Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The great recalibration

Whew, it's done. TMBF now rates movies on a scale of up to five stars. Here's the new ratings system explained.

I have of course been considering it for some time now, and I've finally decided to do it. Why? Because I couldn't in good conscience give the same rating to films like Legion, Merantau Warrior and Woohoo! Or, for that matter, the same rating to District 9, Transformers 2 and State of Play. (And hey, check 'em out! I've added poster images to all my old reviews, so they don't look so bare anymore.)

You may have noticed that all these were originally three-star films, and that's mostly what I stuck to; I generally refrained from revising the two-and-a-half star reviews, though in a few cases I was tempted. Thing is, I don't really want to spend too much effort on thinking of the exact star rating to give. My thoughts on the movies I watch are in the reviews proper, which I spend quite a bit of time and effort to write, thank you. I'd hate for a reader to just glance at the star rating and make a snap assumption of my opinion.

Which is one reason why I finally gave in and recalibrated my rating scale. Still, I wouldn't want anyone to think that any two movies with the same rating are exactly alike. A film is a very complex machine, made of countless parts all adding up to a whole greater than their sum. Your friends and acquaintances might give you their opinion of a movie as "nice" or "not nice", but my aim is to be more informative than that. 'Cos that's how TMBF rolls.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Filem rempit yang surprisingly tak sempit

Adnan Sempit
My rating:

I first saw Shaheizy Sam in Bohsia and Syurga Cinta, and while both movies were pretty goddamn terrible, I was quite impressed by him. In Bohsia at least - his role in the other was too minor - he had decent screen presence, as well as an aptitude for chewing scenery that bordered on watchable. (Like I said, it was pretty goddamn terrible.) I didn't know at the time that he's actually a newcomer to the local movie scene. So now he's in a lead role, a romantic and comedic lead at that, and I was looking forward to it; it'd be nice to see him play an ostensibly likable character for a change. Even if it's in what looks like another godawful mat rempit movie.

Yes, he was good. The movie itself? I liked it too. OMGWTFBBQLOL!

Adnan (Shaheizy Sam) is a lowly dispatch rider with a crush on his boss Nadia (Intan Ladyana), who is wealthy, career-minded, and completely out of his league. He spends his nights hanging out with his fellow mat rempit Bobby (Along Raja Lawak) at his cousin Macha's (Cat Farish) warong. He gets his chance when Nadia asks him to pose as her boyfriend for a reunion party that she's throwing; and as they grow closer, Bobby and Nadia's PA Wawa (Norliana Samsudin) begin their own unlikely romance. But class prejudices - not to mention Adnan's own hot-headedness - threaten to tear Adnan and Nadia apart, more so when Jofri (Zack X-Factor), an old friend of Nadia's, becomes a rival for her affections.

Yes, I said I liked it. And believe me, no one's more surprised than I am. I don't really believe in grading local movies on a curve; I don't think I'm obliged to judge them by a lesser standard than I do any other movie, including Hollywood films. We may not have their budget or their production values, but plot, characters and dialogue don't cost a thing to write, do they? But as I have previously mentioned, the fact that a Malaysian movie set in Malaysia featuring Malaysian characters makes Malaysian audiences more forgiving of it - so long as it's halfway decent to begin with. Adnan Sempit is at least halfway decent, so I guess I am grading it on a curve after all. I'm willing to forgive its faults based on its strengths.

F'rinstance - it's funny. There are many jokes that don't work (any scene with Cat Farish) and a few that only raised a chuckle (a guy played by Angah Raja Lawak, whose perpetual hogging of Macha's karaoke set acts as a sort of Greek chorus to the plot), but there's plenty of genuinely witty dialogue through it all. And Ahmad Idham's direction displays some decent comic timing, which was my biggest surprise - this is the guy who directed my only one-star movie after all. Maybe he was hobbled by the fact that Syurga Cinta was a remake of another film, or maybe he's just better at comedy than drama. (Or maybe he just has a better editor this time.)

And then there's the storyline - which, yes, is totally cribbed from The Proposal. (Although it's not like that movie is damn original either la.) But at least it's sensibly executed. Both Adnan and Nadia have to adjust to each other, and both have to prove themselves to each other; Adnan heroically saves the day for her, and Nadia gets past her snap judgement of him as "sampah masyarakat". Which is precisely what an opposites-attract romance, or in this case an antara-dua-darjat romance, is all about. (It's also where Syurga Cinta went wrong.) Of course, it'd be nice if there were some actual romantic chemistry between them. There isn't, which is why Idham plays it all for laughs, but at least there are laughs.

Throughout the whole movie I was waiting for it to go wrong - for its depiction of Nadia to take an ugly turn into misogyny, or for someone to do something facepalmingly stupid. And it never did. When Adnan slugs another mat rempit for getting gatal with Nadia, she gets upset, and he's immediately apologetic. When a Datuk - who has a tender that Nadia is pitching for - catches her with Adnan, he tells her that her personal life won't affect her chances with the tender. When Bobby sees a bunch of mat rempits gawking over a laptop that has pictures of Nadia in it, he immediately deduces that they stole it from her, and tells Adnan. Masya'allah, some actual intelligence in a Malay movie! A mat rempit movie pulak tu!

Shaheizy Sam really is good in this; he could've done a Que Haidar in Duhai Si Pari-Pari, but he keeps his performance grounded, knowing that he also has serious scenes to pull off. He's definitely another actor I'll be expecting good things from in the future. (Check him out in this trailer - dude looks badass.) On the other hand, Intan Ladyana is stiff, and it's because of her that the romance in this romantic comedy doesn't work. Along Raja Lawak could've been annoying, but luckily for him Norliana Samsudin is very cute and quite fun to watch. (Oh, and they have a subplot about a snatch thief who stole Wawa's handbag, then got run over by a car and beheaded. It's gruesome and in poor taste and I really shouldn't have found it funny, but I did, sial.) Zack X-Factor plays an utterly loathsome scumbag - his performance is really lebih, but hey, it's a mat rempit movie.

