Saturday, October 31, 2009

Ini ko panggil kurun ke-18??

Lembing Awang Pulang ke Dayang
My rating:

Remember Puteri Gunung Ledang? Five years ago, that was like the great hope of Malaysian cinema - the most expensive locally-produced film, the first Malaysian submission to the Academy Awards, and the first film that could cross over to audiences who normally wouldn't be caught dead watching a Malay movie. Yeah, that didn't happen. It was let down mostly by poor storytelling, which was really unfortunate, because it had a lot of things going for it - a great cast, terrific art direction, beautiful cinematography, solid production values, and a director with a vision.

Now here's another Malay historical film that has none of these.

Awang (Farid Kamil) and Dayang (Siti Elizad) are engaged to be married. When Bachok (Zul Huzaimy) earns a Datukship, his father Panglima Merah (Hattan) persuades Dayang's father (Kuswadinata) to send Awang on a three-year voyage to Makasar to bring back a wedding gift for his bride-to-be. While Bachok continues to climb the social ladder and plot to seduce Dayang, Awang encounters pirates, a vagabond traveler named Dekar Agas (Aziz M. Osman), the somewhat piratical seafarer Nakhoda Galigor (Khir Rahman), and the Dutch trader Claudia (Lynette Mei Ling Ludi) - and comes into possession of two mystical spears that are tied to his destiny.

I gotta say, I had trouble figuring out this story. I still don't know why Awang had to go on his journey in the first place, beside some vague goings-on about "adat". The dialogue is in classical Malay, and once again there are no subtitles. (They don't even care about the non-Malay market, do they?) Even worse, the audio quality is pretty goddamn terrible. You can tell that some of the recorded dialogue is unusable, and some lines had to be post-dubbed - and the post-dubbing isn't even in sync with the actors' lips. The volume levels aren't even balanced; the music and sound effects always tend to drown the dialogue. I wouldn't be surprised if this is the same sound guy who did Skrip 7707. He seems to have gotten even worse.

But the most damning thing about this movie is its laughable production values. This isn't a remotely believable 18th century Tanah Melayu. Everyone's clothes are too clean and too brightly coloured, and the buildings and houses all have fresh coats of paint and shellac. And once we get to Makasar and meet some Dutch folks, it gets truly ridiculous. Does no one involved in this film know how Westerners dressed in the 18th century? The first white guy we see is wearing a sport coat. And then there's Claudia. Bad enough we're asked to believe a single woman can serve as a Dutch East Indies trading officer, but on top of that, her outfits look straight out of Zara and G2000.

I can't believe director Majed Salleh and his art department are that stupid; I think they didn't have the budget to recreate the period with any authenticity, so they just main lantak je. And so we get scenes like Awang fighting pirates on what's supposed to be the deck of a ship, with a badly-composited ocean behind him. At one point, Awang wears the same outfit we saw Bachok wearing in an earlier scene. I laughed out loud during one part where Awang and Galigor are escaping the Dutch, who fire on them with what are supposed to be muskets but look like toy cap guns. No, they're not stupid - they just expect the audience to be stupid.

But wait - Awang fights pirates? Sounds cool, dunnit? It would be, if the fight scenes had any decent choreography. There are enough of them that this movie could qualify as an action-adventure, but they're all amateurish and dull. None of the cast seem to be trained martial artists; they look like they've had all of a couple hours of silat lessons. And then there are the "mystical" elements. Awang's spears glow red and make electricity sounds. No, seriously. Later on, there's a scene in which the villain fights two old guys with lightning shooting out their hands. Force lightning! Ko ingat ni Jedi lawan Sith ke?! The scene with the muskets made me LOL, but this one made me yell "Apa niiii?!" at the screen.

Speaking of things that made me want to yell at the screen - there's a goddamn blatant racist caricature in this movie, in the character of a Chinese merchant in Makasar. I really wish I remembered the actor so I can name and shame him - he's a Malay guy doing a Cinapek accent that makes me want to sic the ISA on the entire production. Korang ingat kelakar ke, mengejek bangsa lain macam ni? Good thing he was only around for the Makasar scenes - this is the kind of distasteful crap I give one-star ratings for.

But no, I'm giving it one-and-a-half, so now I'm going to say something good about it. The first I heard about this movie was this synopsis, which is some weird shit about a cursed spear that makes its victims use it to kill someone else before dying. I'm assuming this is from the Malay legend the film is based on - and truth be told, it does a not-half-bad job of expanding on and making sense of it, right down to the ninety-nine dead. The bare bones of the plot is solid, and the script could actually make for a decent period romantic adventure - if it weren't for the annoyingly on-the-nose dialogue. And I don't care how much a part of budaya Melayu it is, people speaking in pantun is just goddamn pretentious.

Farid Kamil looks like he's sleepwalking through this film. Zul Huzaimy's Bachok is so slimy and loathsome, I wonder why anyone even wants to be in the same room with him, much less let him marry their daughter. Siti Elizad is a damsel in perpetual distress. Lynette Mei-Ling Ludi tries to play a femme fatale and fails. Everyone seems to have wandered off a bangsawan play; their performances are stiff and affected and completely phony. And in the time-honoured Malay film tradition of having "comic relief" characters that behave like total retards, we have Tamrin Ibrahim Pendek (likely the son of the Ibrahim Pendek) as one of Bachok's stooges.

