Friday, April 30, 2010

More iron, but not as shiny

Iron Man 2
My rating:

The first Iron Man movie in 2008 made me realize something about comicbook superhero movies: the script isn't the most important thing about them. And yes, as a former aspiring screenwriter, this was quite a revelation to me. Iron Man's script was a pretty standard-order origin story - serviceable but not outstanding, and it had its share of plot holes and bits of lazy writing. No, when it comes to superhero movies, the most important thing to get right is the tone - and that's what director Jon Favreau did, aided by a pitch-perfect performance by Robert Downey Jr.

But now its sequel proves that you really can't neglect the script too much.

Having outed himself as Iron Man, Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) is now an international celebrity as well as a weapon of global military deterrence. He is constantly fighting efforts by the U.S. government to confiscate the Iron Man suit, aided by his loyal assistant Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow), his best friend and military liaison Colonel James Rhodes (Don Cheadle), and the mysterious new Natalie Rushman (Scarlett Johansson), who is more than she seems. At the same time, the villain Whiplash, alias Ivan Vanko (Mickey Rourke), emerges with a grudge against the Stark legacy, and he soon joins forces with unscrupulous arms dealer Justin Hammer (Sam Rockwell) to destroy Stark. But Tony is also hiding a secret from everyone: he is dying. The arc reactor that's keeping him alive is also slowly poisoning him, and this leads him to reckless behaviour that may leave him with no allies when Whiplash strikes.

Okay, let me elaborate a bit more about this "tone" thing. (This might as well also serve as a Retro Review of Iron Man, which I really did want to do but for my packed reviewing schedule.) Y'see, superheroes are inherently goofy. The costumes, the superpowers, the monikers; it's all very hard to take seriously. What a superhero movie needs to do is create a world in which all of the above fits right in, and that's what Iron Man accomplished. There's just enough verisimilitude in the arms trade milieu to make it believable, for one thing. For another, the origin story is handled with the appropriate seriousness, making Tony Stark a sympathetic and believable protagonist; which in turn makes the goofy superheroics believable. Even the gaudy colours of the Iron Man suit are believable, because it made perfect sense for Tony to casually say "Throw a little hot rod red in there."

But while believability is crucial in a superhero origin story, its sequel requires a bit more than that, and this is why Iron Man 2 isn't as good as its predecessor. The storyline is, frankly, a total mess. Look at that synopsis above - Tony Stark has three things to contend with: the government, his mortality, and Whiplash/Hammer. The plot switches willy-nilly back and forth between all three, and without a clear focus, the film often feels draggy. And then halfway through, another subplot shows up, this one about how Tony never felt like his daddy loved him. Yes, it's yet another movie about daddy issues. This is a movie in desperate need of a theme; it has about three or four to choose from, but it never makes up its mind. (The one I found most interesting was the government one. What if, say, Bill Gates possessed the world's most powerful nuclear bomb, and says only he knows best what to do with it?)

Throughout the film, I got the distinct impression that Favreau and co. are just pouring on the fanservice. Tony delivers stinging quips. Tony is surrounded by hot babes. Tony is Tony, the smug rich douchebag we can't help but admire because we want to be him. Tony bickers with Pepper. Tony bickers with Rhodey. Nick Fury (Samuel Jackson) shows up and drops hints about the Avengers. And then Natalie Rushman turns into Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow, and that's when the fanservice goes through the roof. Hey, I like looking at Ms. Johansson too, but I'd like there to be a better reason to have her around besides that she's nice to look at. Part of the reason why it feels draggy is that all these bits feel like they're just there because they're the stuff everyone liked from the first movie.

Well, actually, they are. And that's what makes Iron Man 2 enjoyable despite it all; it is fun to watch Tony be Tony. Also, the gratuitous fanservice also includes more and bigger action scenes than its predecessor, which to me is a clear improvement. I risk hurting my film critic cred by saying this, but you can never have too many superpowered action scenes in a superhero movie - they are essentially what we go to see them for, as I believe I have mentioned before. Iron Man had a somewhat short and disappointing climactic fight scene, and the sequel makes up for it with more Iron Man vs. War Machine vs. Hammeroid vs. Whiplash action. There is no lack of metal-on-metal pounding and 'sploding here, and it's aaaall goooood.