A very successful mat rempit movie at that, and deservedly so I'd say. Aside from a rom-com, it's also a spirited defence of mat rempits as guys who just like to hang out with their bikes, not all of whom are thugs and snatch thieves - although there are "black hat" rempits, and the one time Adnan and Bobby go to a street race, they run afoul of a police roadblock. (Bobby gets a hilarious line about how rempits and lokap are "bagaikan aur dengan tebing".) Of course Malays want to watch a movie like this, instead of something like Bohsia that actually insults them. Now don't get me wrong, this isn't, like, a really good movie or anything; it stands out more for where it avoids going wrong rather than the things it does right. But hey - we're grading on a curve here.

NEXT REVIEW: I oso dunno la. What to watch ar?

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Besieged by angels... sort of

My rating:

I like Biblical fantasy movies. Now, let me get this out of the way first - yes, they're fantasy. I don't see no angels and demons walking the streets outside my house, do I? And I don't tick the "Kristian" box in the "agama" section of application forms. So a film that features winged dudes, plus any other aspects of Christian mythology (yes, it's a mythology), is just another fantasy flick to me. That said, my first exposure to this genre was The Prophecy, which I totally dug. And then there was Kevin Smith's Dogma, which I liked even more. Yes, I like Biblical fantasy, but I wasn't sure about this one - everything about it looks really really B-grade.

Well, it was pretty decent. But as Biblical fantasy? Not much.

The archangel Michael (Paul Bettany) falls to earth and makes his way to Paradise Falls, a diner in the middle of the Mojave desert - run by owner Bob (Dennis Quaid), his son Jeep (Lucas Black), cook Percy (Charles S. Dutton) and pregnant waitress Charlie (Adrianne Palicki). Also present are a family stranded there when their car broke down - Howard (Jon Tenney), Sandra (Kate Walsh) and their teenage daughter Audrey (Willa Holland) - and Kyle (Tyrese Gibson), a traveler passing through. Michael tells them that the apocalypse is nigh; God has lost faith in humanity, and is sending angels to exterminate them. But Charlie's unborn child is mankind's last hope, and Michael - having disobeyed God Himself - will stop at nothing to protect him.

Not for the first time am I wondering if my four-star scale isn't broad enough to rate the movies I watch. I'm giving Legion three stars, but if my rating scale went up to five stars, I'd... also only give it three. Which is a lower by a good bit than what I'd give most of my three-star movies, particularly the last two I watched. See, three stars means I enjoyed it. And I did, at the time. The action was decent, the acting was effective, I liked the characters and cared about them, and since that last thing in particular is pretty damn rare, I was feeling rather kindly towards this movie when the credits rolled.

But I can't really recommend it. Why? Because while it's a serviceable action movie, as a Biblical fantasy it's kinda meh. Michael has no supernatural powers; he merely fights with a whole lot of guns. Another archangel, Gabriel (Kevin Durand), shows up near the end, and aside from the wings and a wicked mace, there's nothing particularly angelic about him either. The whole thing about Charlie's baby makes no sense; if he is, as implied, the second coming of Christ, why is God trying to kill him? How can Christ be reborn without God's say-so? And where's the Devil in all this? Even The Prophecy knew that in a Biblical fantasy in which angels are at war, ol' Lucifer ought to at least take an interest.

The thing about Biblical fantasy is that it's all in the implication. You don't have the SFX budget to portray the actual host of Heaven, that's fine. But through things like dialogue and acting, you can make us believe that these two blokes are bona fide angels - immortal beings who serve an ineffable Lord out of love and blind loyalty, but are always second to mankind in His eyes. There's a bit of it in Michael's scenes with Gabriel, and particularly when Michael reveals that he was the first of the angels to bow before humanity. It's little details like this that make a Biblical fantasy work, but there's just not enough of it here. The whole thing is largely just a siege film and not much more.

But it is a decent siege film lar. You'll recognize this particular subgenre if you've seen stuff like Assault on Precinct 13 (both remake and original), The Mist and Zulu. (Here are two lists of 'em). What makes a siege film work is a sense of claustrophobia, the desperation of facing overwhelming odds, and effective action scenes. The angels that attack the diner possess the bodies of ordinary people, and there's some freaky fun to be had watching our heroes fight off a monstrous old lady, and later a murderous little kid. It's scenes like this that make you think director and co-writer Scott Stewart was being deliberately cheesy, which is a smart way to approach this material.

And the most pleasant surprise is that the characters are quite nicely fleshed-out. Charlie doesn't really want her baby, and so she smokes even while eight months pregnant. Kyle looks like a gangbanger, but only wants to win custody of his son. Sandra has let her resentment of her rebellious daughter override her love. The character-building scenes tend to slow the pace, but at least Stewart knows how to get us emotionally invested in these people's plight. The cast are also largely up to the task (well, except for the one or two who get killed off early). Paul Bettany in particular has enough gravitas to make his role work, which is a good thing since most of the movie is riding on his wingless shoulders.

Y'know another thing about Biblical fantasies? Most of 'em avoid having God Himself as the antagonist - because, man, how do you resolve that conflict? Legion gives it a go, and it isn't particularly satisfying. I really have to wonder whether Stewart and his co-writer Peter Schink are familiar with this genre that they're playing in; they don't seem to have watched The Prophecy or Dogma or read Neil Gaiman's and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens, to name just three good examples. At least they made a decent siege film.

Update: Five-star scale implemented.

NEXT REVIEW: Adnan Sempit
Expectations: I'm actually looking forward to watching Shaheizy Sam again. The movie itself? No.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Indonesia boleh!

Merantau Warrior
My rating:

So I felt obliged to watch and review this, seeing as how I talked it up in my review of My Spy earlier. I wasn't expecting much though. It looked like an Indonesian version of Ong Bak, and I didn't much like Ong Bak. Don't get me wrong, I love a good ta kau flick as much as the next Y chromosome, but frankly I got bored halfway through it. The characters were dull, and the plot was practically nonexistent; there just wasn't anything that engaged me beyond the fight scenes. Maybe it was because I watched it on DVD, maybe I would've liked it better if I saw it on the big screen, I dunno.