I can't help but compare Puteri Gunung Ledang to this movie. PGL was an impressive failure, but it did so many things right that this one did wrong. It proved that it's at least possible to make a period Malay film that looks authentic, as long as you've got a strong vision and attention to detail - and, probably, a big-ass budget. This one doesn't have any of those. All it has is a lazy-ass director and crew who are out to insult the intelligence of Malaysian moviegoers. Here's one last example of how stupid this movie is: There's this bit where Awang plays a game of chess. When he wins, he says "checkmate".

He says "checkmate". In 18th century Tanah Melayu.

NEXT REVIEW: Jennifer's Body
Anticipation level: well, I liked Juno

Monday, October 26, 2009

Oh what a glourious war

Inglourious Basterds
My rating:

When Quentin Tarantino made a big splash with his debut in the '90s, it largely passed me by. I enjoyed Reservoir Dogs, but didn't catch Pulp Fiction till about 10 years after its release. I watched Kill Bill vols. 1 and 2 more for the fight scenes than their director. All of these, I saw in the comfort of my home in VHS, VCD and DVD. I can understand why he has such a cultish following, though I wouldn't call myself a Tarantino fan. I enjoyed the ones I watched, but I'm not particularly eager to catch his other two films that I missed.

But the first of his that I saw on the big screen? Is awesome.

The Basterds, led by Lt. Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt), are a guerilla unit of American Jews operating in Nazi-occupied France. Shosanna (Melanie Laurent) is a Jewish survivor of her family's massacre, living in Paris as a cinema operator under an assumed name. A premiere of a new propaganda film is to be held at Shosanna's cinema, and will be attended by the Nazi top brass - and both of them plot to blow up the cinema and possibly end the war in one stroke. The Basterds will be aided by British Lt. Archie Hicox (Michael Fassbender) and German movie star Bridget von Hammersmark (Diane Kruger), while Shosanna must deal with Private Frederick Zoller (Daniel Bruhl), a war hero who is infatuated with her - but hot on their heels is the famed Jew Hunter Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), the man who murdered Shosanna's family.

Sweet zombie Hitler, this is one tense movie. The opening scene is a visit by Landa to a French farm. It's long, it's slow, the conversation between the Nazi colonel and the farmer is often inane, yet all of it serves to ratchet up the suspense higher and higher. Tarantino repeats this trick another two or three times throughout the movie, yet it never fails - Hitchcock would be proud of the way he creates white-knuckle tension, releases it in a burst of explosive violence, then primes us again for the next setpiece. I've seen enough WW2 movies to know that the genre has a thing for undercover Allied spies desperately trying to bluff their way past suspicious SS officers, and the movie milks this trope but good.

The other thing that makes this a terrifically suspenseful film is its unpredictability. Tarantino has never been known for adhering to formula - as a matter of fact, something he is known for is killing off characters in brutal and shocking ways. A character who gets a nice introduction, whom the screenplay spends time developing, whom you get to know and like, may not necessarily survive to the end of the movie. (Or even the middle.) Some may find this annoying and affected, but I thought it worked. You honestly never know what's going to happen from minute to minute, and having watched and reviewed 50-odd films this year, may I say how refreshing that is. Don't even think your knowledge of how WW2 ended will do you much good here.

In many ways, this is a deliberately anachronistic film. I may be wrong, but I have the impression that the extent of Hitler's Final Solution wasn't widely known until after the war ended. Yet the Basterds are out for bloody payback, Shosanna is driven to avenge not only her family but all Jews, and there are numerous references to the Nazis' atrocities against the Jewish people. This is in many ways a Jewish revenge fantasy, right down to the over-the-top ending (which I'm trying not to spoil, even though quite a few reviews already have). Many war films portray the "enemy" side as honourable soldiers who are merely doing their duty, but not this one. Almost every Nazi is despicably evil, and those who aren't are only there to add texture to a particular scene; certainly not because Tarantino wanted to be fair in his depiction of them. Exploitative? Perhaps. Effective? Hell yes.

And it wouldn't be half as effective if it weren't for some amazing acting. Christoph Waltz won a Best Actor Award at the Cannes Film Festival for this role, and he deserves it. He makes Col. Landa a deliciously riveting presence - you may hate the guy, but you'll love watching him. Expect every "Best Movie Villain" list to include him from now on. But for all the love Waltz has been getting, Melanie Laurent deserves plenty too. In many scenes, Tarantino lets his camera linger on a close-up of her face, and it's all on her ability to convey Shosanna's tortured emotions to carry the scene - and she knocks it out of the park each time. I'm a heterosexual male, and therefore I was more impressed by Laurent than even Waltz. Despite his top billing, Brad Pitt is merely competent; his role isn't nearly as well-written as these two. Diane Kruger and Michael Fassbender do notable jobs too - hell, there isn't a bad performance in the bunch, and plenty of great ones.