The chemistry between Downey Jr. and Gwyneth Paltrow is as charming as ever, and the director gets more in-front-of-camera time as Happy Hogan, Tony's chauffeur. Don Cheadle doesn't really make an impression, but then again neither did Terrence Howard, and Rhodey is still playing second fiddle to Tony. Johansson is appropriately badass, but the movie really could've done without her. The villains are really kinda disappointing - for some reason Vanko has very little dialogue, so Mickey Rourke doesn't really have much to do except look mean. (Not that he can do much with the dialogue he does have either - his "Yu comb from a fyemily ov tiffs en bootchess" speech is cheesy as hell.) Sam Rockwell provided a few laughs, but after The Losers, my tolerance for cartoonishly smarmy villains is kinda low at the moment.

So yes, it's still good, but it's definitely a step down from the first. A pretty worrying step down, actually; the more I think about it, the more I wonder if Favreau and his team really know what they're doing. A superhero movie sequel is supposed to expand the world, deepen the characters, further explore the themes and concepts and introduce new ones. Iron Man 2 feels like it's spinning its wheels and treading on the goodwill of the first film. With Downey Jr. and the rest of the cast, there's plenty of it left, but it's not an infinite supply. We all still remember what happened with Spider-Man 3.

(Oh, and yes, this one also has a post-credits scene. And yes, it'll raise Marvel fanboys' expectations sky-high. No pressure, Kenneth Branagh.)

Expectations: Juliana Evans *drool*

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Losers FTW!

The Losers
My rating:

By what looks like sheer coincidence, 2010 is the year of no less than three movies that are unpretentious, deliberate throwbacks to cheesy action films (and one cheesy TV series) of the '80s and early '90s. It gets even more coincidental when you consider that they all have similar two-word definitive-article titles: The Expendables, The A-Team, and The Losers. That last one, an adaptation of the Vertigo comicbook series by Andy Diggle and Jock, has the good luck to be the first out of the gate - which means it gets to set the standard by which the other two have to meet.

And it's a pretty damn high standard.

The Losers are a special-ops team comprising Roque (Idris Elba), Jensen (Chris Evans), Pooch (Columbus Short), Cougar (Oscar Jaenada), and team leader Clay (Jeffrey Dean Morgan). On a not-so-routine mission in Bolivia, they are betrayed, framed and left for dead - and then they are approached by the mysterious Aisha (Zoe Saldana), who offers them a deal. She will provide passage back to the U.S. and finance their mission to kill Max (Jason Patric), the shady CIA super-agent who sold them out - if she can be trusted. And Max and his henchman Wade (Holt McCallany) have evil plans of their own; they intend to purchase and sell - and perhaps use - an "environmentally-friendly" superweapon to start a world war for Max's own purposes.

Roger Ebert, in his review of Date Night, mentions one of the cardinal rules of comedy: a good comic actor never deliberately tries to act funny. I'm thinking now that a similar rule applies to action heroes in action movies - never deliberately try to be badass. Just be believable men (and women) of action, people for whom badassery is simply a job, a profession, something they do. Perform your action scenes as if you've been so well-trained in combat that life-and-death situations are practically routine to you. Deliver your tough-guy dialogue in perfectly calm and confident - but never cocky - tones, knowing full well that you have both the means and the predisposition to back up your threats.

The fact that The Losers adheres to this rule is what makes it such a pleasure. Our titular team of tough guys - and one tough girl - are played by a terrific cast who all manage to capture just the right tonality for their characters and the film as a whole. Jeffrey Dean Morgan proved his action hero chops in Watchmen, but Clay is a very different character from the Comedian; shallower perhaps, but a lot more likable and easier to root for. Idris Elba, best known for his role on the TV series The Wire, also gets just the right tonality in his performance for a movie like this. And it helps a lot that they're both older actors who look like they've had long and storied careers in badassery. They're unfailingly badass without ever trying too hard to be badass.

