Monday, March 29, 2010

New blood in the vampire genre

My rating:

I may have spoken too soon when I mentioned that our venerated Lembaga Penapisan Filem no longer censors foul language. Daybreakers suffered from their usual incompetent job at it, snipping out only the words that come after the offending expletive, and sometimes missing it altogether. Also, from what I read in other reviews, it seems they also censored a few references to pig's blood. Gaaaahh. It's like 1995 all over again, when Babe and Toy Story were almost banned. For these reasons, I can't recommend watching this film in cinemas.

I would have otherwise, because it's pretty good.

It is 2019, ten years after an epidemic turned the entire world into vampires - immortal, endangered by sunlight, and surviving on human blood. The remaining humans are hunted and harvested in the vaults of the Bromley Marks corporation, headed by Charles Bromley (Sam Neill), who monopolizes the blood market. But humans are nearing extinction, which threatens to starve the world - and blood-deprived vampires are mutating into mindless, feral "subsiders" who attack other vampires. Hematologist Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) works to find a synthetic blood substitute; Dalton sympathizes with humans and has a strained relationship with his brother Frankie (Michael Dorman), a soldier who hunts humans. Then Edward is contacted by Audrey (Claudia Karvan) and Elvis (Willem Dafoe), members of the human resistance who find and hide surviving humans. Elvis was once a vampire, but became human again - and they want Edward to help them find a cure.

If you dig vampires but hate the Twilight brand of sparkly emo passive-aggressive pedophiles, then this is the movie for you. It's a bona fide horror movie, with plenty of blood and gore and jump-scares. But it's also a science-fictional exploration of a world in which vampires are the dominant species, and there are plenty of neat little touches to it. Skyscrapers are connected by covered walkways that protect against the sun; everyone drinks coffee with blood instead of cream; cars are modified with daytime driving modes in which windows are blacked out and replaced with exterior video feeds; and when a shadow falls over a bunch of ordinary pedestrians, their vampiric eyes glow malevolently. (Also, everyone smokes - 'cos if you're immortal, hey, why not?) This stuff is cool.

It's a pity then that the plot is kinda generic. As recently as a year ago, we had two entries in the dystopian sci-fi action movie genre, and Daybreakers hews quite closely to the formula - right down to the cannon-fodder resistance movement and the single villain who rules this world. Fortunately it's better than either Gamer or Surrogates. Not only is the world better-realised, it's also better-utilised - there's a chase sequence in which Dalton's blacked-out car is punctured by bullet holes, letting in deadly shafts of sunlight. Writer-directors Peter and Michael Spierig are good at adding clever details like this into their action scenes and making them feel fresh. There's also a subplot regarding Bromley's human daughter Alison (Isabel Lucas), who refuses to become a vampire; this not only explores the world even more, it gives added dimension to the film's nominal moustache-twirling villain.

Still, it's the world-building that this movie does best, and I wish they'd spent more time on that than yet another tear-down-the-dystopia action film plot. In fact, there's a sense that this world could've used a fair bit more fleshing out. If these vampires can only be killed by sunlight, stakes through the heart, and beheading - the traditional three means of killing vampires, all of which are seen here - does that mean they're impervious to normal damage? Does that mean they're tougher, stronger, faster than humans? We don't see that here. The cure for vampirism that Dalton eventually discovers feels too simple, even something of an Ass Pull. And then there's its premise as a metaphor for peak oil, which feels underdeveloped - or maybe I'm just shamefully ignorant of the issue.

That underdeveloped feeling extends to the characters as well. Dalton is just barely an adequate protagonist, and Ethan Hawke plays him competently if unremarkably; but it feels like more could've been made of his relationship with his brother. Frankie himself undergoes his own character arc - perhaps even more of one than Dalton's - but it feels like it's missing a few emotional beats. The aforementioned subplot with Bromley and his daughter is welcome, but it feels like an odd fit with the rest of the plot; even if Sam Neill does an old pro's job at playing both evil corporate tycoon and emotionally torn father, and Isabel Lucas shows far more acting chops than she did in her last movie. Even Elvis, who should've been this movie's Tallahassee, doesn't quite get enough screentime to make full use of Willem Dafoe.

But it's still a smart, imaginative film with a lot of fresh and cool takes on the vampire mythology. And it also doesn't forget how to be a horror movie; there's a nice tone of dread that suffuses the first half at least (the second half gets more action-y), and there's also all that gore that neatly straddles the line between genuinely horrific and cheesily over-the-top. It's probably unfair that I'd prefer it to be something it isn't, but its only real flaw is that it isn't something like Moon - a film that fully explores its premise without needing to throw in action scenes. Still, you can't really blame the Spierigs for wanting their film to be accessible, so by all means go watch it - but not in Malaysian cinemas, sadly.

NEXT REVIEW: How to Train Your Dragon
Expectations: pretty high, from all the glowing reviews

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Murky shades of grey

Green Zone
My rating:

The Bourne trilogy is, for my money, one of the most consistently good film series ever - although the first one tends to get overlooked because it wasn't directed by Paul Greengrass. It was the latter two that cemented his position on the A-list of directors, and the man totally deserves it. What with the amnesiac superspies, government brainwashing programs and over-the-top action scenes, the Bourne movies could've been awfully cheesy - but it was Greengrass' grittily realistic direction that made them the modern-day action classics that they are. It's probably due to such high expectations that Green Zone, his latest film, feels a bit like a letdown.

Don't worry. It's still good. I'm just picky.

Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller (Matt Damon) leads a team assigned to find weapons of mass destruction, or WMDs, in Baghdad after the invasion of Iraq. When one site after another turns up empty, he begins to question the intel he is given - questions that are also asked by CIA chief Martin Brown (Brendan Gleeson) of Clark Poundstone (Greg Kinnear), the Pentagon bureaucrat who hands out the intel. On another fruitless mission, Miller is approached by "Freddy" (Khalid Abdalla), an Iraqi local who gives him information that leads to a major breakthrough in his search - but then he is stymied by a Special Forces team led by the high-handed Major Briggs (Jason Isaacs), who answer only to Poundstone. Aided by Brown and journalist Lawrie Dayne (Amy Ryan), Miller aims to find the truth of the WMDs in Iraq - a truth buried under a great many lies.

I just rewrote that synopsis above so that it reveals a lot less about the plot. If you don't already know the details I left out, I suggest going in to this movie blind. I knew about the storyline and the setup, and the problem with the film is that it takes its time going through it. The plot is almost painstakingly methodical, and it all just feels like a lot of busywork. Now a methodical plot, in which the signposts are clear and every progression makes sense, is far from a bad thing - it wasn't a week ago that I saw a movie that didn't have one. But I couldn't shake the feeling that everything could've just moved faster. Brown tells Miller to speak to a prisoner at an Army prison, but he doesn't really have the clearance, so he tells Miller to ask to see a different prisoner, then bluff the guards into letting him see the man he's really there to see. And for the next 20 minutes, we see Miller do exactly all that. See? Busywork.

I suspect a lot of it has to do (again) with the screenplay - written by Brian Helgeland, who did L.A. Confidential but little else of note. Somehow there's just not much suspense; just a lot of stuff where, as above, what happens is exactly what we know is going to happen. Including the shocking, shocking, revelation that there are no WMDs in Iraq and it was all faked by Bush-administration neocons. I suppose neither Helgeland nor Greengrass can be blamed for this; they made this movie for Americans, most of whom still have trouble dealing with the fact that the entire Gulf War II was a conjob. Us, we're Malaysians. Our news coverage of the war referred to the coalition forces as "tentera penceroboh" - which, for the non-BM-speaking amongst you, translates to "trespassers".

Okay, I'm ragging on it way too much for a movie I gave three-and-a-half stars to, so let me say again that it's good. It's smart, it's gritty, it's engaging, it rewards attentive viewing, and when the fit hits the shan it's thrilling as hell. And to even the score, let me rave about something I really liked. Early on, a less idealistic member of Miller's team says, "We're here to do a job. The reasons don't matter" - and Miller answers, "They matter to me." Later on, when Freddy expresses doubts over their mission, Miller tells him, "I just need you to do your job right now." Ladies and gents, this is what's known as a call back, and it's a pretty damn subtle one. It's a hint that Miller's seemingly righteous crusade for the truth is going to lead him into morally murky territory - and it does.

I totally dig this kind of complex, layered storytelling, and this is Green Zone's greatest success. Poundstone is the clear villain here, and since he's at loggerheads with Brown who is also helping the hero, doesn't that mean we should root for Brown? But Brown's point of contention with Poundstone is that the U.S. provisional government should engage former members of the Iraqi military in rebuilding the country, in particular a certain General Al-Rawi (Yigal Naor) - and Freddy, a citizen of that country, knows that Al-Rawi was a monster who committed crimes against the Iraqi people that no one seems to care about. For all that this is an action movie with a hero we're cheering for, it never forgets that the real world is never as clear-cut.

Greengrass' trademark shaky-cam style gets a lot of flak, but it did exactly what it was supposed to for me. The performances are effective but unshowy, which is all well and good; this is a razor-sharply focused story with no time for backstories or character arcs. But what it does best is turn complex, real-life issues into smart, engaging cinema - even if, y'know, it could've been a little more engaging. Which is why it surprised me to learn that critical reaction to it has been sharply divided, and worse, it was a major box-office bomb. Dumb Yanks. It's good. Just don't expect Bourne in Iraq.

Note: Oh, anna nother thing. This movie has some of the best Malay subtitles I've seen in a long time, and I tellya, for a film with as complex a plot as this, that's saying a lot. Usually the subtitles only stand out when they're bad - in Alice in Wonderland, "curiouser and curiouser" was translated as "orang yang ingin tahu dan orang yang ingin tahu" - but TMBF is your film critic, and it's his job to point out the good stuff you might otherwise overlook. I was impressed enough to (try and) take note of the subtitlers' names, so syabas to Rohayu Abdul Ghafar (or Ghafur) and Mr. Wong. Your work here deserves recognition.

NEXT REVIEW: Daybreakers
Expectations: it's the kinda thing that's right up my alley, so hope it's good

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Rempit Movie: Separuh Jalan

V3: Samseng Jalanan
My rating:

It's not a sequel, to either Remp-It or Remp-It V2. That much is clear from the opening scenes of V3: Samseng Jalanan, in which the main characters are seen at a movie theatre watching Remp-It. So, a "spiritual sequel" then. But why has this never been mentioned? Why has none of the media reports about this film said anything about it? You'd think there'd be people interested to know if this were a proper sequel - say, fans who cared about the characters from the previous installments, who might want to see their stories continued. But that's the problem with the local film industry - sometimes the actual product itself is the last thing on anybody's mind.

Maybe the quality of the actual product - or lack thereof - has something to do with it.

