Monday, November 30, 2009

Werewolves cool, vampires cool(er... than before), heroine still dumb

The Twilight Saga: New Moon
My rating:

A few weeks back, as I was queuing for movie tickets on a typically crowded weekend, I spotted this guy. Looked about 18, very handsome fella, obviously half-Caucasian, totally male model material - only he was very blatantly aping the Robert-Pattinson-as-Edward-Cullen look. He had the exact same hair, the exact same pasty white complexion, and I don't know what he did to his lips to give them that exact same pink hue. Seriously, WTF? Good God, the sheer desperadoness of making yourself look like an idealized romantic figure from a franchise targeted at naive teenage girls!

Oh, who am I trying to kid. Dude probably scores loads of chicks.

Bella's (Kristen Stewart) and Edward's (Robert Pattinson) idyllic relationship is threatened when an incident forces the entire Cullen vampire clan to leave town - and Edward to leave Bella. Devastated, Bella turns to her friend Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) for comfort, but he has a secret of his own - he is a werewolf, part of a pack that hunts vampires and is protecting her from Victoria (Rachelle LeFevre), the evil vampiress who is out for revenge against her. But despite their growing mutual feelings, Bella still sees visions of Edward in moments of danger, which drives her to suicidal, self-destructive behaviour. And soon, this leads her, Edward and Alice (Ashley Greene), her closest friend among Edward's family, to a confrontation with the Volturi, the ruling clan of the vampire world.

So I wanted to watch this surrounded by its fanbase, to observe their reactions to it. Instead of my friendly neighbourhood TGV Kepong, I went sliiiightly out of my way to Cineleisure Damansara, where there was a bigger crowd. (Not as big as I thought though; tickets weren't hard to get, and 2012 is still packing 'em in.) So I wasn't as annoyed as I would've been by the teenyboppers giggling and chatting all around me, not even by the idiot who kept shining a laser pointer at every scene with a buff shirtless male bod. I just shrugged and thought, I'm in their world. And what did I observe? That every time there was a buff shirtless male bod, there was much squee-ing. So, eye candy for girls then.

(And while I'm at it, let me just get this out of the way: dear Cineleisure Damansara, it's nice that you have a "please do not leave your belongings behind as you exit the cinema" message, but you should not flash it on screen before the end credits even begin. It was just a huge WTF moment for everyone. Also, please do not open the exit doors before the movie ends. The light from the corridor outside is very distracting. kthxbai)

I really hope eye candy is all they're getting out of it though - certainly not that Bella is a suitable role model, or that the romance depicted here is ideal or even appropriate. Our so-called heroine is even more stupid and useless than before; just breaking up with her vampire boyfriend seems to cause her actual physical pain, not to mention night terrors and complete abandonment of her friends at school. Her visions of Edward are never explained - is she in actual telepathic contact with him, or is she just delusional? - and they're a pretty lousy excuse for putting herself in danger, forgetting that she has a father who worries about her. Seriously, she is so thoughtless and self-centered, you just want to smack her like the six-year-old she behaves like, rather than the eighteen-year-old that she is.

Even when her relationship with Jacob deepens, she still can't shake her addiction - and that's really what it is - to the memory of her ex. Not that our werewolf boy doesn't have his own problems; he pulls the same dick move as Edward did, wooing her then dumping her with the excuse that it's for her own protection. (At least he has the excuse that he only just found out that he's a werewolf.) But overall, he has a much, much healthier relationship with her than she did with Mr. Sparklypants - at least he comforts her, eases her pain, and actually makes her happy. And just when it seems both her and Jacob have come to terms with his werewolf nature, off she goes for another Edward fix, making another big strong man rescue her yet again.

Edward himself is off-screen for almost the entire middle hour, which is a relief, because his "romantic" dialogue with Bella is ear-splittingly bad. And once again, their love for each other is made of fail. He's a moron. He knows Victoria is out there, seeking revenge for the death of her mate James in the last movie, yet he leaves her for her protection. And of course Victoria shows up to threaten Bella, leaving the werewolves to fight her off. The climax involves him attempting suicide by provoking the Volturi into sentencing him to death - and he does this by exposing his vampire nature to the world, thus threatening to expose all vampires. It's one thing for a teenage girl to behave like a self-absorbed child, it's another for a 109-year-old to do the same.

So why can't I hate this movie? Seriously, I can't. As much as I want to give these characters two tight slaps each, I still found myself reasonably engaged. Probably because director Chris Weitz is much more adept at a SFX-heavy action scene than Catherine Hardwicke was. There's a werewolf-on-werewolf fight scene and a vampire-on-vampire fight scene, and although the CGI for both is a little rough, they're both reasonably cool. The appearance of the Volturi provide all the vampiric menace and horror that was lacking in the previous installment, and this plus the werewolves gives the sense that the Twilight world is opening up and getting broader. And let's face it, there's an irrevocable coolness to werewolves and vampires that no Mormon author's female submission fantasies can deflate.

Stewart once again does her best with a shitty character - I really wonder if there's anything she could've done to make Bella more likable. Likewise Pattinson, who has stated in interviews that he knows exactly how much of a loser Edward is (and how bad the books are). Lautner does fine, but all the Twi-hards want from him is his rock-hard abs, and he provides plenty of that. Ashley Greene has a more prominent role here; she's cute, but she's far too good at playing perky teenager to also be a believable hundred-year-old vampire. Michael Sheen is deliciously evil as Aro, head of the Volturi. (Oh, and Dakota Fanning plays one of them too, but she's kinda wasted.)