There are the usual Tarantino signature touches, such as chapter titles, playful little supers, flashbacks, even a voiceover. Fans will love them, but even non-fans - if you like thrillers at all - should be able to enjoy the sheer filmmaking craft on display here. I've been raving about the suspense factor, but honestly, there's some terrifically stylish direction here, especially during the final chapter and especially on and around Shosanna (and that dress she wears). Plus, of course, the irreplaceable pleasure of being riveted to your seat in anticipation of what the movie will show you next. I'm still not quite a member of the Cult of Tarantino yet, but if he makes a few more movies this good, I might pick up an application form.

NEXT REVIEW: Lembing Awang Pulang ke Dayang
Anticipation level: the Movie Gods giveth, and the Movie Gods taketh away

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Yummy, nutritious, and utterly satisfying

Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
My rating:

I always, always, visit the bathroom before I go into the cinema. There are few things I hate worse than being distracted from a good movie by a bursting bladder. Just before I watched Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, I gulped down a full bottle of mineral water, then took my whizz - unfortunately, I forgot that it takes time for the human body to process fluids. I had to run out for a pee break right in the middle of an exciting action scene, forcing me to miss out on a minute or two of the film.

So I'm gonna go watch it again. Yes, it's that good.

Flint Lockwood (Bill Hader) wants to be an inventor, despite the fact that his inventions never work, his father (James Caan) doesn't understand him, the local police officer Earl Devereaux (Mr. T) considers him a public menace, and he's the laughingstock of his hometown of Swallow Falls. However, in an effort to help the town after the local sardine cannery closes down, he invents a device that converts water into food - and it causes cheeseburgers and other yummy things to fall from the sky like rain. Sam Sparks (Anna Faris), a weather intern from a national news channel, arrives to cover the gastro-meteorological phenomena, and Flint is quickly smitten. But the device begins to show dangerous signs of overuse, and Flint - egged on by the greedy and gluttonous Mayor (Bruce Campbell) - doesn't realise it until the windfall turns into disaster.

Thank you Movie Gods! It figures that a kids'... no, an all-ages animated film proves far more effective and entertaining than the last five live-action adult-oriented movies I've watched. Writer-directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, creators of the MTV animated series Clone High, flesh out a goofy premise with heaps of consistently clever and inventive humour. In layman's terms, it's funny, and always in smart ways. If you're not laughing as you're watching, listen closely - you will likely hear a whooshing sound coming from right above your head.

How smart? As the title promises, there are food jokes and weather jokes. And mad-scientist jokes. And vacuous TV news jokes. And small-town corruption jokes. And YouTube jokes. And computer illiteracy jokes. And monkey jokes. And sardine jokes. And facial hair jokes. And disaster-movie jokes. Lord and Miller worked hard on this film, and their efforts pay off handsomely. The gags and clever little touches keep coming from start till end, and they all feel organic and consistent with the premise, the characters, and the world they inhabit. Few CG-animated films outside of Pixar's stable put so much effort into entertaining its audience.

Which brings us to the inevitable comparison with the greatest film studio of all time. How does this Sony Pictures Animation release stack up? Well, first of all, it certainly doesn't ape the Pixar formula. Pixar's films are usually more ambitious, employing comedy and adventure to tell a story with emotional depth. CwaCoM is more an out-and-out comedy - which, incidentally, wouldn't be half as good if it didn't aim deeper than the funny bone. Flint has been ignored and ridiculed all his life, and when he finally gains public adulation, it goes to his head. How he rediscovers his inner self is typical Screenwriting 101, but it's competently done.

But there's more! The relationship between Flint and his dad, in which the son seeks the father's approval but the father doesn't know how to say it, is effectively heartwarming. There's even a character arc for Sam the weather girl, who was as nerdy as Flint as a child but, because of a crucial difference in their upbringing, grew up ashamed of her own intelligence. The "be yourself" theme is standard-order for a movie made for kids, but here it's spiced with a "be smart" message - and this nerd-as-a-child-and-still-one-as-an-adult film critic absolutely loved that. Parents, take your kids to this, and make sure they get it.

I've barely even mentioned Officer Devereaux, who is as awesome as you'd imagine a character voiced by Mr. T could be. Or Steve (Neil Patrick Harris), Flint's talking monkey sidekick. Or Manny (Benjamin Bratt), Sam's cameraman with hidden talents. Or Baby Brent (Andy Samberg), who lives off his former fame as the town's child sardine mascot. He was Flint's childhood bully, but even he gets redeemed during the action-packed climax. In fact, everyone (except the nominal villain, the Mayor) gets a chance to be awesome, and I really think this is a golden rule to making a great movie: give your characters a chance to do something admirable. So simple, yet so many movies don't know it.

Pixar might've made this an even better movie. They might've added more emotional depth and probably even a cleverer plot. But I had more fun watching this than some of theirs, and I'll stand by that three-and-a-half-star rating. It's not only terrifically entertaining, it offers fine lessons on the dangers of greed, gluttony, short-sightedness, superficiality, and anti-intellectualism. It's not Pixar, but it's still a damn good CG-animated family film. And there's plenty of room for those.