Rudy (Farid Kamil) and Brett (Bront Palarae) flee their hometown of Alor Setar when a road accident claims the lives of two of their friends. Arriving in KL broke and aimless, they befriend Lan Ribut (Radhi OAG), who hooks them up with bikes from Sam Seng (Adam Corrie Lee) and the illegal racing circuit organised by Garing (Aqasha); meanwhile, Rudy meets Lisa (Intan Ladyana) when he accidentally runs into her car door. But Garing races dirty, and soon Rudy and Brett owe him more money than they have. With his vicious henchwoman Kamsah (Lisa Surihani) in tow, Garing aims to collect, one way or the other.

This is not a good movie. It is faaaar from a good movie. But if there's one thing it's got going for it, it's earnestness. I get the impression that most of the principals involved had the intent and the vision to make something good, and were really putting in their best. Which is why I find myself in the curious position of not despising this film as much as I do most Malay movies - despite the shameless overacting, the nonsensical plot, the tacked-on "pengajaran", the "romantic" scene that borders on sexual assault, the presence of Cat Farish, the beyond lame ending, and the occasional out-of-focus shot. Not soft focus - that'd be an intentional directorial choice. Out. Of. Freaking. Focus.

Yes, these guys did their best, but it just ain't good enough. For all their sincerity, they are lacking in some basic filmmaking skills, and nowhere is that more evident than in the storyline. So many things just don't make sense, and really, I'm tired of writing reviews that just list one plot hole after another. Now, given the fact that Rudy and Brett speak in loghat Kedah, and everyone else yells their dialogue at the top of their voices, it could be that I just missed several key plot details. Thing is, this synopsis makes a lot more sense than the movie, so I'm inclined to think that director Farid Kamil and his co-writer Shoffi Jikan simply lack the diligence to fill in the gaps in their narrative and make sure it makes sense. Them and sooooo many others in our local film industry.

About a week after this movie was released, this came out in the news. And while I'm quite pleased that they no longer snip out harsh language from 18-rated films (seriously, they don't anymore, it's great), this goes back to their usual brand of facepalm. Dear Censorship Board, you think a rempit movie in which the rempits get arrested, die, or "bertaubat" at the end is going to discourage rempits from illegal racing? V3: Samseng Jalanan is a film that meets with your rulings - but it also has fast-paced racing scenes, montages of our hero Rudy lovingly building his racing machine, and a villainous racer who is perpetually surrounded by scantily-dressed skanky hos. Of course it glorifies the illegal racing culture!

But I don't think there's anything wrong with that. Hey, I think street racers are a menace on our roads too, but I don't believe that a film should pull double duty as a tool for social edification. Rempits and street racers are a reality in our society, and films should reflect reality - even if they end up exploiting it. (And yes, this is totally an exploitation film.) A story needs to be true to itself, and if it aims to make a hero out of a mat rempit racer, then so be it. What it doesn't need is some tut-tutting old biddy viewing the rough cut and forcing the filmmakers to "selitkan unsur-unsur pengajaran" into it. That was probably why this movie ends right at the big action climax, then some supers tell us that all the bad guys were arrested and all the good guys go on to lead law-abiding lives. Freaking. Supers.

Anyway, you're probably wondering why I'm giving this two stars instead of my customary one-and-a-half for crappy Malay movies. I said that this movie is earnest, and I meant it. The cast give it their all, including Lisa Surihani who scowls quite effectively in her Dark Action Girl role (even though she doesn't actually have any scenes where she kicks ass, so she comes across as a Faux Action Girl). On the other hand, Farid Kamil is kayu macam tiang rumah kampung. I'll give him this much though - his directorial debut is a fair bit better than most local productions, so the evidence suggests that he's a somewhat better director than he is an actor. As long as he keeps the goddamn camera in goddamn focus.

Expectations: highly looking forward to it

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Darkness that conceals nothing

Edge of Darkness
My rating:

Martin Campbell is one of the most reliable action-thriller directors working today. He revitalized the James Bond franchise twice, by making two of the best movies in the series. (Yes, I said GoldenEye is one of the best, and I mean it.) His work on Casino Royale especially was fantastic, delivering both spectacular action scenes and affecting dramatic material with equal finesse. And his latest film stars Mel Gibson returning to the screen, in a revenge-thriller-hero role that he seems perfectly suited for, and is also based on a highly-regarded BBC TV miniseries that Campbell himself directed 25 years ago. All of which should've made this a pretty damn good movie.

I'm not entirely sure what went wrong.

Thomas Craven (Mel Gibson) is a Boston police detective who dotes on his daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic). When she comes home for a visit, she falls violently ill - but before they can get to a doctor, she is murdered by a shotgun-wielding assassin. The police think Craven was the intended target, but the grieving father conducts his own investigation and begins to suspect that her employers - the mysterious Northmoor corporation, headed by Emma's boss Bennett (Danny Huston) - may be involved. As he delves further, he is contacted by the shady operative Jedburgh (Ray Winstone), who confirms his suspicions: wicked things are going on at Northmoor, and powerful people are willing to kill to cover them up.

Having watched and reviewed over a hundred films, I can usually tell in the first half hour whether or not a particular movie's gonna suck. The quality of the acting, writing and directing is in evidence by then, as is the overall tone of the movie. But during Edge of Darkness, it was well about halfway into it before I realized that this film isn't doing what it's supposed to. It's just not coming together as a thriller and an engaging story, despite solid work in the acting, writing and directing departments...