So if the Twilight franchise is all about giving teenage girls shirtless hunks to ogle, that's fine. Boys get Megan Fox in Transformers 2, girls get Lautner and Pattinson - all's fair. But when they start looking to date guys who treat them like Edward treats Bella, that's when I start to fear for the future of humanity. Now, I can be Mr. Objective Film Critic, I'll judge this film on its merits as a film and not as an object lesson on gender roles - so for that, it gets two-and-a-half stars. But that guy I saw, the Edward-wannabe? Seriously, dude - his looks better be the only thing you're aping.

Expectations: I expect a mature, intelligent and even-handed examination of sexual politics and mores. Not.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Ninja'ed by popular culture

Ninja Assassin
My rating:

"If I’m a Ninja Assassin, I’d wonder why I’m so redundant – like 'army soldier', or 'kitchen chef', or 'stupid idiot.'" That's the penetratingly witty comment what failed to win me the free invite to this movie's premiere screening. (I'd've done better if I wasn't limited to 15 words, dammit.) I guess the fine folks at Nuffnang just didn't realize how cheesy the title is. Seriously, Ninja Assassin? That right there needs to be a deliberately self-referential parody of B-grade chop-socky ninja movies - a film that's meant to be cheesy. Certainly not a film that takes itself 100% seriously.

Aiyoo, Wachowski Bros., what laa??

Raizo (Rain) was once the finest assassin of the Ozunu clan; trained from childhood by his master (Sho Kosugi) in the deadly arts of the ninja. When Europol researcher Mika Coretti's (Naomie Harris) investigations draw closer to the secret organization of hired killers, she becomes a target herself - but Raizo is out to protect her, not kill her. Despite the protestations of her superior Ryan Maslow (Ben Miles), she goes on the run with him, aiding him in his quest to destroy the Ozunu - and learning why he turned against everything he's been taught.

Dear filmmakers of Ninja Assassin, which includes director James McTeigue, producers Larry and Andy Wachowski, and screenwriters Matthew Sand and J. Michael Straczynski: ninjas are post-modern. The trope has so pervaded our pop-cultural consciousness that it simply cannot be played straight anymore. Even the word itself has become a slang term with at least a dozen different tongue-in-cheek definitions. You cannot make a ninja movie - much less one titled Ninja Assassin - that's as dreary and self-important as this one. It's not like it has to be a goofy parody; it just needs to be aware.

It also needs to not be so lame. Raizo's ninja training is painful and sadistic and child-abuse-tastic blah blah, and his master's instruction has him delivering one villain cliche line after another. Oh, but there's a cute ninja chick who gets him all hot and bothered, and maybe thinking that there might be more to life than this cold-blooded killer thing. He'll slice and dice a hundred faceless bad guys, but ask him to murder a weepy little girl and he's all "oh noes". The Law of Conservation of Ninjutsu is in full effect here - a single ninja is a deadly killing machine, but the more there are the more ineffectual they are; the hero will just slaughter them en masse. And they're like, super-secret, but they'll run right into busy traffic in full ninja gear just to chase down one guy.

Yes, it's all very very stupid, made even more so by how cool it thinks it is. It even depicts ninja super-speed in exactly the same laughable way Twilight does - which isn't even forgivable in a vampires-as-excuse-for-teen-romance flick, much less an actual ninja movie. Shurikens are cool, but not when they're CGIed with cartoony speed lines. And then there are the fight scenes, which, frankly, are the only reason why anyone would watch this. I wish I could say they were its saving grace, but spastic editing spoils any decent martial arts choreography; worst of all is the aforementioned fight in busy traffic, in which the cameraman appears to be shaking the camera for no goddamn reason. The only thing notable about the fights is how bloody they are - gallons of karo syrup are splattered everywhere. It's quite effectively nauseating.

Oh, there might be one other reason why someone would watch this - "Nama saya" Rain himself. Sorry to all fans of the Korean heartthrob, but he sucks. He's physically impressive in his action scenes, and he clearly trained really hard for them - but any time he's not grimacing and yelling his way through a fight scene, his expression perfectly mimics a blank wall. His less-than-perfect English doesn't help either, nor does Sho Kosugi's. Naomie Harris and Ben Miles do the best they can in thankless roles, made even more thankless by the terrible dialogue.

I was shocked to see J. Michael Straczynski's name on this - I loved Babylon 5. (This might have something to do with how bad the script is.) This is a film that really has no idea how to depict ninjas in a way that's still cool and relevant; it may have been cool and relevant, say, twenty years ago, before Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Naruto and Beverly Hills Ninja. And I'll confess, I almost gave it two-and-a-half stars, because I'm a sucker for martial arts fight scenes. But aside from the blood-spattering, they're not even very good fight scenes. This film belongs right alongside stuff like this, and every other B-grade ninjasploitation flick ever made. Which means that, tragically, the definitive ninja movie has yet to be made.

NEXT REVIEW: The Twilight Saga: New Moon
Expectations: well, the first one wasn't... um, horrible?

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Bah 3-D performance capture, hurrah Dickens

A Christmas Carol
My rating:

Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol is a true classic of English literature - as well as one of the most overdone. I remember a time when every TV show - especially sitcoms - would have a "Christmas Carol" episode in which someone (usually the nastiest member of the cast) plays the Scrooge role and learns a trite and hackneyed lesson in being nice to others. (A lesson which is often forgotten by the next episode). So when I heard that yet another movie version of the story is coming - one that's directed by Robert Zemeckis no less - my first reaction was, again? Hasn't this tired old horse been beaten to death already?

Why, no. No it hasn't.