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

NEXT REVIEW: Inglourious Basterds
Anticipation level: eager!

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Crimes against film

Law Abiding Citizen
My rating:

Goddamn if this wasn't the most annoying movie-going experience I've had in a long time, for no less than four reasons. The first is that I came in late and missed out on a pivotal opening scene. The second is that the censors have been even more arbitrary than usual, snipping out only about every other utterance of the F-word. WTF? This being a preview screening, was the version I saw a work-in-progress cut from Finas? The third is the incredibly dumbass trailer that actually spoiled a couple of key scenes. WTF, Overture Films?

The last is that this makes five two-and-a-half-star films in a row. Movie Gods, why hast thou forsaken me?

Engineer Clyde Shelton's (Gerard Butler) wife and daughter are raped and murdered before his eyes. But instead of pursuing justice, Assistant D.A. Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) cuts a deal to convict one of the culprits and give the other - the one who actually committed the murders - a reduced sentence. Ten years later, Shelton puts into action an elaborate plan that involves murdering everyone involved in the trial - a plan that he's able to carry out even after he's been arrested and put behind bars - a plan whose goal isn't just revenge, but to take down the entire justice system.

Yes, I missed out on the scene of Shelton's family's rape and murder, which I'm sure muted a great deal of the film's impact. My bad entirely. Most films begin around 15 minutes into the scheduled screening time, after ads and trailers, but I guess that doesn't apply for Nuffnang Premiere Screenings. But although I'll take my slap on the wrist, whoever cut the trailer deserves jail time. At least two of Shelton's murders are meant to be shocking, but anyone who's seen the trailer will see them coming. So much for thrills, which is a pretty damn crucial element to this film, seeing as it's a thriller. Gaaahh.

So what else can I say about it? Well, it's also a terribly wishy-washy movie. There was a trend that began in the mid-90s of making action thrillers with villains that had sympathetic motives - The Rock, Air Force One and The Peacemaker come to mind. The idea was to give more realism and depth to the usual good-guys-vs.-bad-guys formula. All well and fine, but it needs to be handled well. A major part of the action and thriller genres' appeal is the visceral thrill of watching a hissable villain get what's coming to him. Make him too sympathetic, and you get an oddly unsatisfying genre film.

That's what happened here with Law Abiding Citizen. Clyde Shelton is a man grievously wronged, and his arguments about how corrupt and broken the American justice system is strike a chord. (Perhaps not as much as if we were Americans, but hey, we've all watched Hollywood TV shows about lawyers.) He's also a vicious terrorist mastermind who murders innocent people, people who had nothing to do his family's murder trial. In fact, he murders one or two characters whom we get to know and like. So do we root for him or against him? The movie can't seem to make up its mind, and thus doesn't give us much opportunity to do either.

"But wait," you cry. "Why do we need to root for someone and against someone else? Why can't a movie take an even-handed approach that weighs both sides equally?" Well, my response would be: who are you and how did you take over my blog post? Um, I mean, sure a movie can do that, but then it'd have to be much smarter and more nuanced. It would have to spend more time on scenes that explore the legal and moral issues. It would be more of the slow-burning suspense kind of thriller. Instead, most of it is Rice racing against time, aided by a cute assistant (Leslie Bibb) and a hardbitten cop (Colm Meaney), to stop Shelton's plot machinations, which involve a lot of bullets flying and stuff blowing up.

Butler gets to stretch himself here, in a departure from his customary heroic roles (which, by the way, makes it no easier to figure out if we should be hissing at him or cheering him on). He does drama as well as he does action hero or romantic lead, but the script's confusion over how to handle the character hobbles his performance. Foxx is fine, but all he does here is clench his jaw and grit his teeth. Bibb, Meaney, Bruce McGill (as Rice's boss and mentor) and Regina Hall (as the obligatory hero's worried wife) are decent, although Viola Davis as the mayor is somewhat over-the-top. F. Gary Gray shoots a scene or two with some flair, but he directs this with the same unremarkable competence that he gave to all the other action-thrillers on his resume.

Now, I'll concede that annoyances nos. 1, 2 and 3 may have compromised my ability to judge this movie fairly. And could it be that annoyance no. 4 is evidence that I'm getting burned out from watching too many movies? I don't think so; four out of five (not counting Papadom) of the last movies I reviewed have gotten poor critical reception elsewhere too, so I think we're just having a bad stretch. And speaking of bad stretches, I've been to three Nuffnang Premiere Screenings now, and they've all been mediocre. Guys, I totes appreciate the free tix, but can't you pick 'em better?

NEXT REVIEW: Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs
Anticipation level: Movie Gods, I beseech thee!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Zombies in spaaaaace!

My rating:

I haven't been keeping to the promise I made in my Drag Me to Hell review - I said "no more horror movies", but I've since watched and reviewed a couple of them. Granted, they were lame-ass local films, but I've also come to suspect that Sam Raimi really went overboard with the jump scares, and that most horror movies are generally pretty bearable. Still, I have unfond memories of Event Horizon, through which I suffered just as badly as DMtH. So I went into Pandorum with trepidation, since it looks similar to EH (and was produced by EH's director Paul W.S. Anderson to boot).