But Merantau Warrior? Is better than Ong Bak. Yeah, you heard me.

"Merantau" is a traditional Minangkabau rite of passage in which young men leave hearth and home to seek their fortunes. Yuda (Iko Uwais) leaves his mother (Christine Hakim) and his rural Sumatran village for the big city of Jakarta, with nothing more than his silat harimau skills and a vague notion of making a living teaching them. Chance leads to an encounter with street urchin Adit (Yusuf Aulia) and his sister Astri (Sisca Jessica), a go-go dancer whom he impulsively rescues from her sleazy boss Johni (Alex Abbad). But this makes him some far more dangerous enemies - the leaders of a human trafficking ring, Ratger (Mads Koudal) and Luc (Laurent Buson).

Okay, it's a ta kau flick through and though. The plot couldn't be simpler: Boy meets girl. Boy helps girl and in process kicks some ass. Boy and girl exhibit romantic tension. Girl gets kidnapped. Boy spends rest of movie kicking truckloads of ass to rescue girl. And during the climax, boy confronts two crime bosses, both of which just happen to be expert martial artists themselves. Fresh and innovative this movie is not. But what it is is very well-made, exhibiting a surprising amount of care to the dialogue, characters, and emotional underpinnings. It's there in the opening scenes of Yuda's village, featuring Indonesia's national cinematic treasure Christine Hakim. She was good in Puteri Gunung Ledang, and she's great here; her scenes are poignant, and it sets the tone for the rest of the movie.

And it's there in the aforementioned romantic tension scene, in which Yuda and Astri get to know each other and trade backstories; the dialogue here is well-written and affecting. It's also in the subplot about Eric (Yayan Ruhian), a fellow Minangkabau whom Yuda meets on the bus ride to Jakarta and whom he encounters later under very different circumstances. In fact, there's even thematic depth to this subplot; cities like Jakarta chew up country boys like Yuda and Eric every day, and the only way to keep from getting spit out is to sell their soul to the devil. Hell, it's even in that one scene between Ratgar and Luc, in which the two are revealed to have a brotherly relationship that makes them more than just moustache-twirling baddies. How many action films actually bother to give depth to their villains?

But yes, it's still a ta kau flick. And whoo, it rocks as a ta kau flick. I'll be honest and admit that the fights and stunts aren't as balls-out extreme as Ong Bak's, but they're teeth-jarringly thrilling enough. (When a guy gets a gas tank thrown in his face, you will wince.) Unlike Tony Jaa in his movies, Yuda is no invincible superman. In fact, he loses his first fight against Johni's goons, and takes his fair share of lumps in all his subsequent fights. But it's that first loss that tells us this hero is vulnerable, which makes every other fight scene even more exciting. And I also gotta give it up to writer-director Gareth Evans' sheer economy of storytelling. In most other movies, if the hero loses his first fight, he'd crawl off to lick his wounded pride and take on the bad guys again some other time. Not Yuda. He just gets back up, grits his teeth, and proceeds to open up an entire brewery of whoopass.

Another pleasant surprise is a refreshing lack of misogyny. Astri is an exotic dancer but not a stripper, and she is not ashamed of what she does. (Nor is she a shrinking violet - watching her spit venom in Bahasa Indonesia is lots of fun.) Yuda himself is never judgmental nor anything less than respectful towards her. And the movie sees fit to grant her a happy ending, which is more than can be said for certain Malay movies. That's right, Indonesians appear to be more enlightened in their gender views than we are, or at least than Malay filmmakers are. For shame.

Christine Hakim's isn't the only good performance here. Sisca Jessica is often asked to carry an entire dramatic scene by herself, and she never drops the ball. (It helps that she's super-cute too.) Mads Koudal plays main baddie Ratgar with cold-blooded understatement instead of shouty over-acting, which makes him better by a wide margin than most Caucasian baddies in Asian action movies. But the star, in more ways than one, is Iko Uwais. Another edge he has over Tony Jaa is that he can act. He is as comfortable and charismatic in a dramatic scene as he is in a fight scene; I'd have sworn he's a veteran TV drama teen heartthrob if I hadn't learned that he's a first-time actor. He deserves many more opportunities to show off both his acting and ass-whuppery skills.

And this movie deserves to make as big an international splash as Ong Bak did. That film kicked off an entire new industry of Thai martial arts movies - but if Indonesia continues to make their own that are as good as this, they'll give the Thais a run for their baht easily. You guys, throw more money at Evans, let him make more movies with Iko and his stunt team and any other fresh young talents he can find, and don't feel bad that he's a Brit and not one of your own. (Hell, us Malaysians would love to borrow him.) Be proud that you've got a terrific home-grown movie here, one that beats Ong Bak at its own game and is still uniquely Indonesian. Ong Bakso? Ha ha! Okay, sorry.

Expectations: good cheesy fun, nothing more

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Our very own hor sui pin

My rating:

I'd barely heard a thing about this movie, but that's because I'm not its target audience. This is an all-Astro production - director Chiu Keng Guan is an Astro business manager (who also went to Beijing Film Academy), and the cast is largely made up of MyFM radio announcers and Wah Lai Toi and AEC personalities. And it seems it has been getting a fair bit of promotion on both channels, so much so that it was a full house at my screening. Now, I not only don't watch either channel, I'm pretty much a banana - yellow on the outside, white on the inside. My Cantonese is horrendous, my Mandarin even worse, and since this is a Chinese-language film - with no English subtitles summore - this is not a movie made for me.

But I enjoyed it just the same - because it's so much fun.