...okay, maybe not the writing. I'm gonna lay the blame on William Monahan's and Andrew Bovell's screenplay. It's never very clear exactly how Craven plans to avenge his daughter; sometimes you think he's gathering evidence and building a case, then another time you hear him grimly say he doesn't intend to make any arrests. One minute he's having a tense-but-polite meeting with Bennett, the next he's flagging down the guy's car and putting a gun to his face, and you just don't know how he got from "this guy knows something he's not telling me" to "this guy murdered my daughter, I'm sure of it." The plot is severely lacking in this kind of connective tissue.

This is a fatal flaw for an action-thriller. There's no narrative momentum, no dramatic tension, no sense that what's happening is the consequence of what happened before. All we get is one setpiece after another, and they're all really just standard-issue thriller elements: Craven meets people who knew his daughter and are now afraid for their lives, Craven is tailed by shadowy types in a black SUV, Craven is fed information by reluctant inside man Jedburgh, Craven kicks ass, etc.

But the saving grace is, they're all very well-done setpieces. And setpieces are what Martin Campbell is good at; it's all very effectively thrilling and suspenseful, which is probably what kept me distracted from the script problems for so long. He even handles the quiet emotional scenes where Craven remembers - and possibly hallucinates - his daughter's presence quite well. Seriously, Campbell is a very good director, but sometimes he can really lose sight of the big picture in favour of each individual scene. I still haven't forgiven him for Vertical Limit, a very well-directed action thriller with an incredibly moronic plot.

Besides the action-thriller bits, it's the acting that also keeps the movie watchable. This may be familiar territory for Mel Gibson, but he dials it down here; this is not the suicidal Martin Riggs of Lethal Weapon nor the vicious badass Porter of Payback. He makes Craven seem like a man not used to kicking ass and taking names, but driven to do so by grief and loss. The other acting standout is Ray Winstone; he gives the sinister "fixer" Jedburgh a humanity that I wished I'd seen more of. Danny Huston has had plenty of experience playing smug, oily villains. Bojana Novakovic is very cute.

It's a curious beast, this movie. On the surface it's a decent thriller; the audience I saw it with was gasping and ooh-ing at all the right moments. But underneath, what makes a story really work simply isn't there. So I'm giving it three stars, which means you'll probably enjoy it if you're not as picky about movies as I am. (Me, it's my job to be picky.) Still, considering its pedigree, Edge of Darkness should've been much, much better than a film in which the whole is considerably less than the sum of its parts.

NEXT REVIEW: V3: Samseng Jalanan
Expectations: snark mode activate!

Friday, March 19, 2010

An action hero in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland
My rating:

TMBF was recently subjected to a conversation between some colleagues about this movie. I say "subjected", because I couldn't participate, because I hadn't watched it yet, and because that bothered me. I'm a movie critic yo, which means I ought to be able to provide my highly-valued opinions on current films at any time. But the 3D version was released a full week before the normal 2D version, and I didn't want to watch it in 3D - I'm just not keen on it, unless it's James Cameron telling me I should be. On top of that, our local cinema release schedule has been hectic since CNY, with so many movies I want to watch that I can barely catch them before they're gone.

So here it is, my belated but eagerly-anticipated-I'm-sure review of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland: It's good.

Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) is about to be married off to some upper-class twit whom she barely knows. Balking at having her life planned out for her, she runs off in pursuit of what looks like a white rabbit in a waistcoat - and ends up falling through a rabbit hole into Underland, a fantastic world filled with bizarre creatures. Amongst them are the rabbit McTwisp (voice of Michael Sheen), the twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Matt Lucas), the blue caterpillar Absolem (voice of Alan Rickman), the grinning, ethereal cat Chessur (voice of Stephen Fry), and the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp). It turns out that they are all rebels against the tyrannical rule of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and her Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover), and that Alice is the prophesied champion of the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) who will wield the Vorpal Sword and slay the Red Queen's monstrous Jabberwocky. But although she believes all this to be a dream at first, she will soon realize that she has been here before...

I wondered at first why none of the reviews I read mentioned that this film is in fact a sequel to Lewis Carroll's original novels. It's there in the synopsis and trailers, isn't it; Alice returns to Wonderland, this time as a 19-year-old, thirteen years after her first visit? Well, that's not exactly true. The film takes the events of the novels (there were two of them, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass) as backstory, but also retells certain key scenes, such as the room with the "Drink Me" potion and "Eat Me" cake and the tea party. And none of the other characters really remember her from before - they're just trying to figure out if she's the Alice, their foretold saviour.

So I guess what we have here is a reimagining. It jettisons Carroll's storyline - or lack thereof, since the books are really just one bizarre child's-dream-logic sequence after another (just read the plot summaries from Wikipedia) - in favour of a fantasy action-adventure plot crafted out of Carroll's characters and concepts. Some may cry "sacrilege!", but not me. I like fantasy action-adventures, and I like a proper story with a goal and a climax and a character arc. There's even a theme of Alice facing up to responsibility both in Underland and in the real world, which you could further project into a message that to fully become an adult, one must confront the artifacts of childhood. That's kinda overthinking the movie, but the fact that it raises such thoughts in the first place is more than you'd expect already.