I needn't have worried. It isn't as scary, and it isn't as good.

Bower (Ben Foster) and Payton (Dennis Quaid) wake up from cryogenic sleep on board the gigantic spaceship Elysium. Although they both suffer from memory loss, they remember that they're a flight crew that's supposed to relieve the previous shift - but the ship is deserted, the power is failing, and the door to the bridge won't open. While Payton stays behind to guide him, Bower sets out to restart the ship's reactor. He meets other survivors (Antje Traue, Cung Le, Eddie Rouse) both friendly and hostile - but he also encounters a pack of vicious cannibalistic mutants. And there is the ever-present danger of "pandorum", the mental condition that affects long-term space travelers and turns them paranoid and murderously insane.

Did I say "vicious cannibalistic mutants"? Sorry, I meant "zombies". Yes, it's a zombie movie in space, and it just didn't need to be one. I was a lot more interested in the mystery of the deserted spaceship; this is what's unique about the film, and it's the only thing that kept my attention from flagging. It's revealed early on that the Elysium is a sleeper ship that's transporting thousands of colonists to an Earth-like paradise planet, in a future where Earth itself is overpopulated and resource-depleted. Standard sci-fi tropes, but clearly something went wrong along the way, and the fun is in finding out what.

But instead of giving us that, we just get standard zombie flick conventions. Zombies show up, everyone runs. A luckless extra or two gets eaten. Sometimes zombies show up and there's a fight scene, and the zombie is always stronger and faster. The survivors mistrust each other, and some of them prove to be worse than the zombies. Seriously, we've reached zombie saturation in our pop culture already. You can't do a straight zombie flick anymore - you need to find a fresh twist on it, or you'll just prove how boring the genre has become. And director Christian Alvart can't even deliver competent zombie action. All the shaky-cam and spastic editing don't fool no one - it can't hide the fact that the fight choreography and stuntwork is just lame.

Also, Bower has flashbacks of his wife, which becomes additional motivation to fix the ship and save her; whatever potential this had for interesting characterization is unrealized, and as a subplot it just fizzles out. The other survivors don't even have names - or at least, the movie forgets to mention their names, something that bloody annoys me - and are little more than extra bodies to fill the cast list. Payton also encounters another survivor, a Corporal Gallo (Cam Gigandet) who appears to be suffering from pandorum - this leads to a late-stage plot twist I saw coming a mile away. The whole film is a waste of an intriguing premise; instead of exploring it, thematically and plot-wise, it settles for space zombies.

There's not much to say about the acting. Foster has been impressive in supporting character roles, but this won't be the one that makes him a bankable leading man. Quaid is usually reliable, but he's miscast here. Only Gigandet is effectively creepy; the rest are kinda just there. Neither the script nor the direction offer much for the actors to work with. Even the production design is dull, especially in comparison to Event Horizon, which had some nightmarishly cool sets and art direction - Pandorum is mostly lots of boring dimly-lit corridors. And our Lembaga Penapisan Filem do their usual bang-up job, snipping out the F-bombs (while still letting a few through) and the bloodier bits. I wonder if I would've liked the film more if that hadn't been censored - zombie movies are nothing without the gore, after all.

This is the second film I've seen this month that squandered a great sci-fi idea on tired old genre action. It should've been more Alien and less Aliens, more The Shining and less Resident Evil. It should've been a smarter, more deliberate, more quietly terrifying horror film. The notion of being trapped on board a lost spaceship, with no destination and no hope of rescue, is horrific enough. If you dig that, I recommend catching this movie on DVD. For the cost of a cinema ticket, you really ought to get more than just a lame zombie flick.

NEXT REVIEW: Law Abiding Citizen
Anticipation level: low

Monday, October 19, 2009

Fluffy, tasty, whets the appetite but doesn't satisfy

My rating:

I don't understand the local film industry. First, a horror flick and a fantasy-comedy (both equally shite) get the coveted Raya cinema release date, instead of a heartwarming family drama like Afdlin Shauki's Papadom. Then Afdlin Shauki's Papadom sweeps this year's Malaysian Film Festival, winning Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Original Story and Best Original Music Score - all this before the movie was even released. Not that the FFM22 panel of judges' decision should be swayed by public opinion, but if we'd seen for ourselves what the fuss was all about beforehand, the awards would at least be relevant.

I sure wish they were deserved though.

Saadom (Afdlin Shauki) has been neglecting his family in the 10 years he spent expanding his nasi kandar stall into big business. But when his wife Mun (Noorkhiriah) is killed in an accident, he turns into an overprotective father to his teenage daughter Miasara (Liyana Jasmay). When Miasara leaves for university in KL, Saadom gets a job as a gardener on campus grounds to keep an eye on her, and gets caught up in her college life - with best friend Yvonne (Chelsia Ng), queen bitch Shasha (Scha), glamour king Hisham (Farid Kamil), nerdy love interest Mat "Wajib Tayang" (Que Haidar), and film studies professor Balqish (Vanida Imran).