The rest of the team are younger, but that doesn't hurt their performances either. Columbus Short's and Chris Evans' roles are mostly comic relief, and they pull it off just as well; Evans especially is a hoot, and he gets the most hilariously awesome scene in the movie that also features the best use of Journey's "Don't Stop Believing" since the first episode of Glee. Zoe Saldana may have the toughest job of them all because she has neither the benefit of age nor a bunch of one-liners to deliver - but she compensates with, first, the kind of utter confidence in her own badassery that I mentioned, and second, a smokin'-hot sexiness that she's perfectly willing to allow the camera to exploit.

And director Sylvain White is perfectly capable of capturing both that sexiness and everyone's badassness. His only other film of note was urban dance flick Stomp the Yard, but he proves himself a sure hand at action here, employing all the usual tricks - slo-mo, jump cuts, and an eye for shots that are just plain awesome, especially the one where Aisha fires that rocket launcher. He also knows when to plant the film's tongue in its cheek and when to play it seriously, which is a delicate balancing act that many other films that aim for deliberate cheese don't manage to pull off. If there's one element to The Losers that upsets it, it's Jason Patric's cartoonishly evil villain. He's clearly meant to be played for laughs, but definitely pushes the film a little too far into self-parody territory.

Seriously, this movie is all about cool. Remember Ocean's 11? I was reminded very much of that George Clooney-Brad Pitt-Steven Soderbergh heist flick while watching this, because it similarly trades on the sheer - and shared - coolness of its actors. There are even (arguably unnecessary) scenes in which the characters do nothing but banter and/or bicker, because their chemistry is just that much fun to watch. Truth be told, its coolness is evident in the trailer already, so if that doesn't look like a freightload of fun to you, then you'd probably do well to skip it. Me, I totally dug it, I enjoyed it better than Kick-Ass, and yes, I know that statement's likely to engender some "WTF!?" reactions from you guys. But TMBF sez it like TMBF sees it. This is the real kick-ass action movie to kick off the summer blockbuster season.

Expectations: woohoo!

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Sweet but fleeting

Ice Kacang Puppy Love
My rating:

One of the hazards of being both a film critic and a voracious reader of film reviews is that sometimes you read a review that says everything you wanted to say about a movie. LoveHKFilm's review of Ice Kacang Puppy Love is one of them; I'm hard-pressed now to think of things to say about it that their reviewer Kozo didn't already mention. So here's my attempt at a review that's a little more than just "I agree with Kozo completely."

But seriously, he's right. This is a charming and highly likable film, and a terrific debut for its writer-director.

Botak (Aniu), the son of a small-town coffeeshop owner, narrates the lives, loves and longings of his group of childhood friends. Malinfan (Gary Chaw) is the local bully, and Barley Peng (Fish Leong) is his silent sister who has a crush on Botak. Prince Charming (Victor Wong) keeps himself looking good and pines after Barley Peng, but is oblivious to Botak's chubby sister's (Lim Ching Miau) secret affections. Botak's older brother (Yi Jet Qi) thinks he can run a better coffeeshop than their father, with whom he is constantly at odds. But foremost in Botak's heart is his cousin Fighting Fish (Angelica Lee), who came to live with them when her mother (Angela Chan) fled her abusive husband (Eric Moo). As befits her nickname, Fighting Fish is tough and pugnacious, but she also hides a secret longing to see her father again. And while Botak struggles to reveal his feelings to her, their lives - youngsters and adults alike - are changing all around them.

It may be a little racist to say this, but this film, plus Woohoo! from earlier this year, is a clear sign that the local Chinese filmmaking scene is miles ahead of their Malay counterparts. (Especially after the last Malay movie I watched.) Similar to the Astro-produced CNY movie, Ice Kacang Puppy Love boasts a star-studded cast of popular Malaysian stars, most of whom are Taiwan-based music artistes making their acting debuts. As is popstar-turned-first-time-film-director Aniu; and if, as you've said in interviews, your music career was a sidetrack to your first ambition of making movies, then welcome home, buddy. Your filmmaking career is off to a stellar start.