And it's pretty decent, as fantasy adventures go. Tim Burton would seem like the perfect guy to direct an Alice in Wonderland movie, and indeed it's his interpretations of the wild and weird inhabitants of Underland that make it so much fun. There's a sense during the early proceedings that he's just showing you one bizarre and funny thing after another, keeping you surprised and off-balance; but just when you've gotten the hang of the world you're in, that's when the plot kicks in. Which is absolutely the way a fantasy adventure should be structured and paced. Granted, the film is kinda Burton-lite - there's always been a macabre darkness to his work (albeit more of a childish fascination with it), but it's pretty much absent here. Probably owing to the fact that it's also a Disney production. I bet that, what with the Red Queen's frequent proclamation of "Off with his head!", he'd wanted to show some actual severed heads.

Which brings us to the actors. Helena Bonham Carter is the show-stealer here; she's totally getting typecast as over-the-top psycho villain chicks, and that's because she's so good at it. The supporting cast are so veddy British, which means they are as good as you'd expect. Johnny Depp gets star billing (early teaser posters showed nothing but his made-up mug), but he doesn't really stand out, and that's more to do with how his character is written. The film tries to sell us on a touching friendship between the Hatter and Alice that doesn't quite succeed at tugging the heartstrings, mostly due to the lack of chemistry between the actors. Which brings us to Australian newcomer Mia Wasikowska. Why are so many reviews praising her acting? I thought she was just wooden - this makes it the second movie I've seen in a week with a weak lead performance.

Ultimately it's the bizarrerie of Burton's imagination that makes this more than just a Chronicles of Narnia clone - which is what it turns into by the third act, complete with big battle scene and the Underlandians kicking ass and Alice in a suit of armour wielding a sword fighting a dragon. As I said, I don't mind turning Alice in Wonderland into an action-adventure, but I also admit that the Narnia movies did it better. It's a shame that the movie didn't really settle into its own groove; Crispin Glover could've been creepier, Anne Hathaway could've been kookier, Depp didn't have to get all dramatic, and there could've been more of Carter. (And Wasikowska could've been replaced.) But at least we got a pretty good family-friendly fantasy movie out of it, one that kiddies and grownups alike can enjoy.

NEXT REVIEW: Edge of Darkness
Expectations: Martin Campbell FT(hopefully)W

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Rugby: The Nelson Mandela Story. (Or the other way round.)

My rating:

Curiously, Invictus is the only movie I've watched in Malaysia that had no BM subtitles. I thought this was an unfortunate omission. TMBF is a socially- and politically-aware Malaysian, although I try to keep my views on such matters out of this blog. (Sometimes I have to try hard.) But it did occur to me that a film about Nelson Mandela and his struggle to unite racially combustible South Africa just might be something that Malaysians would do well to watch.

Well, it is. But only because it's a good film.

Having just been elected President of South Africa, Nelson Mandela (Morgan Freeman) turns his attention to the weighty task of nation-building in the wake of the fall of apartheid. Among the many changes that members of his new government want to implement is to strike the team, name and colours of the Springboks - the national rugby team. But where most black South Africans want to get rid of a hated symbol of apartheid, Mandela senses an opportunity, especially in regards to the Rugby World Cup final that his country will host in a year's time. And after a meeting with Mandela, Springboks captain Francois Pienaar (Matt Damon) is himself inspired to play for a prize greater than any trophy - uniting blacks and whites in support of the team.

A lot of reviews for this film have been of the opinion that it's generally good, but somewhat heavy-handed. I agree only up to the "generally good, but" part - I think it's not heavy-handed enough. Sure, there are parts that seem to belabour its point on racial unity, such as an early scene in which Mandela's chief of security (played by Tony Kgoroge) protests the addition of white police officers to his team. But what I felt was lacking wasn't more of this subplot, but more subplots like this. During the climactic rugby match, we see scenes of blacks and whites anxiously watching and cheering together, and I'm thinking: wait, how did we get here, when the story started with blacks hating rugby and whites fearful of blacks? This should be a film about how sports unites a deeply divided nation, but we don't really see enough of this nation and how its divisions come together. The canvas is really kinda narrow.

I said should be a film about how sports unites a nation, because I suspect the problem with it is that it's a little confused on the matter. Morgan Freeman, a personal friend of Mandela, has been trying to get Mandela's life story made into a film for years, and in many ways this is an uneasy compromise between biopic and sports movie. There are a number of scenes that seem to belong in the former, such as when Pienaar visits the prison and cellroom where Mandela was incarcerated - but they're an odd fit in a movie about a historical rugby match. And we also see Mandela's estranged relationship with his family, which I thought was a nice way to humanize such a revered figure; but then there's also a weird scene in which he flirts with some floozy at a political shindig, and it just doesn't go anywhere. Pienaar himself doesn't have much characterization other than that he comes to really, really admire Mandela.

But as I said, it's a good film. Whatever the flaws of Anthony Peckham's screenplay (based on the book Playing the Enemy - Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation by John Carlin), director Clint Eastwood and his cast do a terrific job of compensating for them. I can respect Eastwood's decision to underplay the racial themes, really; his direction gives the film a stately grace, but he knows when to turn on the emotional manipulation when it's necessary, such as during the rugby scenes. No, you don't need to know anything about the sport; its bone-crunching brutality makes it as inherently cinematic a game as American football, and if you can enjoy a movie about that then you can enjoy Invictus. What the film does right is playing up the drama of the Springboks' final match against the New Zealand All Blacks, who are portrayed as near unstoppable. The climactic game is as thrilling as any sports movie.