I wanted to like this movie, I really did. I loved Afdlin in Setem, but I missed all the other movies he wrote and directed; this is the first of his that I've watched. And there's a lot to like in here. A lot of the jokes are funny, and that's still something that's new to me. (As is the fact that the Malay language can actually be clever and witty. Can you blame me?) And the pathos is pretty effective, even at the end when it descends into contrived melodrama. It's clearly a story that's close to its writer/director's heart, and his sincerity is evident from start till finish.

But the fact is that it's a movie that could've been much, much better. The first half hour is effective - the first 10 minutes actually reminds me of Up's opening sequence, and that's high praise - but when the action shifts to Miasara's university, the movie turns into bad teen comedy. We get stereotypical Libby and Big Man on Campus characters in Shasha and Hisham, and they drive the plot in predictable and tiresome ways. Not only that, Scha is terrible - her performance is nails-on-blackboard annoying. Farid Kamil fares slightly better in that he's at least intentionally over-the-top - but the script would rather use him for a cheap laugh than bring his character's subplot to a logical end.

And that's the biggest problem with this film: too many characters, too many relationships, too many subplots. Mun appears as a ghost/figment of imagination/conscience to Saadom, and accompanies him as he spies on Miasara whilst also having a budding romance with Prof. Balqish. Saadom seems to think Mat would make a better boyfriend for his daughter, so he helps the kid with his crush on her. Miasara also goes through a Corrupt the Cutie when she starts dating Hisham, complete with abandoned best friend Yvonne. Also, Pete Teo and Adham Malekh are thrown in as Saadom's business partners. Afdlin is not a skilled enough writer to juggle all these storylines and resolve them satisfactorily; or even to justify some of the characters' presences. I suspect some of them are there just because the actors are his buddies.

So when the ending rolls, so many plot threads are left dangling. Nothing happens between Miasara and Mat. Or Miasara and Hisham. Or Saadom and Balqish. Even Yvonne is conspicuously missing from the denouement. Only the father-daughter relationship is conclusively dealt with, and yes, the ending is contrived and melodramatic and made of a fair bit of facepalm. Aiyoo, Afdlin, no need lar the beatific crowd bearing witness to dad and daughter's tearful declarations of love for each other, complete with Slow Clap. Cliche gila babi! All you need to effectively tug the heartstrings is you and Liyana acting off each other. That's the best thing you got going for you here.

Clearly, Afdlin's and Liyana's performances are the best in the movie - Liyana pulls off the tricky job of keeping Miasara likable even when she's fawning over a strutting peacock like Hisham. Vanidah Imran is wooden, and even (unintentionally, I hope) comes across as a little miang. Noorkhiriah is a lot of fun; I'm actually glad Mun does the Spirit Advisor thing so we could see more of her. Que Haidar is turning out to be a pretty damn versatile actor; I wish he had more to do in this film. Harun Salim Bachik has a cameo as Saadom's boss at the gardening job, and he's probably the funniest thing in the movie. He has a freaking hilarious line about "beremosi dengan tanah" that sounds like an ad-lib; and if it was, dude, you da man.

It looks like Papadom is raking in the box-office bucks; it was sold out the first time I tried to catch it, the second time I only got in with an uncollected reservation, and it was also a full house. If this means Afdlin gets to make more movies, I'm all for it; he has it in him to make a really good one, and I'm looking forward to watching it. But FFM22 got it wrong - the best local movie of the year is still Setem. Just like a typical film award show jury, to overlook something that's purely entertaining in favour of a movie with a "message". Even if it's not as good.

Anticipation level: just hope it's not another Drag Me to Hell

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Well, it's not a total washout

My rating:

Rotten Tomatoes recently released their Worst of the Worst - the 100 worst-reviewed films from 2000 to 2009. Guess which is the most recent movie to make the list? Yup, this one (though at 100th place, it's the best of the worst). And y'know, the trailer already has suck written all over it - it's all just a lot of quick-cutting and loud noises that make it look like a thrill-a-minute action movie, but barely tells us what the movie is about. But hey, I won tickets to a preview screening courtesy of Nuffnang and Warner Bros. Pictures (w00t!). So does it deserve the honour of being one of the worst movies of the decade?

Well, no, not really. Doesn't mean it's good though.

Carrie Stetko (Kate Beckinsale) is the U.S. Marshal on duty at the Amundsen-Scott Station near the South Pole. Three days before she's due to leave for the winter, she's called to investigate a body that turns out to be a homicide - the first ever in Antarctica. Aided by her friend "Doc" (Tom Skerritt) and pilot Delfy (Columbus Short), her investigations lead to a suspicious encounter with U.N. special investigator Robert Pryce (Gabriel Macht) and a 50-year-old mystery that someone will kill for.

So I'm fully expecting this movie to be bad, right? And for the first half hour, it didn't disappoint. Within a minute of Stetko's first appearance, we get a shameless fanservicey shower scene. I have nothing against looking at Ms. Beckinsale's yummy bits per se, but a movie that sticks her bepantied butt at the camera isn't one that can expect to be taken seriously. And a while later, we get a truly facepalm-worthy action sequence in which Stetko is attacked by a masked killer with an ice axe, and forgets that she has a gun. We see her strap it on just minutes before, we see her pull it out later, but in between when she has an axe-wielding maniac after her, all she does is run. Aiyoo, movie, what laa??