Ah Beng (Jack Lim) has lost his job, and is constantly belittled by his conceited neighbours. Ah Huat (Jason Yeoh) ekes a living selling char kuey teow and pines after his ex-girlfriend Mindy (Siow Hui Mei). Ah Rain (Royce Tan) can't keep up the rent on his photography studio. These three losers answer a job ad that takes them to the sleepy village of Beserah, Kuantan that has its own problems: Pakcik (Siow Ho Phiew), the sole living practitioner of the "woohoo", or tiger dance, is too old to fulfill the traditional once-every-60-years performance. With the promise of a generous paycheck by Pakcik's granddaughter Ah Lian (Chen Keat Yoke), the three join the tiger dance troupe along with kungfu enthusiast Bobby (Bernard Hiew) and village chief's son Alan (Gan Jiang Han). They begin their training and befriend the rest of Beserah's residents - Ah Lian's kid brother Durian Head, the village chief, local tour guide Ah Shui (Freddie Ng), his wife (Vivian Tok) and their four daughters - but little do they know that Ah Lian doesn't actually have any money to pay them.

There appears to be some confusion over the title of this movie - it's listed as Woohoo! in some places, and as Tiger Woohoo! in others. Since "woohoo" literally means "tiger dance" in Chinese, I'm going with the less redundant one. This is pitched as a home-grown Lunar New Year comedy, which apparently has its own term in Chinese: "hor sui pin". I'm not sure if that's an actual genre, but according to LoveHKFilm, the CNY period always gets a Hong Kong movie release that's a purely nonsensical, utterly silly comedy featuring big stars acting goofy. Which, yeah, I've seen a couple of those. Woohoo! has stars (from Astro), they act goofy and silly, and it's so genial and good-natured that you'd have to be a racist ultra-Melayu (heh heh) not to enjoy it.

The plot is your standard losers-make-good story, which is always lots of fun if done well. It's certainly one that Stephen Chow Sing Chi has turned to in many of his films, and this one stands up quite well to those. (Yes, that is high praise.) It cannot match his storytelling genius, but it does have an ensemble of incredibly likable characters just like Chow often does. It's also pretty darn funny, with most of its dialogue in that uniquely Malaysian mix of Mandarin, Cantonese, what sounds like Hokkien but could very well be Teochew or Hakka, and even a BM word or two thrown in. And yes, every character is loads of fun, even in an overstuffed cast like this. Alan and Bobby are somewhat unnecessary, serving only to fill up the five-man tiger dance troupe out of authenticity. And of the three newcomers to the village, Ah Rain is the least developed. But Chiu and his writer Lee Eng Keong take pains to craft personalities for each of them, which is most welcome.

And they wouldn't be so likable if they weren't backed up by some terrific actors. Now, mind you, none of the performances are particularly subtle or nuanced. But all that's demanded of them is to portray simple characters effectively, and they all pull it off. Take real-life lion dance sifu Siow Ho Phiew; he's no thespian, but his character is an effective stand-in for the theme of preserving an ancient traditional art. Which red-blooded Chinese wouldn't feel for him? Chen Keat Yoke stands out as the tough, pragmatic Ah Lian who runs her family's salted fish business, and who's more than a match for a bunch of "KL people". Jason Yeoh is also impressive as the lovable dimwit sadsack Ah Huat. Royce Tan hams it up as the effeminate Rain, and I wouldn't believe you if you told me he wasn't gay in real life. Jack Lim gets top billing, and by some miracle his affectedly high-pitched voice did not annoy me. Even a money-minded shrew like Mindy is appealingly portrayed by Siow Hui Mei. (Oh, and Gan Mei Yan must be pretty famous, 'cos she gets star billing for what's essentially a cameo role. She's funny too.)

Okay, this movie isn't perfect. The revelation of Ah Lian's deception is a big dramatic complication that's satisfyingly resolved, and that's right about when the climactic performance of our lovable woohoo exponents should be coming up. But then the troupe suffers another setback, and the film really begins to drag around that point. I've seen this film's running time indicated as 1 hour and 35 minutes, and I find it hard to believe it's so short - pacing really isn't its strong point, its plot tends to meander, and its massive ensemble can get unwieldy. But you know what is its strong point? Lee Eng Keong's writing. Because that second setback leads to another big dramatic scene involving Mrs. Shui and her kids, and Lee crafts that scene with effective poignancy without ever falling back on on-the-nose dialogue. Also, it gives Vivian Tok more screentime, and she's loads of fun.

And then there's the gorgeous scenery of Beserah, one of those charmingly quaint old-fashioned Malaysian Chinese towns. And there's Chiu's Beijing Film Academy-trained direction, which is unshowy but always effective. All this plus Lee's script make it a New Year comedy that's fun, funny, heartwarming, and charming as all hell. This was a real pleasant surprise for me, considering I'd never heard of any of these people before, or even this film. But I liked them all, a lot. I want to see more from Chiu, and Lee, and these actors. I hear that Woohoo! will only play for two weeks before making way for the big CNY releases from Hong Kong, which is a crying shame - it won't even be showing during the festive season for which it was made. So please, go watch this if you're Chinese-educated, if you watch Astro's Chinese channels and listen to MyFM, or if you know who these actors are. I'm not and I don't, and I still liked it.

NEXT REVIEW: Merantau Warrior
Expectations: another Ong Bak?

Sunday, January 17, 2010

Death, depravity, inhumanity - yeah, and why should I care?

My rating:

There was a time when a film playing in cinemas that you've never heard of and know nothing about generally fell into one of two categories: a) a B-grader that went direct-to-video in the States, whose international distributors treat markets like Malaysia as dumping grounds; and b) a Z-grader from some other foreign country that couldn't crack the coveted American market and could only sell to less discerning markets (like Malaysia). Our local distributors are somewhat more discriminating now; they largely pick only big Hollywood studio releases. Also, the global film industry has changed. Today, there's a chance that a movie with little to no buzz could be an indie or foreign-language gem - perhaps even a movie that goes on to become a hit, which would give you bragging rights as an early adopter.

Carriers isn't one of them. It sure tried though.