For the ignorant amongst you who've never heard of Dickens' story, it's about the bitter and miserly Ebeneezer Scrooge (Jim Carrey), who is so mean that he scorns his nephew Fred's (Colin Firth) invitation to Christmas dinner, and only begrudgingly gives his employee Bob Cratchit (Gary Oldman) the day off. On the night of Christmas Eve, he receives four ghostly visitors. The first is his former business partner Jacob Marley (Gary Oldman); the next are the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet To Come (Jim Carrey). By showing him the past, present and future, they will teach him a lesson in kindness and charity and the Christmas spirit - but it will be a harsh lesson indeed.

Robert Zemeckis is probably one of the best living film directors today - or at least, he used to be. He deserves a lifetime pass for directing Back to the Future, a bona fide modern classic, and entries like Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Forrest Gump look pretty damn good on his resume too. But he hasn't made an actual live-action film since Cast Away in 2000; since then, he's been all the way into 3D-animated performance capture films like The Polar Express, Beowulf, and now A Christmas Carol. I gotta ask, why?

I don't like the technique. I haven't liked it since Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within from 2001. I have no idea why people are still making animated films that try to look realistic. It never works. Final Fantasy's characters failed to capture the subtleties and nuances of actual flesh-and-blood actors, and ended up looking like a B-grade sci-fi actioner with really wooden acting. Zemeckis tried to solve this problem by applying motion capture onto actors' faces, and it still doesn't work - even when he had Ray Winstone, Angelina Jolie, and Anthony Freaking Hopkins in Beowulf. There's always that intangible realness that simply gets lost in the translation.

And you know what else I noticed in A Christmas Carol? It takes a lot of effort and attention to detail - not to mention computer processing power - to make its characters look real, or real enough. Scrooge and Bob Cratchit look pretty good; but all too often, I was distracted by one or more minor background characters that just looks downright cacat. Major uncanny valley territory! Every time it happened, it just pulled me out of the story and kept reminding me that all this would work so much better if that had been the real Jim Carrey and Gary Oldman playing the roles. And it isn't just the way they look, it's also the way they move. There's a dance sequence in which the dancers bounced up and down like - well, like cartoons. Which is why an honest-to-goodness 3D-animated cartoon like Pixar's films work, whereas something like this - that tries to look real, but gets all the tiny little details wrong - doesn't.

Okay, that's my rant. It's just me, and Mr. Zemeckis would obviously disagree. Now I did say that Dickens' classic novella has been done to death, and it has - but only because it's suffered adaptation decay. I didn't know Scrooge had a fiancee (Robin Wright Penn), for one; I found the scene where she leaves him the most emotionally affecting in the whole movie. And the use of (what I assume to be, since it sure sounds like it) Dickens' original dialogue makes it perhaps one of the more faithful adaptations in recent years. That dude could write, and the voice actors deliver his lines perfectly.

And it's certainly a visually stunning and thrilling adaptation; there's more than one scene where the various Ghosts take Scrooge on soaring flights across the skies of 19th century London, and it's pretty cool. Zemeckis is still a great director, and if nothing else, the animation medium gives him the license to compose spectacular shots and scenes that would be impossible to capture in live-action. (Which is probably why he loves it.) Unfortunately, there's also a long chase scene with the Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come and a Scrooge that inexplicably shrinks to insect-size, and it's just pure padding - I was just waiting for it to end and get back to the story.

But it's still a fun movie, and it reminds us how great the original story was. Its message of compassion, charity and human warmth is still relevant in this day and age; few people are as overtly misanthropic as Scrooge, but there are still those who think money and wealth are the only true measure of success in life. This is a movie for them, and even though it's not as good as it should have been, it still has a lesson to teach them. Oh, and do stay for "God Bless Us Everyone", an original Christmas carol written by Alan Silvestri and performed by Andrea Bocelli, that plays over the end credits. It's really quite lovely.

NEXT REVIEW: Ninja Assassin
Expectations: doesn't sound good from what I've heard

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

(Supposed) Vampire (supposedly) loves teen (supposed) heroine

Twilight (2008)
My rating:

Yes, this is the first one, from last year. Why am I reviewing it? Because I'll be reviewing its sequel The Twilight Saga: New Moon, opening this week, and seeing as it's a saga and all, I figured I'd do it justice and start from the beginning. I gotta say, I'm already quite biased against this entire series. I've read so much feminist commentary about it, how it teaches teenage girls all the wrong lessons about love and relationships, how the heroine is such a godawful Mary Sue, how it perverts the vampire mythos, and how Stephenie Meyer is a really really bad writer. So I was fully expecting to scoff all the way through this movie.

I'm so proud of my ability to be objective. Hey, it's a gift.

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) has just moved to the small town of Forks, Washington with her divorced father Charlie (Billy Burke), the local chief of police. She is fascinated by Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), who saves her life twice yet acts aloof with her - and when she learns that he is a 108-year-old vampire, her fascination turns into passionate love. Edward falls in love with her too, and the rest of the Cullen vampire family welcome her with open arms - but not all vampires are "vegetarian", who abstain from killing humans, like they are. Another pack of vampires are on the hunt in Forks, leaving a string of grisly murders in their wake.

Okay, it's not as bad as I thought (hoped?). But it is still quite bad. Take the vampires - or rather, vampires in name only. They happily walk around in daylight; in fact, they chose to live in Forks for the constantly cloudly, gloomy weather, because when direct sunlight hits them, they, um, sparkle. This is one of the most reviled aspects of the Twilight world, and it really is ridiculous. It looks ridiculous too, and it isn't helped by Edward growling "This is the skin of a killer!" as he sparkles. And the tinkly bells sound effect that accompanies it really doesn't help. Really, its entire depiction of vampires is full of fail. The motion-blur vampire super-speed effect is laughable, and the vampire makeup doesn't look so much like an undead immortal creature as it does like bedak sejuk. And just when I thought we'd finally get to see some vampire fangs... it very conspicuously shows that these vampires have no fangs. Aiyoo, movie and Ms. Meyer, what laa??