But for the rest of the running time, it's surprisingly decent. Or at least there's nothing as egregiously dumb as the first half hour, which is honestly surprising. It's a by-the-numbers thriller with an action scene or two, and for the most part it hits those numbers competently. You got your protagonist with a traumatic past, who works through her issues by the end of the movie. You got your twisty little murder mystery, with red herrings galore and a shocking (kinda) reveal. None of it's terrifically effective, but at least it doesn't suck.

That's for the plot. The direction, however, sucks. Dominic Sena is best known for Swordfish, which is best known for Halle Berry's topless scene, so it's not like I'm expecting greatness from him. Still, the climactic chase/fight scene in a snowstorm is so confusingly shot that you can barely make out who's who. There's a lot of annoying quick-cutting even during quiet dialogue scenes. The movie breaks out the shaky-cam for no good reason. And perhaps worst of all, Sena has no idea how to create a sense of place. This is a movie set in the coldest place on earth, yet I hardly felt a chill in the cinema.

Kate Beckinsale gets a chance to headline a movie without vampires or werewolves or black leather catsuits, and she's... okay lar. It's not an amazingly nuanced role anyway, and her performance is merely adequate. No one else makes much of an impression; Macht is wooden, Short has little to do, and Skerritt is fine so long as he does his wise old mentor routine - anything more and he fails to convince.

I'm not sure if I can put all the blame on Sena - Dark Castle Entertainment does not have a good track record, and I wouldn't be surprised if some uppity-up producer took over the editing reins and made it dumber and louder. (Probably the same guy who cut the trailer.) I'm probably being really generous giving it two-and-a-half stars, but I was honestly surprised that it wasn't as stupid throughout as that first half hour. If the movie had fixed that part - if Stetko had pulled her gun on the axe-wielding maniac, then lost it or something - I'd probably... still give it two-and-a-half stars. My generosity has limits.

Anticipation level: my man Afdlin, don't let me down

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Robots are bad, mmkay?

My rating:

Hollywood seems to think sci-fi and action go together like wantan mee and pickled green chillies. For a genre known as "the literature of ideas", science fiction is almost always coupled with slam-bang action sequences featuring shiny metal machines, glowing death rays, physically impossible feats, and sometimes all three. Not that there's anything wrong with that per se. There are plenty of sci-fi action movies that don't sacrifice intelligence for stuff blowing up, and a good old-fashioned thrill ride of a movie can be made even better with some thought-provoking themes and ideas.

But sometimes, the chillies overpower the wantans.

In the near future, everyone uses "surrogates" - robot bodies that interact with the world, that look younger and more beautiful (or look like anything you want, even the opposite sex) - while their real bodies stay at home. They control the surrogates with their minds and can feel every sensation, which virtually eliminates the need to leave their homes. But everything changes when the "murder" of two surrogates also kills their operators, something that should not be possible. FBI Agents Greer (Bruce Willis) and Peters (Radha Mitchell) investigate, overseen by their boss Stone (Boris Kodjoe). As Greer feels increasingly alienated from his wife Maggie (Rosamund Pike), he also uncovers a possible conspiracy involving the anti-surrogacy movement leader Prophet (Ving Rhames), and the inventor of surrogacy himself, Lionel Canter (James Cromwell).

It's a fascinating premise (based on a comicbook), and the film is best when it's exploring the implications of a world where nobody are their true selves, only better-looking versions thereof. The concept of surrogates seems like a natural extension of online avatars, and anyone who has one - whether in an Massively-Multiplayer Online gameworld, or even a simple web forum - knows how tempting it is to make it one that exaggerates or outright distorts your image. (See that pic in the About Me section? Went through a lot of shots before I took one that I'm happy with.) So as an idea and a setting, it's nice and meaty.

But as a story, Surrogates falls short. The plot goes through well-trodden territory and reaches an underwhelming end. The procedural aspects of Greer's and Peterson's investigation are unconvincing - and I'd argue this is an important aspect since the story is at heart a mystery. And the unraveling of the mystery is epic meh. Plot holes are aplenty, and characterization is just as thin. It seemed as though director Jonathan Mostow and writers John Brancato and Michael Ferris just couldn't be bothered to flesh out enough of the details. Also, the production design is unforgivably lazy; I don't buy this as a radically changed future for a second, considering how everything looks perfectly 2009.

Worst of all is how the film takes an intriguing idea and turns it into your basic luddite screed against technology. I wasn't expecting an even-handed portrayal of surrogacy, but I was disappointed how quickly it turned from intelligent exploration of the idea to thoughtless condemnation of it. And I suspect the blame partly lies with making it an action film - which of course means that much of the running time needs to be occupied with action scenes. (They aren't even very good action scenes; competently done, but uninteresting.) I can see a far more thoughtful, contemplative, Blade Runner-esque approach that would've done more justice to the premise. The movie really feels like a pearl that fell into the hands of swine.