A viral pandemic has spread across the States, killing most of the population and reducing civilization to lawlessness. A group of four survivors - brothers Brian (Chris Pine) and Danny (Lou Taylor Pucci), Brian's girlfriend Bobby (Piper Perabo), and Danny's friend Kate (Emily VanCamp) - are heading to Turtle Beach, the brothers' childhood holiday destination, to wait for the pandemic to die out. But their encounter with Frank (Christopher Meloni), the father of an infected little girl, is only the first of many that will test their humanity in the face of a highly contagious - and fatal - disease.

That's a very misleading poster up there. It makes the film look like a gory horror flick, and if you've heard of it being about a viral apocalypse, you might assume it's a zombie movie. It's not - the virus just causes people to fall sick and die. And there are some suspenseful moments, plus a few icky-looking infected corpses, but you won't find anything really scary in here. This film is a bleak depiction of a post-apocalyptic landscape, and how survival trumps basic human decency. It's quite a daring, if depressing, film - Brian's group lives by the rule that the infected are already dead, and must be abandoned before they infect anyone else. You can bet that happens to a number of people a number of times in this movie.

The problem is that I never really cared about them. The characters are all dull and flat, and in Brian's case downright unlikable. I don't know why so many American films have this kind of character - the swaggering jerkass who's rude to everyone, whose only goal in life is to party, and whose recklessness gets himself and everyone else into trouble. I swear, it's an archetype. Brian was annoying, and it didn't reflect well on the rest of his group for putting up with him. Bobby is an idiot for dating Brian. Danny is the less assertive younger brother, and has absolutely no personality other than being the less assertive younger brother. Kate has a thing about trying every phone they encounter, hoping to call her parents, but this subplot goes nowhere.

You know what would've helped with the characterization? If the relationships between them were better-developed. You'd expect Bobby and Kate to be close to each other, being the two women of the group, but they barely even seem to be friends. Kate and Danny are friends, and there are hints of some romantic tension between them, but it never develops. As for the brothers, the film keeps flashing back to their idyllically happy childhood, but I never really believed they loved each other - because, again, Brian keeps acting like a jerk to Danny, constantly disparaging his younger brother's acceptance to college before the pandemic hit. The closest thing to a compelling relationship is Frank's with his daughter, but they're gone midway into the movie.

Sometimes good acting can make up for sketchily-written characters. That's not the case here. Chris Pine is the most effective, which is to say he really brings out Brian's assholishness. Piper Perabo has had the longest career of the four lead actors, but has never really distinguished herself - and she doesn't here. Lou Taylor Pucci is boring. (And he and Pine don't look a thing alike. Which genius thought to cast them as brothers?) Emily VanCamp looks like she might've done well if her character had more depth - at times Kate surprisingly displays an almost ruthless pragmatism - but that may've just been because I thought she was cute.

I said that it's a daring film, and it is. Any movie that plumbs the depths of man's inhumanity to man has to be; it stands in stark contrast to Zombieland, which uses the post-apocalyptic milieu for fun and thrills. But while the storyline and direction are generally solid, the lack of any emotional engagement sinks this movie. If we'd cared about these characters - if writer-directors Alex and David Pastor had taken a further polish to the script to make them real and sympathetic - this would have been a devastating film. As it is, it's just a fitfully interesting one.

Expectations: another movie I don't know a damn thing about

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Aduhai bodohnya movie ni

Duhai Si Pari-Pari
My rating:

I think I'm beginning to get into this whole Malay movie thing. F'rinstance, this one - I actually had an inkling that it might be good. Que Haidar was pretty decent in two films I've seen him in, and Liyana Jasmay was terrific in Papadom too. And Harun Salim Bachik may be our film industry's most reliable funnyman next to Afdlin Shauki. Yes, I've watched enough Malay films to recognize actors, especially the ones that have done good work. Seeing their names in an upcoming movie's poster or trailer bodes well for me; it almost makes me look forward to it.

That is, until I actually go watch the wretched thing.

Syadon (Que Haidar) is a loser amongst losers. His latest misfortune is his girlfriend Mala (Nabila Huda) turning out to be a conwoman who robs him of his savings together with her partner-in-crime Budi (Remy Ishak). His luck turns when he discovers a magic lamp teapot, out of which emerges a genie fairy magical something-or-other named Pari (Liyana Jasmay). Pari is on a quest to seek true love in the human world, and for some godforsaken reason thinks she can find it in Syadon. But her father Para (Harun Salim Bachik) has set her a deadline; if Syadon doesn't fall for her before then, she will "lenyap dari dunia", i.e. die. WTF kind of deal is that??

And WTF is up with Que Haidar in this thing?? He plays Syadon as an absolute retard, mugging shamelessly for the camera, thinking his idiot grin is all it takes to draw a laugh, and generally being annoying gila babi nak mampus. Is this what you call acting? Start sampai habis macam cacat otak? In 105 minutes (waaaay too long), he has totally destroyed my impression of him as a solid actor; I can't even think kindly of his performances in Setem and Papadom anymore. If I were to be generous, I could lay some of the blame on writer-director Azmi Mohd Hata's feet - but frankly, Que's performance was all his. He looked like he was going all improv there, really throwing himself into the role. Nice one Que, so glad you had fun making this movie, maybe for your next one you could show up at some screenings and kick a few audience members in the nuts.

But it's not like Azmi comes off smelling like roses either. Eh Encik Pengarah, ko tau tak the most important thing in comedy? Timing. That's something yang ko tak reti langsung, isn't it? Dahlah your jokes not funny, summore you drag them out just to let your actors (*coughQuecough*) annoy the living shit out of the audience even more. And you wrote this thing too, didn't you? Why does Pari fixate on Syadon as her one true love, just because he's the guy who picked her teapot out of a trash heap? Why are you so goddamn coy about what Pari is anyway? Or was she originally a genie, but then Jin Notti came out, so you made a quick switch to fairies, but you still got her coming out of a teapot, so now your konsep dah lari lintang pukang? And seriously, what kinduva moronic law is this in which fairies get wiped out of existence if they don't find love? Even Jin Notti's jin world was better developed.