And then there's the Edward-Bella relationship. I can almost buy Bella as an impulsive teenager who falls for the totally dreamy guy, but I don't know what's going on with Edward. He really does seem like he's just emotionally jerking Bella around, telling her "I can't be with you" and then chatting her up anyway. He's as awkward and hesitant with her as a teenage boy, which means he's not in the least bit believable as a hundred-year-old vampire - which brings us to the creepy pedophiliac subtext of a really old guy hitting on a teenage girl. Other than some magical explanation of how her blood smells intoxicatingly sweet to him and that she's the one mind he can't read (oh, did I mention? He reads minds), there's little reason for him to fall for her. And the thing about him sneaking into her room to watch her sleep - and her thinking that's sooo sweeeeet - is really really facepalm.

Is Bella a Mary Sue? Somewhat, yes. For no reason other than that she's new in town, everyone fawns over her - all the boys crush on her, and all the girls want to be her BFF. Now, if we were to accept that we're seeing all this through her eyes, her classmates' incessant attention may just be a metaphor for how awkward and gawky she feels in a new school. (At least there aren't any stereotypical bitchy Libbys.) But really, having two boys ask her to the prom, only to settle for other girls - who are happy to accept her leftovers - is really a bit much. And more than a bit much is how she in turn is pretty damn unfriendly to them - to everyone other than Edward, in fact. There's one scene in which she behaves like the worst kind of bratty kid to her own father, who just stands by ineffectually. Yes, I know, there's an explanation for it, but it doesn't really make much sense.

It was a weird experience watching this - there's a decent teen-fantasy-romance in here, if Edward weren't so skeevy, if the vampires weren't so lame, and if Bella weren't such a useless heroine. (Really, she doesn't do a single thing worthwhile or admirable. All she does is let Edward save her.) Things start picking up in the second half, when evil vampires show up and start being all evil - I enjoyed this bit, more than it probably deserved. Not that the vamp-on-vamp fight was particularly cool, or that there weren't any more WTF-worthy moments; just that I was glad for some actual narrative momentum after all the sappy love scenes.

And they're an odd kind of sappy love scene, to be honest. Edward and Bella never smile. They never once seem to actually be happy together. It's just a lot of smoldering looks and chaste making out. (And yes, I know that the whole series is a metaphor for teen chastity.) I don't know if it's director Catherine Hardwicke or the actors. I liked Pattinson in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, although I haven't seen Stewart before in anything, but really, the chemistry between these two is as wet as the weather in Forks. The ripe dialogue they're forced to spout doesn't help either. Billy Burke is a totally cool dad, which makes you even more annoyed at how Bella treats him. I suppose here's where I should mention Taylor Lautner, who plays Jacob Black - yes, he'll be more prominent in the sequel, but here he's just another boy making googly eyes at Bella.

The really weird thing is that I actually wanted to like this. My own imagination kept wanting to fill in the gaps in the plot and characterization. I suppose Ms. Meyer deserves credit for tapping the vein of vampire mythology (because vampire mythology is cool) and successfully transplanting it to the teen romance milieu (because really, both genres go together pretty well). And from all I've heard, it's a far better movie than it is a book. I wanted to hate it, but I ended up wanting to like it - and in fact, I'm even looking forward to New Moon now, just a bit. That's actually quite impressive... even if I didn't really like it.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Bila neraka jadi beku

That's roughly about when I'll be reviewing Senario The Movie Episode 2: Beach Boys.

I may be TMBF, courageous critic of Malaysian cinema, who ventures into the benighted depths to shine the light of truth on the wretched and the damned - but I ain't that courageous. I mean, have you seen the trailer? That alone is eye-gougingly bad. Are there people who actually watch this shit, much less pay for it? People above the age of 6? Who are in possession of all their mental faculties?

I dunno what to say about the entire Senario franchise. Six movies in ten years, the last one was just last year, and it apparently made RM4 million in 10 days.

But y'know, I've heard similar announcements of box-office moolah regarding Jin Notti and Momok The Movie, and I watched both movies in half-empty and near-empty cinemas. So forgive me if I suspect that local film producers often partake in a little profit-fixing.

In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if some studios are outright money-laundering outfits. You heard it here first, folks.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A big red button marked "WTF"

The Box
My rating:

I have not watched Donnie Darko. This is a somewhat embarrassing admission, since that film was one of the cooler cult hits of the decade, and its reputation as a sci-fi mindbender is something that's right up my alley. I'd love to rectify this, but damned if I can't find the DVD anywhere. (I've not seen Southland Tales, Kelly's other film, either - and that one has a reputation of being really really bad.) So I went into this latest film by Richard Kelly not knowing a thing about what to expect, other than that it's another sci-fi mindbender...

...and I got my mind bent all right. And not in a good way.

Arthur Lewis (Richard Marsden) works at NASA, his wife Norma (Cameron Diaz) is a schoolteacher, and they have a son named Walter (Sam Oz Stone). One day a hideously disfigured man named Arlington Steward (Frank Langella) gives them a box with a button, and offers them a deal: if they press the button, they will be given one million dollars, but someone whom they don't know will die. Their financial worries convince them to press the button - but the consequences are more dire (and very much weirder) than they could imagine, due to the machinations of Steward's mysterious "employers".