Which is not to say that it's a perfect film, though. It's a coming-of-age comedy-drama, and it's an often uneasy mix of the two genres and tones. The convoluted love polygon between the neighbourhood kids works well when it's played for laughs, but not when it attempts to turn serious; the audience at my viewing tittered during scenes that were meant to be affecting. The central relationship between Botak and Fighting Fish is also lacking in chemistry, and Botak himself is an often annoyingly passive main character. Granted that this movie is in that rare category of movies in which the POV character and the protagonist are not the same - the latter would be Fighting Fish, really - but I did wish the fella would do something to affect the story.

And the story could've used some tightening up too. If there is a theme to it, it is that life must move forward - even in this sleepy town, where childhood nicknames can last a lifetime. Several characters have dreams and ambitions that they can only fulfill by looking to the future instead of the past; but these folks are so mired in their childish squabbles - youngsters and adults alike - that it'll take some hard-learned lessons before they realize it. Yes, this is weighty stuff, and Aniu really deserves kudos for tackling such ambitious subject matter, but he also could've handled it better. Subplots about Prince Charming's musical leanings, Botak's artistic talent, and Botak's brother's aspirations (is he supposed to be handicapped? It's very unclear) are sadly underdeveloped.

Yes, it could've been better, but it's still pretty good as it is. And it owes most of its success to its cast, who are terrifically fun and charming. Aniu makes the most of their limited thespian skills, and wisely gives Angelica Lee - the most accomplished actor among them - the bulk of the dramatic heavy lifting. Even though they are all too old to play teenagers, their sheer likability helps them pull off their performances; this band of internationally-famous Malaysians are close friends in real life, and their camaraderie shows onscreen. Angela Chan also holds her own in her scenes with Lee, and it's a pleasure to see this former '90s HVD TV serial star work again. And special mention goes to Lim Ching Miau, who is unjustly unfeatured in the film's poster; she actually gets the film's funniest line of dialogue, and it isn't even in Mandarin.

I haven't even mentioned the nostalgia value of its small-town setting. No, I didn't play guli, or fighting fish, or that ridiculous lottery in which dreams dictated the numbers you bought; but I still remember such things from my childhood. And if I can, I believe they can still strike a chord in today's internet/Astro/PS3 age. Its current massive box-office haul is proof of that, though it's a shame that cinemas are only screening it in their smallest halls. (And reserving their biggest halls for shitty Malay movies, baaarsket.) Congrats to Aniu on this deserved success, and let's see more movies from you! Maybe even ones in which the super-cute Fish Leong actually gets to speak.

Expectations: that is a fine-looking trailer

Friday, April 23, 2010

Sememangnya sebuah kisah anti-cinta

Semerah Cinta Stilleto
My rating:

(Warning: rebiu berikut banyak mengandungi bahasa yang kasar dan kesat. Sebab filem ini memang tidak layak direbiu dengan sopan. Sekian terima kasih.)

I may have been a little too hard on Syurga Cinta, the first film I gave a one-star rating to. It's still a very bad movie of course, but it wasn't as aggressively awful as I have since come to learn most Malay movies can be. I don't know if I'm getting acclimated to them or what; I used to give out one-and-a-half-star ratings all the time, but I've been giving more and more two-star ratings of late. I've admitted before to grading on a curve, but I honestly try not to - it really isn't fair of me. Yang elok patut dipuji, yang buruk patut dicaci.

Then along comes this little fuckup of a movie that absolutely deserves my second ever one-star rating.

Leto (Farid Kamil) is this loser who lives with his parents (Dato' Jamali Shadat and Maimon Mutalib) and can't even hold a job selling fish at a wholesale market. Stila (Lisa Surihani) is this sheltered rich princess with an absent dad (Shaharuddin Thamby) and a slut mom (Nanu Baharudin). Leto's moronic friend Yani (Cat Farish) sexually harasses her, which makes her so mad she jams her stiletto heel into Leto's asshole. Then Leto and Yani steal her shoes and Yani sells them to an Indian couple (Rama and Kenchana Devi) who are a domestic violence case waiting to happen. Then Leto and Stila start hanging out together, during which he keeps walking terkangkang like he, well, got buttfucked by a stiletto heel. But because her parents are stuck-up rich assholes, Leto decides she's better off if he slips a roofie in her drink while her mom takes her away to her "new life". Some time later Stila shows up again, 'cos she's totally okay about the roofie thing, and they bercinta semula. The End.