And what else the film does right is casting Freeman as Nelson Mandela. There probably isn't another living actor who could truly play the man, and the surprising thing is that Freeman doesn't just portray his gravitas, but so many other aspects of his personality - his charm, his warmth, his stubbornness, his mischievousness, even his regret at having neglected his family. A film about Nelson Mandela in which Morgan Freeman plays Nelson Mandela may be reason enough to watch it. Matt Damon may be saddled with an underdeveloped character, but he's effective at getting us to root for Pienaar on a personal level. We want him to win the World Cup as much as we want Mandela's dream of unity through rugby to come true. Solid support also comes from a host of African actors, such as Kgoroge and Adjoa Andoh as Mandela's chief of staff.

It occurs to me that, having watched a number of Asian and Hong Kong movies in the past year, I may be developing a preference for their typically broad style of filmmaking. I admit to wishing it had been more forceful, more emotional, more rousing; then perhaps it could've served as the object lesson in racial harmony that I could hope Malaysians would learn from. (Why yes, my political inclinations do lean toward "optimist".) But that's an unfair expectation of Eastwood's and Freeman's film. They took an incredible story and put it to film, and on the whole they did it justice; and even if the film could've been better, the power of the story shines through. And it's all the more compelling because it's true.

NEXT REVIEW: Alice in Wonderland
Expectations: just wanna know what all the fuss is

Monday, March 15, 2010

No, there's nothing Bondian about it

From Paris with Love
My rating:

Wow, they don't make movies like this anymore, do they? I'm talking about straightforward action movies, with no sci-fi or fantasy elements or pretensions to anything more serious than bullets and explosions and car chases. It seems like only Luc Besson is still making them; either directing or producing Hollywood-style action movies with Hollywood actors, but filmed and set in his native France and with a French flavour. The Transporter series and 2008's Taken were all his, and it looks like he'll keep on making them for a while to come.

This one won't go down as one of his best. But it's alright for what it is.

James Reese (Jonathan Rhys Meyers) lives in Paris with his beautiful girlfriend Caroline (Kasia Smutniak) and a job as the personal aide to the U.S. Ambassador, but runs minor errands for the CIA and yearns to become a field agent. He gets more than he bargained for when he is assigned to partner Charlie Wax (John Travolta), a wise-cracking, trigger-happy operative who leads him on a shooting spree throughout the Parisian underworld. At first he believes that he's helping Wax take down an international drug ring - but Reese will soon learn that their true mission hits much closer to home.

The title of this movie is seriously annoying me, because every time I even think it, Matt Munro starts crooning "From Russia with Love" in my head. You'd think that a spy action movie with a title like that would be an homage to the James Bond films, but nope - From Paris with Love is a buddy-action flick, and the only nods it makes are in the direction of John Travolta's 1994 role in Pulp Fiction. Okay, so it's a little confused as to its cinematic pedigree, but on its own it's... pretty much just a middling action movie. It could've been better but for a couple of things holding it back.

Chief amongst them is Jonathan Rhys Meyers' performance. He's dull. He never seems to get a handle on his role, which is as simple as being the straight man to Travolta's loose cannon. All he needs to do is bumble along after his badass partner and freak out once or twice, and if things get into serious OMG-I-just-killed-a-man territory, that's when he can break out his dramatic acting chops. But Rhys Meyers annoyingly underplays everything, even when the third act hands him a juicy emotional scene. Maybe it's the fact that he's a Brit putting on an American accent, which is something I can never get used to whether it's Pierce Brosnan or Brendan Gleason (to name just two actors in two recent releases that I am likely to review soon). This could've been a proper action comedy if he'd gotten into the goofy groove of the film.

Secondly is something I may probably not have noticed were it not for Roger Ebert's review. He's right - the editing of the action scenes isn't just choppy and incoherent, it's done to hide the fact that Travolta isn't really doing them. When he's not being doubled, he's shot from a dozen different cameras in such a way that we see three different shots of him throwing a single punch - which is most likely three different shots of him throwing a very slow punch that's just quickly edited together. And in at least one parkour-inspired chase scene, he looks overweight - in shots in which it's clearly him instead of his stunt double - which earlier scenes concealed by having him wear an overcoat. You'd think an actor playing an action hero would at least make the effort to get in shape a little.

But ironically, Travolta is the most fun thing in this movie. He chews scenery gleefully, and if he doesn't have the moves of a believable badass he at least has the attitude. His new bald-and-bearded look is pretty fearsome (it sure worked for Jeff Bridges in Iron Man), and the early parts where we never know when he's gonna pull out a gun and ballistically ventilate someone are the movie's best, but later on he also manages to develop some warm chemistry with Rhys Meyers. Also, there's a car chase late in the film that's precisely what we want out of a film like this; it's effectively thrilling, partly because it involves Travolta but doesn't actually require him doing anything physical.

Now, I freely admit that I haven't watched many of Luc Besson's Gallic-flavoured action movies, but I always thought they had a bit more edge than Hollywood fare. There's a bit in which Wax persuades Reese to take a snort of cocaine, and it just never really explains why he has to - maybe it's 'cos I'm a Malaysian who grew up believing that dadah is all musuh negara and penghancur bangsa and stuff. But From Paris with Love is otherwise pretty vanilla, and even if Besson is the only one still making stuff like this, they need to have a fresh twist or two to not fade into insignificance a week after their release. I enjoyed it somewhat, but the only reason I'll remember this movie is when I get the dulcet tones of Matt Munro stuck in my head again.