Holy God yes, this is a movie that makes Jin Notti look good. Nothing about the fantasy elements make any sense. Pari and Para have your usual near-omnipotent (read: arbitrary) magical powers, but they only ever use them as dictated by the film's SFX budget, not the story. We don't ever see any other fairies, nor the "dunia kayangan" they're supposedly from. Fantasy tak kena, comedy pun tak kena, but the most epic of its fails is in the romance department. How are we supposed to root for Syadon to get together with Pari when he's so insanely stupid? There's gotta be a scene where he realizes he has feelings for her, and it's just not gonna work if he's been an insensitive moron all this time. But you realized that, didn't you, Encik Azmi? You knew how badly you and Encik Que had screwed up the character, and that's why you put in a voiceover - a frickin' voiceover - to flat-out tell the audience that tetiba Syadon cintakan Pari? Ini ko panggil filmic storytelling??

Fortunately, Duhai Si Pari-Pari has two good things that Jin Notti doesn't - they go by the names of Liyana Jasmay and Harun Salim Bachik. Liyana is still super adorable even when she's following Azmi's "direction", which is to do that exaggeratedly stupid schtick. But her role does call for her to express some genuine emotion - a practice known as "acting" - which she pulls off quite nicely. And I'm really getting to like Harun both as a comedian and a dramatic actor; there's a scene in which his daughter asks him if he's ever been in love, and his wordless and quickly-hidden expression says he has. (Which is some genuinely compelling dramatic material, not that Azmi would know that from his ass.) The fact that he keeps the schtick to a minimum, in a shitty "comedy" like this, is also testament to his talent. Certainly nobody else in this movie does - not Nabila Huda or Remy Ishak. Ini bukan panggil berlakon lah - ini panggil perangai bodoh.

But the most bodoh sebodoh-bodohnya is Que. For all that I've been laying the shit on Azmi, he deserves just as much of the blame. I mean, I've said it before; we have some real, genuine onscreen talent, in the form of solid actors like Liyana and Harun. It's the hacks and the idiots and the couldn't-give-a-shits behind the cameras that make almost every goddamn Malay movie macam sekeping taik. Still, I've resolved to watch and review 'em. And I'll still look out for the names of those I've been impressed with, and expect good things from the next film they're involved in. But not you, Que Haidar. You're dead to me.

Expectations: none. Nada. Zero. Zilch

Sunday, January 10, 2010

The inaccessibility of Mr. Gilliam

The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
My rating:

I remember watching Time Bandits and Brazil when I was small, on good ol' terrestrial TV. What I remember about them is that they were both absurdist comedies, with the second having somewhat blacker humour. The last Terry Gilliam film I've seen was 12 Monkeys, which I was again too young to know what to make of. (I'd love to be able to watch it again.) But now I am at the peak of my film-analyzing skills, so this makes the first Gilliam movie that I can absolutely fairly judge and review.

And I'm still not sure what to make of it.

Dr. Parnassus (Christopher Plummer) runs an old-fashioned traveling theatre troupe that also consists of his daughter Valentina (Lily Cole), his barker Anton (Andrew Garfield), and a dwarf named Percy (Verne Troyer). In actual fact, Parnassus is thousands of years old, having made a bargain with the Devil (Tom Waits) for immortality in return for Valentina's soul on her sixteenth birthday. One day they rescue a mysterious man named Tony (Heath Ledger) whom they find hanging from a noose; he claims amnesia, but joins their troupe. As Valentina's birthday draws near, the Devil makes another bet with Parnassus for the souls of his audience members, whom Tony (Johnny Depp/Jude Law/Colin Farrell) brings through Parnassus' magic mirror - which is in fact a portal into fantastical, imaginary worlds. Tony helps by making the show more contemporary and attractive, but he has dark secrets of his own.

"Imaginarium of Doctor... apatu." That's what I mumbled sheepishly to the counter guy when I bought my ticket. That mouthful of a title is in fact emblematic of what struck me the most about the movie - it's bloody inaccessible. It's just not easy to enjoy, or even comprehend. The scenes inside the mirror are wild and wondrous and very, very surreal - and surreality is something best taken in small doses. There are ideas and themes that are brought up in one scene and then never again. Parnassus is immortal, but he's always been accompanied by Percy - and why he's immortal, or why he always follows Parnassus, is never made clear. In fact, lots of things are not made clear - why certain people's faces change as they enter the mirror, but certain others' don't, is never explained beyond a device to allow Johnny Depp, Jude Law and Colin Farrell to sub in for Heath Ledger.

Even the characters are pretty hard to get into. Who's the protagonist here? Who's story is this really? You'd think Tony should be our POV character; if a film intends to bring us into a fantastical world, standard screenwriting wisdom entails that we should see it through the eyes of someone to whom all of it is as new as it is to us. But he isn't. In fact, the script rarely allows us to get a true handle on any of the characters. Andrew has a long-standing unrequited love for Valentina, and Parnassus wants to save his daughter's soul from the Devil. Yet neither of them really come across as sympathetic, nor do their needs provide any momentum for the plot. Tony especially is almost a complete cypher; we're just never given to understand what his role is in the story until the film's climax. All this makes the bulk of the movie dull, puzzling and frustrating.

So it's a good thing when that climax comes along and the story finally makes sense. And once it does, it's a pretty interesting one. I've always been partial towards fantasy, and I like that particular subgenre that involves outwitting the Devil's deals (although I don't know why he, being the Devil, would ever even honour a deal). This movie has a nice twist on it that I rather liked. The third act is where things finally start to get interesting, which is one of its two saving graces. The other is the quite frankly gorgeous look of the whole thing. Everything from Parnassus' horse-drawn stage-cum-mobile home, to the fantastical worlds within the mirror, are very imaginatively realized, and provide something nice to look at while the story meanders along.