I swear to Allah, that's a 100% accurate synopsis of the movie. Spoilerrific too, but I couldn't give a fuck; korang should be thanking me for saving you the trouble torture of watching it. What the fuck is it with Ahmad Idham? He made a shitty horror movie and one surprisingly decent comedy that actually fooled me into thinking he's good at comedy. Ah, but here's the thing - he wrote Syurga Cinta, Niyang Rapik and Semerah Cinta Stilleto, but not Adnan Semp-It. No wan de laaaah. The screenwriter for that movie would be, according to Wikipedia Bahasa Melayu, one Aranina Zulfra. Cik Aranina, I owe you an apology for not crediting you in my earlier review. Your writing was awesome.

And Encik Ahmad Idham, you're a fucking incompetent hack. That synopsis doesn't convey the most horrific thing about this movie - the annoying-as-fuckall attempts at comedy. First we have Angah Raja Lawak, who plays Leto's fishmonger boss, and not only does he overact like mad, he puts on a ridiculous high-pitched voice. Annoying gila babi sampai nak cucuk chopstick kedalam telinga sampai pekak. Then there's Rama and Kenchana Dewi who are perpetually screaming at each other non-stop in Tamil. And finally there's Cat Farish. Fuck you, Cat Farish. Ko ni macam bisul atas muka industri filem tempatan. You damn near ruin every scene you're in and every movie you're involved in.

None of these people are funny. None of their scenes are funny. That's because Tuan Penulis Lakonlayar Ahmad Fucking Idham didn't bother to write any actual funny scenes. He didn't write funny dialogue. He didn't write funny situations. He didn't write characters in conflict that gives rise to humour. To him, funny is when he can just tell his actors, "okey, korang buatlah lawak sendiri. Suara nyaring lah, muka retarded lah, gua tak kisah, sukati korang." And then he just duduk belakang kamera goyang kaki minum kopi korek hidung. That's how he directed this movie. And he expects you to pay RM10 to watch it.

And he can't even craft a proper story. The movie starts with Stila and her mom super excited about their big day, in which Stila is about to go on her first date. Is she 13? Is she some virginal gadis kampung yang tak pernah bergaul dengan kaum Adam? No, she's a KL girl who's at least old enough to drive. But she gets all skeeved out when her date takes her to that den of sin and iniquity, the karaoke joint. And then there's this nonsense about a pair of red stiletto heels that Stila's mom gave her, that supposedly symbolize Stila and Leto's love. Um, fuck no. If anything, they either symbolize a) Mama Stila's materialism, b) Yani and Leto's criminal proclivities, and/or c) assault and battery.

No, but I'll tell you the biggest fucking fail about this piece of shit. This is supposed to be a kisah cinta, right? So what is the ajaran yang ingin Tuan Pengarah Encik Ahmad Idham sampaikan? It is this: cinta adalah sesuatu yang suci dan agung, tapi kalau parents tak aci, putuskan je. Tak kira kalau parents kau are fucking hypocrites who can't even stay faithful in their own marriage. Kalau kau miskin, jangan harap nak bercinta mahupun berkawan dengan orang kaya. Orang miskin memang layak dipandang rendah oleh orang kaya. Lelaki yang tak berani memperjuangkan cintanya sendiri, yang takde the balls to break off a relationship face to face, yang rela bubuh ubat bius dalam minuman makwe dia, itu panggil hero. This is Ahmad Fucking Idham's idea of a love story.

I tried, I really did, to look for a single redeeming factor in this. Lisa Surihani is kinda okay, I guess - although I doubt even Meryl Fucking Streep could've done fuckall with this script. I was hoping that Dato' Jamali Shadat would do a Dato' Aziz Sattar in Momok The Movie and give a shockingly good veteran performance, but he had nothing to work with. The shots were in focus, so it's got that going for it. Frankly, the only good thing about the experience was the super cute tudung-clad chick behind the counter at GSC Berjaya Times Square who sold me the ticket. Ya cik adik, I memang suka sering tengok filem Melayu, tapi bes jugak kalau ada teman *wink wink*...