Expectations: meh

Friday, March 12, 2010

Flying high, then coming down to earth

Up in the Air
My rating:

It took almost half a year, but it's finally here. Nominated for six Academy Awards - Best Picture, Director, Actor, Adapted Screenplay, and two for Supporting Actress - Up in the Air is one of the most acclaimed movies of the year, and it's been earning those accolades since even before its Oscar noms. Actually, make that last year. As usual, the smartest and most interesting films tend to pass us by, so I guess we should be grateful to United International Pictures for even bringing it in at all. Sadly, I doubt it'll make much money here in Malaysia, which is why this is one of the few movies I invited a friend to. One of a film critic's duties is to proselytize, and I was almost certain that this would be a worthy film to champion.

Yes. It is.

Ryan Bingham (George Clooney) lives a rootless life, and loves it. He works as a "career transition counselor", which means he fires people on behalf of bosses too cowardly to do it themselves. Business is good, and he spends almost his entire time traveling around the country, living in airports and planes and hotels, and that suits him just fine. But three events will make him re-evaluate his life: the first is his meeting with Alex (Vera Farmiga), a fellow frequent traveler with whom he has a casual affair that might turn into something more. The second is Natalie (Anna Kendrick), a bright young hire at his company whose idea of layoffs-via-teleconferencing threatens to ground him, and who ends up following him on his trips to learn the ropes. The third is his sister's upcoming wedding, which will force him to reconnect with both his estranged sisters Kara (Amy Morton) and Julie (Melanie Lynskey).

The first thing that surprised me about this film is how funny it is. Its premise doesn't seem to lend itself to comedy, and its trailers didn't exactly bespeak a laugh-a-minute experience either. So kudos to the studio's marketing team for cutting trailers that, for once, didn't give the whole movie away; in fact, what seemed like a poignant scene in one trailer is in fact a pretty funny one in the film. (No, this isn't false advertising either, since there's plenty of emotional moments in it as well.) The humour is entirely natural, and is a textbook example of how comedy that comes from characters - people with different personalities trying to adjust to each other - is so much more rewarding than contrived wacky hijinks. That stuff is fake; this is real. When Natalie tells Alex that "you're exactly how I want to look 15 years from now", that's just the kind of innocently thoughtless remark a naive-but-nice girl like Natalie would make.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. There's a lot going on in this film, and its humour is just one of them. There's the satire of American corporate culture, and how cutthroat and dehumanizing it is; writer-director Jason Reitman cast ordinary people who'd been fired as extras, and their unscripted remarks ought to strike plenty of chords in these economically uncertain times. Yet as morally reprehensible as his job is, Ryan is no monster. He believes in his job, believes that it is necessary, that what he does is an act of kindness to people who are hurt and vulnerable. And that again makes him a sympathetic, real person - a professional, who does his job and takes pride in it and doesn't make a big drama about quitting because he has a character arc to act out. It's telling that, as he grows more and more disillusioned by his life on the road and alone, he never really feels that way about his job.

But I'm getting ahead of myself again. Ryan does have a character arc, and it's handled very delicately. How does a man as self-assured as Ryan, who is so satisfied by the lifestyle of his choosing, come to be disillusioned by it? By the confluence of those three events that form the story, any one or even two of which would probably not have done the trick. He falls for Alex, obviously, and when he invites her to his sister's wedding, it turns from a grudging family obligation into a warm homecoming. It's a little contrived that Ryan finds himself advising the groom (played by Danny McBride) when he gets cold feet, but forgivable. And in Natalie, he sees his younger (and probably much less cynical) self, how much potential she has, and how much he has squandered his own. Going back to that scene with Natalie's comment on Alex's age; Alex isn't fazed by it in the least, because she is entirely comfortable with who she is. It is Ryan who looks bemused and even embarrassed; it is he who feels his age, and feels that he's accomplished nothing of real value with it.

All three of the principal actors received Oscar nods, and while I have no opinion whatsoever on whether they deserved it, they definitely deliver fine performances here. There's not a hint of the smooth ladykiller he's known for in George Clooney's performance; even his first meeting with Alex is more due to common interests than a deliberate pickup of a gorgeous lady at a bar. And despite his movie-star good looks, Clooney proves to be a solid enough actor to transcend them. He shares some killer chemistry with Vera Farmiga, and it almost makes me want to put the "Romance" label on this post. Farmiga herself is incredibly sexy here, and it's almost entirely due to her elegance and confidence rather than her looks. And wow, isn't Anna Kendrick cute? But she's terrific too, holding her own against Clooney and making the wide-eyed Natalie into a formidable match for the worldly Ryan. She and Clooney have that rare cinematic opposite-sex relationship that doesn't turn romantic or sexual.

I sometimes wonder if my reviews don't often end up as just me talking about the movie, about individual scenes or characters or themes that I liked, rather than properly reviewing it as a whole. If I'm doing that here, it's only because there's so much that I liked. It drags a little midway through, which may be because I've watched so many movies that 90 minutes is feeling more and more like the right length of a movie to me. And the subplot of Ryan having a side career as a motivational speaker seems like dead weight, but that could just be because the friend I watched this with also accompanied me to Love Happens. But as I exhorted in my last review, do try to catch this or something like it - smart, honest, true-to-life films - instead of the next big, loud and dumb blockbuster-wannabe. Films like these will make you a better person.

NEXT REVIEW: From Paris with Love
Expectations: still looks like fun

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Two brothers, a wife, and a family in peril

My rating:

Change of plans, guys - From Paris with Love will have to wait. I've been wanting to catch this since I read James Berardinelli's glowing review, and I never expected our local cinema distributors to bring it to our shores. But they did, on the same week as Up in the Air and Invictus, so clearly it's riding the wave of interest in the awards season (although Brothers only got Golden Globe nods for Best Actor and Best Song). And by the time you read this, its run in Klang Valley cinemas will be over, so yeah, I caught it just in time.