I'm a smart guy. No, really. I can follow a complicated train of thought, hold two opposing ideas simultaneously, and make a logical deduction from two or more premises. In other words, I can figure stuff out. (And sometimes I even get it right.) And I reckon I did manage to figure out what Steward is up to, who he was and who he is now, why he does what he does, who he works for and why they're doing what they're doing. The hints are all there, and they're not at all hard to spot if you're as familiar with sci-fi tropes as I am. But what I can't figure out is why what happens in this film happens.

Hmm, let me explain that sentence. Y'see, there's a mystery in this movie, and by movie's end the mystery is pretty much explained. But there's also a plot, and the plot doesn't make any goddamn sense. After Arthur and Norma push the button, events around them get steadily weirder, and it's all quite effective filmmaking; there's a palpable sense of unease and paranoia, and it's all pretty engrossing. The central moral dilemma of the premise is a fascinating one, and all credit to veteran sci-fi author Richard Matheson for his 1970 short story "Button, Button" - it was made into a segment of the 1985 season of The Twilight Zone, and this movie is based on both. Both were pretty short, however - you can find out how they ended here - so what Kelly has done is expanded them greatly, building an entire mythology around the mysterious stranger with the box.

But he seemed to forget that a mythology isn't much use without a story to go with it - and it all just seems like one WTFery after another without any rhyme or reason. At one point, Arthur is made to take another test, in which he is told the stakes are his very "salvation" or "damnation" - and the test is completely arbitrary. And earlier in the film, one of Norma's students humiliates her by asking to see her disabled foot, and there's just no reason why she should accede to such a snotty little kid. These aren't questions that can be satisfactorily answered by "there are ineffable forces at work, woooo". They really just smack of contrived storytelling and weirdness for the sake of weirdness.

A big part of why the movie still works as well as it does is Frank Langella. He's a veteran character actor who's done heaps of genre films, and he does this great understated menace thing that's perfect for sci-fi/fantasy/horror villains. Anyone else in the role might've turned the character of Steward, and the entire movie, into a cheesy joke. Marsden and Diaz hold their own, despite Diaz's unfortunate decision to adopt an annoying Southern accent - they effectively play ordinary, decent-but-flawed people who earn your sympathy as they go through a harrowing experience.

I saw some people leave before the movie ended, so this reviewer is probably right - Malaysian audiences just aren't sophisticated enough for this kind of stuff. I'd love to have been able to lord my own smartness over them, if only this was a better movie - if only there was more there there. Maybe Kelly wanted to preserve some of the mysteries; maybe he wanted his ineffable forces to still remain ineffable, after all the hints that he's dropped. I can dig that, actually. I don't mind if you leave some questions unanswered - but don't give me the impression that you're raising a whole bunch of them just for the hell of it.

NEXT REVIEW: A Christmas Carol
Expectations: when are you going to make a real movie again, Mr. Zemeckis?

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Why yes, I do feel fine

My rating:

Roland Emmerich hasn't made a good movie since Independence Day. Godzilla was embarrassingly bad, The Patriot was shamelessly manipulative, The Day After Tomorrow was insultingly stupid, and 10,000 B.C. was a snoozefest. The only reason(s) ID4 worked are Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum - their presences gave that film the right attitude and sense of fun to make it one of my favourite guilty pleasures. Emmerich learned all the wrong lessons from it, so now he's indulging his hardon for massive death and destruction with the most massive death and destruction seen on screen to date. But hell, it's Roland Emmerich. How good can it be?

Not very. But at least it's not bad either.

In 2009, geologist Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) discovers something frightening and tells White House Chief of Staff Anheuser (Oliver Platt) and U.S. President Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover). Three years later, divorced novelist Jackson Curtis (John Cusack) takes his two children camping in Yellowstone Park, and meets conspiracy theorist Charlie Frost (Woody Harrelson) who warns him of an impending apocalypse from ancient Mayan prophecy. It is indeed the end of the world as we know it, in the form of massive earthquakes and tsunamis, and Curtis and his family - which includes estranged wife Kate (Amanda Peet) and her boyfriend Gordon (Thomas McCarthy) - must race to where the world's major governments are building arks to save as much of humanity as they can.

I actually liked this movie better than I thought I would - better than it deserved, actually - and I know now why. Charlie Frost, who knew of the oncoming apocalypse long before, faces it on his own terms - he stands on the edge of the Yellowstone super-volcano, so that its eruption is the last thing he sees. And it is pretty damn spectacular, not to mention spectacularly realized in CGI. Charlie continues broadcasting his radio show right to the end, screaming his defiance at the very heart of the maelstrom, and I found myself thinking - wow, that is just how I'd like to face the end of the world.

Then I got all contemplative - how would I face the end of the world? And then I started wondering, what if I were one of the faceless billions who die screaming in this movie, or if I would have the same kind of courage Curtis had to fight for his and his family's survival - and bam, this movie had gotten its hooks in me already. And like I said, that's better than it actually deserves. It certainly doesn't waste any time contemplating the myriad ways human beings face death - it's just one scene after another of continent-shattering destruction, interspersed with melodramatic bits of characters tearfully saying goodbye. It's corny and manipulative as all hell, but I gotta say it worked on me at the time.

One of the best books I've read in recent years is Spin, by Robert Charles Wilson, 2006 Hugo Award winner for Best Novel. And that's a far, far better examination of mankind in the face of impending extinction. I found myself wishing that 2012 had aimed for that level of depth, maturity, insight and humanity. But that's far too much to ask of Emmerich. What little depth his screenplay (co-written by Harald Kloser) has is in the subplot of how Anheuser financed the building of the arks by selling seats to the wealthy. Oh, and he also conspired to hide the truth of the apocalypse from the public, even murdering those who threatened to expose it. The morality of his actions are never explored beyond villainizing him at the end, allowing Helmsley to play hero by opening the arks' gates to the clamouring hordes outside (who are mostly the aforementioned rich assholes).

