), and Beth's friends Cammy (Lauren London) and Treece (Lauren Storm). Whilst avoiding Beth's violently jealous boyfriend Kevin (Shawn Roberts) - amongst other adventures - Denis and Beth get to know one another and find out things about each other that they never expected.

I quite like the premise actually. I've had my high school crushes (as has everyone, I'm sure), and I can empathize with Denis' reasons for giving his none-too-wise speech to the entire graduating class. (He says a few more things that he's never dared to, to a few more people, and they don't take it as well as Beth did.) And I quite like teen movies in general - those years were the most formative in everyone's life, and someone who can no longer relate to a teen movie is someone who's really gotten old. So I was pretty primed to enjoy this film, but around half an hour in I'd already decided to give it two stars. Because I was getting annoyed by it.

See, this movie's idea of funny is to have Denis and Rich act like total morons. Not that I have anything against total morons - total morons are funny - but Denis and Rich are made out to be total morons in ways that make it hard to root for them like the downtrodden everygeeks they're supposed to be. When Beth and co. visit Denis' house, Rich waves around a string of condoms and Denis walks funny because he has a hard-on. They are annoying, and this also hurts the (supposedly) burgeoning relationship between Denis and Beth. The movie sacrifices genuine romance for cheap laughs every time.

And cheap is pretty much the only kind of laugh you'll get. It has a remarkably contemptuous attitude towards its audience's intelligence. There's one part where Denis attempts to imitate Beth and open a beer bottle with his teeth - and naturally, he breaks a tooth. Har de har har, fuh-nee; but then Beth picks up the tooth and goes, "Is that your tooth?" Why, yes, yes it is, thanks for the reminder. Later on there's a scene where an animatronic squirrel hisses and makes Denis and Beth scream and run away. We are inexplicably asked to laugh at this. And then there's the bit where we are also expected to laugh at the emotional outpouring of a character whom it is implied is a child sexual abuse victim.

How could this happen? How could a Thurber Prize-winning novel be turned into such a limp dishrag of a movie? The blame could lie on no other feet but director Chris Columbus'. The man has an entirely lunk-headed approach to humour and sentimentality, and can only depict either in the cheapest and most hackneyed manner possible. It's shocking that he was once considered the heir apparent to Steven Spielberg. You can't even blame Doyle for the lousy parts of the script; Columbus must surely have done a little rewriting, since he does at times fancy himself a screenwriter. I said before in my Harry Potter retrospective that he'll be known mostly for directing the two worst Harry Potter films, and this movie only confirms my prediction.

Panettiere gives the best performance in this film, which is actually saying quite a lot. The role calls for quite a wide range, and she successfully delivers each emotional note - which is better than the movie deserves. Rust, however, doesn't fare as well; the 28-year-old actor does look a bit too old to play a teenager, and again he plays Denis as just too annoying and pathetic. Carpenter has less to lift, and does an adequate comic-relief sidekick. Everyone else is pretty much inconsequential. (Except that Lauren Storm bears an uncanny resemblance to Amanda Seyfried, and plays virtually the same role Seyfried did in Mean Girls. I'm tempted to think Columbus simply told the casting director, "Get me an Amanda Seyfried in Mean Girls.")

I'm also compelled to mention our precious Lembaga Penapisan Filem's savaging of this movie. Several jokes had their payoff completely snipped, and I swear at one point they even censored the word "asshole". Proving once again that those guys are just simply only.

Aside from Panettiere, the movie's other saving grace is towards the ending, when Beth finally reveals her true self, fears, faults and vulnerabilities all; and Denis accepts her and reassures her of her self-worth. It's an effectively sweet scene, made with good writing and (Panettiere's) acting. But it ultimately can't redeem the movie. There really is a seed of a good teen romantic comedy here, in the story of a nerd whose idealised vision of his dream girl is shattered, only to fall for the real person behind it. Unfortunately, Chris Columbus got his dirty hands on it.

NEXT REVIEW: Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
Anticipation level: I know next to nothing about it