Hadooouuuuiii. Almost a full year of reviewing local films, I've come to the conclusion that this is the standard. Nonsensical plotting, stupidity substituting for comedy, an utterly fucked-up sense of morality - these are all the things that Malay movies slowly gravitate to, and anything slightly better is a big fucking deal. Semerah Cinta Stilleto just happens to be a perfect black hole of all the worst aspects of filem tempatan. Wahai orang-orang filem, this movie is a humiliation to you. You all should be ashamed that you belong to the same industry capable of producing this kind of steaming taik kucing.


NEXT REVIEW: Ice Kacang Puppy Love
Expectations: *deeeeeep breath* looking forward to it

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Superhero movie, yes. Superhero satire, no.

My rating:

Finally we're getting some proper comicbook superhero movies again. For whatever reason, there was only one last year, and a pretty disappointing one at that. (Surrogates and Whiteout barely count - I only just remembered to put the "Comicbook adaptation" label on those posts.) But Kick-Ass marks the first real comicbook movie in a year that'll also bring us Iron Man 2, Jonah Hex, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and The Green Hornet. Speaking as a comicbook fan - this, to me, is all good.

And here's a movie that comicbook fans oughta... like.

Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson) is an average high-school teenager - who one day decides to become a superhero. With his homemade costume and weapons and adopting the moniker Kick-Ass, his first act of superheroism ends in an extended stay in the hospital - but his second attempt makes him a nationwide craze. It isn't long, however, before he meets others in the superhero game - a father-and-11-year-old-daughter team who call themselves Big Daddy (Nicolas Cage) and Hit-Girl (Chloe Grace Moretz). Their mission is to destroy drug boss Frank D'Amico's (Mark Strong) operation, and they're very good at it; enough to convince D'Amico that he needs to take down these "superheroes" once and for all. And his secret weapon is another superhero called Red Mist (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who happens to be his own son.

Every positive review of this movie is gonna have a headline along the lines of "Yes, It Really Does!" or "Exactly What Its Title Says!" Which of course means that my headline has to be more original - but then again, Kick-Ass really does kick ass. Its action scenes are exhilaratingly over-the-top, its characters - Big Daddy and Hit-Girl in particular - are appealing, its irreverence and audacity is hilarious, and it ends on a satisfyingly triumphant note for the protagonist. It's a lot of gleefully, unapologetically violent, un-politically correct fun.

The thing is, a fun comicbook action movie is all it is; as a satire or parody of the genre, it doesn't quite cut it. It's not smart enough or audacious enough. It starts out well, up to the point of Dave's first foray as Kick-Ass - which gets him knifed in the gut and run over by a car - but from then on, it turns into your basic teenage geek wish-fulfillment fantasy. He even gets the girl - his high-school crush named Katie (Lyndsy Fonseca) - and his only obstacle is the sitcom-level gag of her mistaking him for being gay. We've seen this before in the Spider-Man films - comicbook movies that didn't pretend to satirise or parody superheroes. You only need to read the original comic by Mark Millar to see how much darker it could've been, and how much the film tones it down.

Which isn't a bad thing, in and of itself. I haven't read the comic, but that Wikipedia summary alone makes it sound pretty damn cynical and nihilistic. I ain't down with nihilism. I like my heroes, super or otherwise, heroic, thanks. I liked that the end of the movie justifies Dave's decision to become Kick-Ass, and I also liked that the ending abandoned any pretense of being "realistic" and embraced its roots as a comicbook movie, in the most fantastical sense of the word. But it didn't have to be a brutal deconstruction of superheroes a la Watchmen; it seemed like it was aiming for the simultaneous-parody-and-homage tone that movies like Galaxy Quest, Hot Fuzz and Zombieland pulled off so well. This one doesn't.