That's Roland Emmerich in a nutshell - a technically talented, but ultimately shallow and superficial storyteller. His characters have all the depth of paper dolls, and he returns time and again to the same stereotypes and cliches. And frankly, if I were a religious person I'd be pretty pissed at his obnoxious disrespect for organized religion. It's at its most blatant when a crack in the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel splits the fresco right where God's hand touches Adam's. And then the dome of St. Peter's Basilica collapses in just such a way as to roll and crush thousands of worshipers. Personally, I was most offended by a scene in which a Tibetan lama gives advice to a worried disciple - and his advice turns out to be inane and ignorant of everything that has happened. And yes, Emmerich wanted to destroy the Kaaba too, and I almost wish he had just so he'd get a fatwa on his assholish head.

Okay, okay, I'm being too harsh on it. It's a silly little movie, no better or worse than Transformers 2 or G.I. Joe - the two other big dumb blockbusters of the year. And honestly, I rather enjoyed it as I enjoyed those two. It never got boring or too annoying, and although I didn't like go "fwooaaaarrr" at the disaster scenes, I at least found them entertaining. Emmerich is a better director than he is a writer, and now that he's blown his biggest disaster-movie load he ought to head for fresher territory now. 'Sides, as inane as the story was, this movie actually got me thinking. I've figured out the absolute best place to be when the world ends - basking in the afterglow of sex with the woman I love. I suppose 2012 deserves three stars for giving me that very, very pleasant thought.

Expectations: I honestly don't know what to expect

Saturday, November 21, 2009

What DID happen in Vegas?

The Hangover
My rating:

(Not Coming to M'sia is a new label for reviews of recent films that, for various reasons, aren't being screened in Malaysian cinemas. Said reasons likely consisting of wussy cinema distributors and jerkass censors. But I can watch 'em and Imma review 'em anyway. Guess how, suckas?)

I'm a funny guy. No, really. I have a sense of humour that I'm reasonably proud of, and in social settings I've been known to raise some chuckles, a few chortles, even a guffaw or two. (And sometimes even intentionally.) But I gotta say, the modern American comedy film is one of those things I tend to find, well, not funny. I dunno why. In almost every one I've watched this year, I've been groaning at how stale and forced the jokes are much more than I've been laughing, even during the big comic setpieces. The Hangover was a film that came recommended by no less than three friends, and I was dreading having to meet them again after watching it and facing their incredulous cries of "Haahh? You didn't like it?? You didn't find it funny?!?"

Okay-lar. It's pretty funny.

Phil (Bradley Cooper), Stu (Ed Helms) and Alan (Zach Galifianakis) head to Vegas for a bachelor night with their best friend (and Alan's brother-in-law-to-be) Doug (Justin Bartha). But the next morning, they wake up with a splitting hangover and no memory of the events of the night before - and a missing Doug. As they race to find their missing friend and get him back in time for his wedding, they have to deal with the fallout of an incredibly wild, drunken night - which begins with Stu missing a tooth, a tiger in their hotel room, a baby in the closet, and a parking valet ticket for a police cruiser.

I watched this movie twice actually, the second time after I'd decided to review it. And I actually liked it better the second time. I still didn't laugh much, but I appreciated the sheer over-the-top absurdity of the plot more, which is what the movie does best. No worries about contrived situations or stale jokes here - the more our heroes get battered, beaten up, humiliated and freaked out, the funnier it gets. The second time I saw what they found in the trunk of their car that they just recovered, I really did LOL. The film isn't afraid to drop them into truly bizarre situations, such as when Mike Tyson (played by Mike Tyson) makes a cameo appearance and demonstrates his love of Phil Collins.

It didn't begin well though. During the first half hour, we are introduced to our three primary characters plus groom, and by this point I was already dreading the movie to come. Phil starts out as an absolute asshole - he's a schoolteacher who steals the money for a class trip to spend on the bachelor night, he's married with a kid but claims to hate his life, and he belittles his friend Stu in front of a cute hotel receptionist. I thought he was gonna be the macho overgrown fratboy moron whose douchebaggery would be played for laughs in a film that ultimately celebrates this kind of party-animal behaviour. Surprisingly, he didn't. As the movie progressed, there were less and less instances of Phil being a jerk - because he, and Stu and Alan, are too busy being carried along by the plot. Frankly, it smells like a hasty script rewrite, but I'm glad for it.

The other two leads get more character development. Stu starts off as a nerd and a wimp with a bitchy and controlling girlfriend - and he later learns that during that fateful night, he got married Vegas-style to a stripper named Jade (Heather Graham). Naturally, by movie's end he will find the nerve to dump his girlfriend, but this arc of his is somewhat underdeveloped. Jade herself makes only sporadic appearances - at one point she just suddenly shows up to help our boys out, and I found myself wondering where's the scene where Stu persuades her to help them, despite the fact that he regrets (and doesn't even remember) marrying her. The fact that we don't see this scene is a bit of a head-scratcher.

As for Alan, he contributes a fair share of the movie's laughs. He is weird, awkward and socially inept - and occasionally downright stupid - but although we're frequently laughing at him, the movie allows us to view him sympathetically instead of just derisively. In fact, it finds just the right approach to his character - he's an overgrown child, a 9-year-old boy in an adult body who desperately wants friends and tries too hard to be liked. And he can still blurt out hilariously creepy things about masturbating on a plane. That's quite an impressive balancing act that the script pulls off, and if this was another rewrite, it's done much smoother than the one on Phil's character.