Speaking of nice things to look at - Lily Cole may, in my humble opinion, be the film's most spectacular special effect. She is one yummy specimen; I was quite content to fix my gaze on her whenever she was onscreen, and she's surprisingly (and pleasingly) buxom for a runway model. She's also surprisingly good for a fledgling actress, which bodes well for my chances of watching another movie graced by her pulchritudinous presence in the future. Okay, okay, I should probably talk about Heath Ledger, seeing as this is his final film; he died before completing filming. You can see how good he was, how fully he throws himself into his roles, which makes his death all the more tragic. Depp, Law and Farrell all do pretty good jobs of mimicking his performance, and the transitions could almost be seamless. Christopher Plummer is decent, but Tom Waits seems like he should be a lot more fun.

And there really isn't much fun to be had, although the curious thing is that it feels like there should be. It's a whimsical fantasy adventure after all; but its whimsy just never translates into any actual laughs, nor does its adventure ever feel thrilling or suspenseful. And all that surreality never really comes together into anything that makes any sense. The most frustrating thing about this movie is the sense that somewhere, within Terry Gilliam's mind - and, possibly, in his original vision of the film in which Ledger completed his role - it does all make sense. But it just doesn't let us in there.

NEXT REVIEW: Duhai Si Pari-Pari
Expectations: dare I hope?

Friday, January 8, 2010

At least one sleepless night guaranteed

Paranormal Activity
My rating:

"One of the scariest movies of all time". Fwoar, so hyper your bole ar? This film has been riding on a pretty damn effective marketing campaign, and while scary is subjective, it looks like it's definitely become one of the most profitable movies of all time ('cos it was only made for US$15,000). The hype has reached Malaysia long before it's current cinema release; I know of quite a few people who found, um, ways to watch it months ago, and they only sought it out because they heard the hype. Which brings us to the USD$141 million (its total worldwide gross so far) question - is Paranormal Activity scary?

Here's a hint: the same night I watched it, I had a very hard time sleeping.

Micah (Micah Sloat), a day trader, and Katie (Katie Featherston), a graduate student, are a live-in couple in San Diego. Katie has been plagued by supernatural disturbances since childhood, and one day Micah buys an expensive video camera with the intention of capturing these occurrences on film. They are also paid a visit by a psychic, Dr. Fredrichs (Mark Fredrichs), who tells them that Katie is haunted by a demon - a being of pure malevolence that will follow her wherever she goes. As the disturbances grow in intensity and violence, Katie becomes more and more terrified - and Micah more and more determined to film them.

I actually like horror. No, really. I'm fascinated by that paradoxical human desire to experience fear, of all emotions. I reckon that of all the emotions that films and stories aim to evoke in their audience - laughter, joy, sadness, etc. - fear is the most difficult, and I admire films that do it successfully. My problem with horror movies is that most of them don't evoke fear, they merely evoke shock - hence, all those annoying "jump" scares. Or they evoke revulsion, with blood and gore and bodily dismemberment. Most "scary" scenes in horror movies - e.g. screaming female chased by sharp-instrument-wielding maniac - are often more akin to action sequences. Which, okay, I suppose you could argue that the emotion being evoked there is terror, which is part and parcel of horror. But fear - that unease, that feeling of dread, that sense that something's just wrong, that you're just not safe no matter what you do - it's a rare film that can do that.

Paranormal Activity does it. It does it so simply that it makes you wonder why so many horror movies go the complete opposite direction, blowing out on SFX and loud music and gallons of karo syrup. The film alternates between several daytime and nighttime scenes; it is during the latter, when Micah's camera films their bedroom as they sleep, that Katie's demon makes its appearances. And that simple setup - two people asleep in bed at night, whilst an invisible entity menaces them - is enough to be pants-wettingly terrifying. It's like Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho - the infamous shower scene isn't scary because of the violence. It's scary because it's in the shower. In there, you're naked. You're vulnerable, literally and psychologically. Likewise the nighttime scenes in Paranormal Activity; the bedroom is the room in which you sleep. And when you're asleep, you're completely, utterly defenceless.

It helps that the film is presented as a record of Micah's footage, with the verisimillitude that the home-video feel of it lends. The two principal actors also make their characters believable, with Katie Featherston getting most of the screen time as well as the tougher role; she handles her character's mounting terror and desperation quite effectively. And it also helps that the script provides some depth for their relationship. Micah is, to put it gently, a jerk. His excitement over capturing the demon on film supercedes his concern for Katie, and more than once asks her if there's a way to provoke the attacks. Later, he balks at calling for help because of his ego - it's his girlfriend and his house that's being threatened, so he insists on dealing with it himself. But Katie is by no means meek and submissive to him either; there's a give-and-take to their relationship that's nicely realistic.

(Incidentally, it's interesting that the actors play characters named after themselves, just like in The Blair Witch Project - a clear spiritual predecessor to this film. Director Oren Peli likely intended to promote this as a "true story" a la Blair Witch at first, then decided against it. Wisely, I think. Their current marketing angle is much better.)

I quite seriously considered giving this movie three-and-a-half stars, because it is just that damn scary; I'm recommending it to lots of people already, and telling them not to watch it on a night when they need to wake up early the next morning. (Seriously, you shouldn't.) But in the end I settled on three stars, because its most notable weakness is that the plot is really quite thin. It doesn't build up to a logical conclusion; the demonic attacks just grow more and more violent until the terrifying climax. Also, the characterization of Katie and Micah doesn't really develop any further, which is kinda disappointing. But I didn't notice any of this until after the movie, and I doubt most people will at all - you'll be too busy cringing in fear throughout. The audience at my screening certainly were. There was a discernible - and audible - tremor every time a nighttime scene began, and I could definitely sympathize.