What motivates these people to dress up in goofy costumes and fight crime? Big Daddy and Hit-Girl have your standard comicbook backstories of being wronged by the villain and wanting revenge. Red Mist does it to prove himself to his father. Dave does it out of no real reason - and even if the film admits that upfront, that's lousy characterization. Why does he do it again, after his first outing almost gets him killed? What does he really get out of it, considering his superheroic alter ego remains anonymous and his real-life self gets none of the fame and adoration that he presumably craves? (Again, Spider-Man explored this territory already, completely unironically.) Here's where some real depth could've made this one of the best superhero movies, instead of merely one of the better ones; here's where it could've really kicked ass.

At least it kicks ass on the surface, which is enough to make it enjoyable. The one cool new idea that it offers is, of course, Hit-Girl - brutal, foul-mouthed, supremely badass, and all of 11 years old. It is barrels of fun watching her pwn noobs, and Chloe Grace Moretz handles both the viciousness and the preteen sweetness of the character beautifully. Nicolas Cage, a lifelong comics fan, finally gets a comicbook character role worthy of his talents (no, Ghost Rider wasn't it); I am unfamiliar with the Adam West Batman, but his impersonation of him as Big Daddy was plenty funny to me. And Aaron Johnson, despite the fact that his character is underdeveloped, manages to make Dave a likable and relatable guy, a guy every current and former teenage geek can see himself in.

So it's not a great movie then, but at least it's a pretty good one. And I find all the moral panic about it kinda amusing. Oh you silly Westerners and your sanctimonious reverence of the innocence of children, I totally called you out before. But I certainly won't go to any great lengths to defend it. If my review seems unduly harsh, that's because the hype surrounding it has been enormous, so much so that even a three-and-a-half-star movie is a disappointment. I'm a comicbook fan, and I was totally prepared to love this movie. I ended up merely liking it.

NEXT REVIEW: Semerah Cinta Stiletto
Expectations: so which Ahmad Idham is it gonna be - this one or this one?

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Martin Scorsese (expletive)s with your mind

Shutter Island
My rating:

I often have to restrain my temptation to criticise other film critics, especially local ones. I wouldn't want to be accused of being bitter or jealous of those who, unlike myself, are getting paid to do it. But I really have to say something about Amy de Kanter's review in The Star (dated Saturday 17th April, and sadly available nowhere online). Dear Ms. de Kanter, Shutter Island is most definitely horror - and your snooty disdain for that genre is hardly becoming of a film critic, although it does explain how you failed to recognize its tropes in this film. Yes, it is also a thriller, and no, the two do not have to be mutually exclusive.

But yes, I do agree with you that it is a good movie.

In 1954, U.S. Marshals Teddy Daniels (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Chuck Aule (Mark Ruffalo) have arrived on Shutter Island, home of a mental hospital for the criminally insane, to investigate a missing patient (Emily Mortimer). The director of the hospital, Dr. Cawley (Ben Kingsley) appears to be cooperative - but right from the beginning, Teddy senses that something is wrong. He later reveals to Chuck that his true purpose is to investigate the goings-on at the hospital, suspecting it of being a cover for something far more sinister. However, Teddy is plagued by memories of how, as a WW2 G.I., he liberated the concentration camp at Dachau - and of his wife (Michelle Williams), who was killed in a fire. The longer he stays on the island, unable to leave nor contact the mainland due to a violent hurricane, the more he finds he can no longer trust anything - not even his own sanity.

The trailer for this has been playing on our screens for months, and when I first saw it my reaction was: are you sure this is a Martin Scorsese film? It looks more like something from Dark Castle, purveyor of schlocky horror flicks. Yes, it's a horror movie, but no, Scorsese does not make schlock - he made a disturbing, atmospheric, ominous mindf**k of a film that may be one of the best examples of its kind. That trailer is misleading on one level, accurate on another; it's a Martin Scorsese horror film, but it's also a Martin Scorsese horror film. And it may also be Scorsese's most stylish film to date; it employs visual trickery (even CGI!) both subtle and forceful, but always masterful.