And how do the actors fare in these three roles? Cooper, Helms and Galifianakis were all friends before they made this movie, and their easy rapport is another of the film's strengths. They're entirely believable as three ordinary guys (well, two ordinary guys and one not-so-much) in increasingly WTF-worthy situations. There's also able support from the aforementioned Mike Tyson, as well as Ken Jeong, who is hands down the movie's funniest character. I'd be spoiling most of the film's biggest laughs if I say too much about him. But what is Heather Graham doing in such a thankless role? Didn't she used to play leads? She does fine here, but I gotta wonder what happened to her career.

It's just as well this movie never made it to Malaysian screens - it's a hard R-rated raunchy adult comedy, with plenty of (mostly male) nudity and profane dialogue. Still, I think I would've really enjoyed watching this in a cinema, with a hundred other moviegoers laughing all around me. It really is one of the few Hollywood comedies I enjoyed in recent years; it shows uncharacteristic affection for its characters, and finds humour in their situations rather than stereotypical and annoying behaviour. If a lot more comedies learned this lesson, I wouldn't be so unjustly accused of being humourless - I wouldn't have that accusation hanging over me. See? See?

Thursday, November 19, 2009


Sigh. It's been a good week since my last review. TMBF has a day job, and it's been keeping him a lot busier than usual lately. (And for those of you who think I actually watch movies all day and write reviews for a living - hell to the N-O.) My poor hit count has dropped to the low single digits, after hitting a record high two Wednesdays ago. (Were you all that interested to see me swear up a storm?)

My plans for watching 2012 last weekend fell through, as have any chance of catching it during the week. It looks like my review of that movie will only be up by Saturday night or Sunday morning. So to my die-hard fans who've been breathlessly awaiting the next update: soon, Mum, soon.

Aside from 2012, there's already four other movies playing right now that I want to watch, and another four more opening next week. Hope I can find time to catch them all, but really can't guarantee it. It's not just a hectic week at work, it's a hectic time of the year.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

They ain't messin' with no broke niggas

Pisau Cukur
My rating:

Since I started this blog, I've been getting a solid primer on the ranks of Malaysian film directors. Every locally-produced film I've watched (not including two indies) has been from a different director - Syamsul Yusof, Ahmad Idham, Madya Razak Mohaideen, Kabir Bhatia, M. Jamil, Azhari Zain, Afdlin Shauki and Majed Salleh. And most of them are, to put it delicately, talentless hacks. Hell, half of them made films that are so staggeringly inept, I can barely imagine how tak malu they must be. Only Bhatia and Afdlin have proved themselves to be decent filmmakers and storytellers, and it's a sad statement on our film industry that we've only got two of such.

Fortunately, Bernard Chauly makes it three.

Intan (Nur Fazura) and Bella (Maya Karin) are best friends with similar mercenary attitudes towards love and relationships - Bella is an unashamed gold-digger, and although Intan has a career as a TV news reporter, she's dating a rich married Datuk. Whilst on an ocean cruise holiday, both girls get their opportunities to pursue their goals: Bella sets her sights on wealthy widower Datuk Hisham (Eizlan Yusof) and enlists the aid of an infatuated Faqir (Redza Minhat). Meanwhile, Intan gets mixed up in the affairs of Datuk Zakaria (Dato' Rahim Razali) and his three wives (Khatijah Tan, Umie Aida, Sharifah Sofia) and children (Liyana Jasmay, Nas-T) - and when a murder occurs, she smells a story and tags along with hunky private investigator Ari (Aaron Aziz).

It's sad that they didn't get to film on an actual ocean liner - the unconvincing sets and occasional obvious green-screenery are the only things that mar a very polished production. The technical aspects - production design, art direction, even wardrobe and styling - boast an attention to detail that's pretty damn rare for a Malay movie, lemme tell ya. And the polish extends to the screenplay as well - writer Rafidah Abdullah displays a remarkably sure hand at characterization, one of the hardest things to write well. I was especially impressed with Bella's character arc and its climactic moment; the craft and care with which it was set up can rival any Hollywood script. Even the murder mystery subplot is surprisingly well done, with the requisite red herrings and a clever resolution.

But I gotta say, this is a movie I like better looking back than I did while watching it. Now, I concede that that may have been due to the annoying wanker who sat next to me, who not only had no qualms about talking in the cinema but also snuck in a Ramly burger (wei, busuk laa!) that he didn't even finish... ahem. Thing is, for a comedy, I just didn't laugh much. There was plenty of wit in the dialogue, and Chauly succeeded in coaxing some entertainingly over-the-top performances from his female cast, but there simply weren't any big laugh-out-loud moments. In fact, one running joke - Intan's frequent exclamations of "oh my Dior, oh my Gucci, oh my Prada" - actually got on my nerves.

And on that note, I'm seriously wondering if the two leads weren't miscast. This is a broad comedy, and Maya never quite seems comfortable with that tone. Fazura, on the other hand, throws herself into her role with gusto - and therein lies the problem. Fazura's Intan is supposed to be the more serious, career-minded one - but Fazura overacts like mad, and it's often fun but occasionally grating. On the other hand, Maya's Bella is the out-and-out pisau cukur - and Maya's performance is earnest, but frequently wooden. Intan is obviously something of a gold-digger herself, what with her affair with Datuk Salleh (a suitably slimy Radhi Khalid), but essentially she's out to prove that she has smarts behind the pretty face. And although Bella has hidden depths, her mata duitan antics are mostly played for laughs. Ya lar, I totally think they should've swapped roles. And Intan's oh-my-expensive-fashion-brandname expletives should've definitely gone to Bella instead.