I quite like these "found footage" films - I liked Blair Witch and Cloverfield, although I watched both on home video. This one is the first I've seen on the big screen, and unfortunately I sat a little too close in front and got a bit of a headache; I definitely recommend getting seats as far back as possible. But despite my throbbing head, this film still spooked the bejeezus out of me. To those who've already seen it on DVD and didn't find it scary: first of all, aiseh, you've spoiled it for yourselves laa. It works way better in a cinema with a couple hundred other scared-shitless viewers. And second of all, this is a very different kind of horror movie - it's much quieter, more subtle, and works on the rule that what you can't see is much, much scarier than what you can. Which is something that slasher flicks and torture porn and other modern horror films just don't understand. If you prefer their brand of horror - well, I gotta say, you're missing out on one of the scariest movies of all time. Which, yeah. It is.

Note: I have a theory regarding Katie's demon's attacks that I've not heard anywhere else. I tried not to spoil too much, but nevertheless I'm putting it in the comments just in case. Do tell me what you think.

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

NEXT REVIEW: The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus
Expectations: dunno what to expect. Haven't seen a Terry Gilliam film in years

Monday, January 4, 2010

Nope, still not a convert

My rating:

Okay, I chickened out of reviewing the last Yasmin Ahmad film I watched. She was, and still is, so universally praised after her death that I was afraid writing a negative review of Talentime would come across as disrespectful. And yes, that's pretty chickenshit of me - not so much because I'm afraid of raising the ire of her fans, but that I should be able to write a review without being disrespectful of her memory. It'll be a challenge - I just so love my own snark - but it behooves me to give it a shot.

But I'm really not liking her work so far.

Rohani (Sharifah Amani) and Rohana (Sharifah Aleysha) are two sisters living on their own in Ipoh; the elder Rohani works as a pub waitress to put her sister through school. Rohana's precociousness causes problems for her at school, which raises the interest of the principal, Brother Anthony (Tony Savarimuthu), and a young teacher, Brian (Brian Yap). Brian and Rohani become friends, sharing many talks on her Muslim faith, which leads Brian to contemplate his own lapsed Catholicism and his painful childhood memories - as well as his growing feelings for her. But the sisters' dark secret is that they are running away from a wealthy, abusive father (Dato' Rahim Razali) who is bent on tracking them down.

Look, I get that Yasmin's films are all intensely personal. And I get that they are all very much reflections of her personality, her views and her vision. But then again, so are all films (and all creative endeavours, period). The thing is, most good filmmakers know where to draw the line between "this is all about me" and "this is a story with an integrity of its own". I don't think Yasmin did. The stories she told, the characters in them, and the things they say and do, are all about her. Movies made this way rarely turn out good. Proof in point: in Muallaf, the main character Rohani is that most obnoxious of fictional creatures - the Mary Sue.

Let's see: she's a devout Muslim, yet displays an amazing knowledge of the Bible, the writings of Christian saints, and occasionally the Tao Te Ching. She goes to a crappy community college to inquire about courses on comparative religion, then makes some pointed jabs at the receptionist's ignorance of matters spiritual. She works in a pub, where she is popular with the patrons, despite the fact that she lectures them on the virtues of temperance. She visits the hospital every day just to visit a coma patient whom she doesn't know and read to her from the Quran. Her father is a callous, abusive scumbag, yet she beatifically forgives him all his trespasses. When she overhears Brian speaking harshly to his mother over the phone, she chastises him like a little boy. (And he still falls in love with her.) She takes taekwondo lessons, but balks at sparring, because she abhors violence... oh wait, that's the sister Rohana.

The whole movie is like this - didactic, sanctimonious, strident, on-the-nose, and utterly unbelievable. Rohani is not a person, she's a saint. (Hell, look at her name.) Neither is Brian; his sole purpose is to bask in in the glow of her godliness. This is not a story, this is a sermon; the plot does not evolve naturally out of the characters and their world. There's a meaningless subplot involving Cindy (Yeo Yann Yann), a fellow waitress at the pub where Rohani works, and it serves only to sling a few more arrows at our martyr of a heroine. Rohana's oh-so-precious habit of spouting numbers that turn out to be religious scripture makes no sense, considering she only mentions verse and line but not chapter. There's a running joke about Brian always forgetting to take his shoes off when entering the sisters' house, and I found myself thinking: whatchew trying to say, Yasmin? You think Chinese wear shoes inside the house izzit?

Well, yeah, I know that's a petty thing to think, but since everything that happens in this movie seems to be trying to make a point, can you blame me? It wouldn't be so bad if the story, as preachy as it is, were effective, but it very rarely is. Brian's childhood flashback scene is overwrought to the point of being unintentionally hilarious. There's a slapsticky joke about domestic violence, of all things, that's just jarring. Yasmin's directorial style is simplistic, naturalistic - and kinda boring. A bit of visual flair would've livened things up just a tad; and I don't know why she ended every scene with a fade to black. Even the performances are simplistic, naturalistic, and frankly, just plain wooden.

With the sole exception of Sharifah Amani. She's a terrific young actor, if only for her ability to recite Yasmin's stilted dialogue and make it sound natural - and she can claim credit for the film's only effectively poignant scene, where Rohani reveals her scarred and bleeding freshly-shaved head. And yes, she can make even a Mary Sue seem likable. Brian Yap and Tony Savarimuthu are new to acting, and their inexperience shows. But even a veteran of Singaporean film, TV and stage like Yeo Yann Yann has trouble with Yasmin's script; I don't know why Cindy speaks in heavily-Chinese-accented English to her boss while he replies to her in Cantonese. In fact, whenever anyone speaks in Malay or Cantonese, they sound so much more comfortable.

Well, that's as non-snarky as I can make it. How'd I do? This film is Yasmin's most overtly controversial; it was banned in Malaysia, first screened in Singapore, and only now allowed to be screened here with two lines of dialogue muted. (And of course, they're utterly harmless, and you can find out what they are here.) It certainly deserves to be seen by Malaysians; I just wish it was actually good. My sincerest apologies to her fans, friends and family, but I just didn't like this film, nor Talentime. Perhaps when I catch her other four films and do that retrospective I promised (I will, I promise), I'll find one I like. Perhaps then, I can speak with a little more authority on the legacy she left behind.

NEXT REVIEW: Paranormal Activity
Expectations: looking (*gulp*) forward to it