It's definitely good, but I was kinda expecting better.

Sam (Tobey Maguire) and Tommy Cahill (Jake Gyllenhaal) are brothers; Sam is the respectable one, husband to Grace (Natalie Portman) and father to daughters Isabelle (Bailee Madison) and Maggie (Taylor Geare), and a U.S. Marines Captain. Tommy, on the other hand, has just been released from prison; he is the black sheep of the family and has lived with his father Hank's (Sam Shepard) thinly-veiled contempt all his life. When Sam is reported killed in action in Afghanistan, Tommy gets his act together and provides comfort and support for a grieving Grace and her daughters. But Sam is not dead - he returns home, but as a shell of his former self, emotionally scarred by his experiences as a prisoner of war. A stranger to his family, suspicious of Grace and Tommy's closeness, and consumed with guilt, Sam's return threatens to tear the fragile Cahill's family bonds apart.

I like genre movies; given a choice, I'll always prefer an action movie or a thriller, or better yet something with a sci-fi or fantasy element. But the best genre movies are those in which the drama is as effective as the thrills, so I still look out for those films that don't need explosions or CGI effects to tell a good story. Even though it's not as good as I expected, Brothers is still one of them. The subject matter may sound boring; the plot may be oh so very Drama Minggu Ini. But Roger Ebert said "a film is not what it's about, but how it's about." And this film takes a very soap opera-ish premise and makes it compelling viewing.

The first thing it does is make all the characters smart, mature and likable. Tommy may have been a good-for-nothing all his life, but he steps in to fill his brother's shoes out of as much innate warmth and kindness as a desire to redeem himself. Grace's grief is so painful, and the burden of carrying on for her daughters' sake so great, that her turning to Tommy for comfort is entirely understandable. And Sam's ordeal was so traumatic, and his guilt so great, that his lashing out at his family is an act of self-destruction. At one point, he says to his brother, "you two look like a couple of teenagers in love." Do they? No, not really; we saw Tommy and Grace share a kiss during a moment of weakness, but they've been perfectly conscientious since Sam's return. But Sam is seeing what he wants to see.

That scene, where Sam asks Tommy if he and Grace had ever slept together, is a great one - as is a later one during a family gathering in which the tensions between brother and brother, husband and wife, and father and children finally boil over. Scenes like these prove that a good drama can be as tense and gripping as any thriller; when people we've come to know and like are put in danger, even if the danger is to their happiness. And aside from crafting sympathetic and understandable characters, what makes it work is that magic combination of writing, acting and directing that makes the drama real. There isn't a hint of artifice or contrivance throughout the movie. Every emotion it wrings out of you rings true.

Now here's where I explain why I expected better. Brothers is a remake of the 2004 Danish film Brødre, and I had read a review of that film that revealed what happened to Sam's counterpart character when he was a prisoner of war in Afghanistan. I consider this a spoiler. I think this movie would've been much more effective if I hadn't known beforehand what Sam would be put through, even if I already knew he'd survive to return to the States. As it is, Sam's ordeal seemed pretty routine to me, reminiscent of similar scenes in The Deer Hunter and other "war is hell" movies. (I recommend not clicking on that link till after you've watched the movie.) Also, the resolution of its dramatic conflicts seemed a little too easy, or even unresolved altogether. I understand that what the story was trying to say is that wounds like these never really heal - they can only be lived with. Still, I would've liked more closure.

Maybe it's the acting. The performances are effective but not spectacular. I'm inclined to think Gyllenhaal underplays Tommy a little too much; I never really got a sense of the shiftless ne'er-do-well he was in the beginning, but he's believable as a warm and caring uncle and brother-in-law. Natalie Portman has the most difficult role amongst the three principals; her character is the most consistent and unshowy, and she's mostly just reacting to the two brothers, but Portman never misses a beat. Tobey Maguire still reminded me of Peter Parker, but during the later half of the film his wild-eyed insanity is definitely something you've never seen in him before. (Oh, and if Portman and Maguire seem too young for these roles, it's because Sam and Grace are exactly the kind of all-American young couple who got married and had kids right out of high school.) Watch out also for a pair of terrific performances from child actors Bailee Madison and Taylor Geare; Madison especially is amazingly and heartbreakingly natural.

Y'know what else it might've been? Our good ol' Lembaga Penapisan Filem. They've been pretty good at leaving the vulgar language intact in recent movies, but Brothers must've been from before they got the message; it's chopped up pretty bad, especially in the big dramatic scenes where the F-word starts flying. So don't feel bad about missing this in the cinemas, but instead pick it up on DVD. I realise now that I've been writing this review as if I'm speaking to someone who only watches blockbuster movies - who wouldn't bother with something like this because there aren't any giant robots or CGI monsters or kungfu fighting. But seriously guys, you should. This is what real drama, real characters, real storytelling is about. You're missing out big time if you can't appreciate a film like this.

Note: I watched this at Big Cinemas, Brem Mall Kepong. I'm afraid I'll have to disrecommend it. There's a nightclub on the floor below, and I could hear the techno bass in the goddamn cinema hall. Also, their halls don't have stadium seating. The only thing it's got going for it is that few people go there, so you'll probably get tickets to a movie that's sold out everywhere else. But don't go at night.

NEXT REVIEW: Up in the Air
Expectations: very much looking forward to it