The rest of the cast's performances are, frankly, somewhat hit and miss. The ladies all seem to be having tremendous fun out-bitching each other, which leaves the serious acting to the menfolk - well, most of them. Aaron Aziz fares best as the macho giler PI, but Redza and Eizlan are kinda dull. Dato' Rahim Razali is a grand old man of Malaysian screen and stage, but horny old bastard doesn't seem to be a role he can pull off convincingly. There are cameos galore, and the funniest are the ones by Yasmin Yusuff, Elaine Pedley and madame screenwriter herself - but there's also a strangely unfunny one by Afdlin Shauki.

So Rafidah's script earns ten out of ten points for dramatic substance, but minus a few for relying too much on broad acting for the comedy - which, from what I've seen, is definitely a thing with local movies. But this one is heaps better than most, and not just because of the writing. It's crafted with a level of professionalism and competence that are shockingly lacking in far too many made-in-Malaysia movies I've seen this year; the blockheads who made those oughta hang their heads in shame. Syabas Mr. Chauly, you totally pwn those noobs.

Expectations: *eyeroll*

The second hand unwinds

The Time Traveler's Wife
My rating:

I love sci-fi, always have. When I was younger, I loved it for the escapism - how could boring old reality possibly measure up to a world with spaceships, robots, aliens, time machines and alien planets? But the genre isn't only about escapism; the challenge of any sci-fi story is to marry an out-of-this-world premise with human characters who deal with that premise in real, relatable, human ways. The Time Traveler's Wife is a prime example of that - the evergreen SFnal trope of time travel is mostly employed here as a fresh spin on what's essentially a down-to-earth romantic drama.

And it succeeds - but more in the romantic drama arena than the sci-fi one.

Henry DeTamble (Eric Bana) has a singular genetic condition - he travels through time, unwillingly and uncontrollably. He often revisits significant moments in his life, and he always appears naked (his clothes don't travel with him). When he meets Claire Abshire (Rachel McAdams), she tells him she's been in love with him all her life - because as they fall in love and get married, he will frequently travel back to visit her younger self. But living with such a condition - dubbed "chrono-impairment" by geneticist Dr. Kendrick (Stephen Tobolowsky) who helps Henry - takes a toll on their relationship, especially when they try to have children.

I wish I'd read the Audrey Nifenegger novel this film was based on. According to this review, it has a wealth of little details that the movie leaves out, in favour of streamlining the plot - and the plot isn't any great shakes. I'd have to agree, but I still liked it better than that reviewer did. The romance worked for me; Henry and Claire's love for each other is affecting and effective. I also liked the fact that this wasn't your typical Hollywood love story, in which the beginning of a relationship is the end of the movie - we follow Henry and Claire through several years of their lives together, and this makes for a more mature romance than we usually see.

But there's a definite sense that the film doesn't make full use of its premise. Being able to travel through time should affect Henry's and Claire's lives in many, many more ways than are shown here, and some of the ways it does show are glossed over. For example, there are implications that before he met Claire, Henry was a lonely man, unable to live a normal life because of his condition - but this barely comes across, and the character as written (and played by Bana) certainly doesn't seem like a social recluse. During their relationship and marriage, Henry's time-hopping seems little different from an absentee husband who goes on a lot of business trips. At one point, Henry uses a trip to the future to procure a winning lottery ticket that solves their financial worries, which raises the question of why he's never done that before.

It seems the filmmakers simply aren't familiar with sci-fi as a genre. Screenwriter Bruce Joel Rubin is mostly known for writing Ghost, and he had it easier with the metaphysical life-after-death aspects of that movie than the time-traveling of this one. I was honestly surprised at that bit with the lottery ticket, because it's the first indication that Henry can also travel to the future - quite a few time-travel stories have made it a rule that it's only possible to go back to the past. The film works best when time travel affects the central couple's lives in real, dramatic ways, such as when Claire gets pregnant - in fact, she suffers several miscarriages because, since Henry's condition is genetic, the fetuses tend to literally disappear from her womb. (Which means they appear somewhere, or somewhen, but we never see this. Would've been extremely icky though.)

But when the drama works, it works quite well. And the acting has a lot to do with it - McAdams and Bana make us believe that they're star-crossed lovers who are - literally - meant to be together. Everyone else is pretty much peripheral, really - Stephen Tobolowsky is always fun to watch (he's a perfect "hey, it's that guy!"-type actor whom you've seen in hundreds of roles), but he's not in it much. Ron Livingston similarly has a rather thankless role as a friend of Henry and Claire, and from what I've read it seems there was a bigger subplot involving the character in the book that the movie left out.

This is the first movie in a long time that I'm giving three stars to, and frankly it's been a bit hard to review - it's not so bad that I can rant about where it went wrong, but not good enough to rave about either. I'm sure I'd have a lot more to say if I'd read the novel, but I suspect I'd probably like it less too. In any case, I did like it, and you'd probably like it more if you weren't as big a sci-fi geek as I am - probably a lot more if you like a good, weepy romantic melodrama, something I'm not immune to myself. (My feminine side, let me show you it.) Still, the next time a movie comes out that's based on a genre novel I've been meaning to read, I'm gonna make sure I read it first. Which reminds me, I need to pick up a copy of Alice Sebold's The Lovely Bones real soon.

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

NEXT REVIEW: Pisau Cukur
Expectations: let's see what you got, Mr. Chauly