An interesting thing about the surrogates is that their facial expressions really are robotic, i.e. incapable of displaying deep emotions. It's interesting, but it also makes for a lot of wooden acting. Because Greer's "meatbag" body is the one we see most of, Willis' performance is the only one of note. But he can't do much with such a sketchy character; the one scene in which he does his wisecracking maverick cop thing feels like it was thrown in just for Willis to play John McClane once again. The whole movie is curiously lacking in humour, or even fun of any kind.

Mostow, Brancato and Ferris were responsible for the third instalment of the Terminator series, and they haven't improved. They didn't originate the "technology is eeeevil" theme of that franchise, but they recycle it here, and it dumbs down what should've been a smart story. Just as Hollywood always tries to blend sci-fi with action, so do they keep returning to the well of techno-fear-mongering. ("Beware the arrogance of science, lest it lead ye to destruction and/or an initially-cool-but-ultimately-dehumanizing society!") And there's nothing wrong with that per se either. It just needs to be done a lot smarter than this.

Anticipation level: outlook is not good

Monday, October 5, 2009

Now THIS is a romantic comedy

(500) Days of Summer
My rating:

Sometimes I think there really are Movie Gods who listen to beleaguered film critics' prayers. Having watched three lame romantic comedies that trade genuine emotional truth for contrived wackiness, after a full month of movies that ranged from so-so to downright awful, along comes a wonderful little film that made it all worthwhile. (500) Days of Summer was one of my most eagerly anticipated films of the year; I went in to watch it with sky-high expectations.

And hot damn, it met them.

Tom Hansen (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) meets and falls in love with Summer Finn (Zooey Deschanel). But whereas he's a hopeless romantic, she doesn't believe in love and tells him upfront that she doesn't want a serious relationship. After they break up, Tom is devastated; he looks back on their time together to find out where it went wrong, and how to win her back.

First of all, this is a quirky little film. The narrative jumps back and forth through time; we start at Day 1 when Summer first joins the greeting card company where Tom works as a writer, then we're at Day 200-or-so when she breaks up with him. We're constantly shuttling back and forth between the first blissful days of their affair and Tom's bleak depression after the end of it, plus the part in between when their relationship starts to sour. The film employs the irony inherent in the juxtaposition between past and present to terrific effect, earning both laughs and pathos - and sometimes both. There's a split-screen sequence in which each half of the screen is labeled "Expectations" and "Reality", and it is both funny yet painful - for Tom.

And besides split-screens, there's a song-and-dance sequence, parodies of arty Swedish films, references to TV shows from the '80s, a narrator, and that constant counter that tells us which day it is. There's even a hilariously bitter "disclaimer" right in the very beginning that tells us we're in for an unconventional movie. The entire film has an easy-going playfulness that director Marc Webb handles with a remarkably sure hand, without ever selling short the deeper emotions that underlie the story. Unlike most rom-coms that attempt to balance the viewpoints of both halves of the romantic pairing, this is Tom's story throughout. We view Summer and his relationship with her entirely through his eyes, and those eyes are given to the occasional flight of fantasy.

But above all, this film is true. It's amazing how a cast and crew who have no idea who you are could take precisely your feelings and experiences and little heartbreaks and turn them into a 90-minute movie - a movie that has the same effect on everyone who watches it. This is why I love film in the first place; it's a medium that can identify and portray things that are truly universal about the human condition, which shows us we're all really not so different after all. I cannot imagine anyone watching this movie and not having at least one "OMG that's me!" moment. If you can say you've never experienced anything like what Tom goes through, you're either lying or incredibly unself-aware. (I'm not in the least surprised to learn that co-screenwriter Scott Neustadter based the script on a bad breakup experience of his own.)

Is there even a need to talk about the cast? They're all fantastic; Gordon-Levitt, Deschanel, Geoffrey Arend and Matthew Gray Gubler as Tom's friends, and Chloe Moretz as Tom's precocious younger sister. Most of all, they're effective; the characters are so well-drawn, the script so well-written, that they only need to not screw it up. There's a scene in which Summer opens up to Tom, telling him the most intimate details of her life. It's a typical rom-com they're-starting-to-fall-in-love scene - there's a similar one in The Proposal - but this film takes it one step further. Because when Summer's telling him those things, he's not even listening. What this says about him, what it means for their relationship, is only one reason why this film pwns every other Hollywood rom-com this year and exposes them for the superficial wish-fulfillment fantasies they are.

Thanks and apologies are in order to 20th Century Fox Malaysia; you're not so bad after all. You could stand to be a little more confident about it though, and show it in more than just one cinema (TGV Sunway Pyramid) in the whole country. Would you release it wider if it made you a lot of money? Okay then, here's how I'll help: everyone, go see this movie. It's the best romantic comedy of the year bar none. Some have called it an anti-romantic comedy, because it doesn't end on a happily-ever-after for Tom and Summer. They're wrong. It's terrifically funny, it's wonderfully romantic, and it's real and true and honest in ways we've been conditioned to think romantic comedies don't need to be. See it, and see how lame the typical Hollywood rom-com is.

Seriously. Go see it. Everyone. Now.

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

NEXT REVIEW: Surrogates
Anticipation level: fingers crossed