Now here's where I confess that the plot was pretty much spoiled for me. I read a forum comment that compared it to a few other movies - and I've seen those other movies and knew what they had in common, and that alone was a spoiler. And now I'm going to tapdance around that spoiler, because it's the reason why I thought this was a really good film, but I didn't really enjoy it as much as I ought to have. Partly it's because I watched it with an eye towards picking up on all the clues of its twisty little mystery, and feeling quite pleased with myself every time I spotted the very minor ones that Scorsese dropped. Which isn't really being fair to it.

And partly it's because, if you've watched a few mindf**kery movies, you'll either see the ending coming a mile away or be pretty underwhelmed when it comes. The nature of genre films is that freshness counts for as much as execution; Shutter Island is a superbly well-executed example of a been-there-done-that story. If that seems like a harsh criticism, consider that it's the very nature of this kind of movie that its impact is almost entirely dependent on its ending. It owes very much to its director then, that he manages to make the proceedings leading up to it compelling.

It also owes a lot to its cast, who probably wouldn't have participated in this kind of movie without the stature of its director. Yes, that's Max von Sydow, Patricia Clarkson, Elias Koteas, Jackie Earle Haley and Ted Levine in minor roles - exceedingly minor ones, considering their reputations as highly respected character actors - but this film is all about prestigious talent in a decidedly low-prestige project. I wouldn't say it's a project that doesn't deserve them ('cos then I'd sound like Ms. de Kanter), because their presence really does bring an A-game to a genre inundated with B-grade entries. And there's also Leonardo DiCaprio's flawless performance as a haunted man, whose purpose is slowly being compromised by the same demons that drive it. This film would've failed badly without him - the same of which can be said of all the above names as well.

But most of all, it can be said of Martin Scorsese. A director of Scorsese's talent can only fail when his ambition exceeds his grasp, and Shutter Island is by no means an ambitious film - it's a horror-thriller that aims to chill and shock, and it is marvelously chilling and shocking. (I like to imagine Scorsese chuckling with glee as he shot it, like an old man playing with his childhood toys.) It's an example of what happens when a master filmmaker takes on a genre film; he brings to it an unparalleled level of craft. But it's also an example of what happens when a director attempts a genre he is unfamiliar with; he makes something that, to genre fans, is basically nothing new.

Expectations: can't wait!

Friday, April 16, 2010

The wrong reservation, the right couple

Date Night
My rating:

I have not watched either 30 Rock or The Office (the American version). Not that I don't want to, it's just that I have far too much on my plate already (e.g. maintaining this blog) to keep up a regular TV-watching schedule. Any show I want to catch, I have to make a conscious decision to pick up the DVD boxset, and what with all the acclaim that both shows have been getting, I sometimes feel like I'm missing out. Date Night's big selling point is being the first on-screen pairing of each show's stars, and even though I'm not very familiar with them, I can dig it. So long as it has a solid plot for them to play in, it's all good.

It doesn't. But Tina Fey and Steve Carell? Made up for it better than fine.

Phil (Steve Carell) and Claire Foster (Tina Fey) are a nice, boring couple from New Jersey. Married-with-two-kids life has begun to drag, and even their weekly date night has turned into a chore. So they take a trip to a swanky Manhattan restaurant, and an eager-to-impress Phil steals another table's reservation - the Tripplehorns' - on an impulse. But they quickly find out that these are very bad identities to be mistaken for when two gun-toting goons (Jimmi Simpson and Common) threaten them, leaving them running for their lives and seeking the help of the perpetually half-naked Holbrooke Grant (Mark Wahlberg), a former client of Claire's who happens to be a high-tech security expert. They will encounter the real Tripplehorns (James Franco and Mila Kunis), a mob boss (Ray Liotta), a district attorney (William Fichtner), and enough wacky hijinks to make this the most eventful date night of their lives - if they survive it.

Once, in my wasted youth, I had pipe dreams of becoming a screenwriter. I found a wealth of screenwriting resources online - articles and columns on the craft of writing, as well as forums and communities of screenwriters both professional and aspiring. Even now, you may have noticed in my reviews that I tend to pay special attention to the storyline. I'm a story guy; other critics talk about cinematography and directorial styles, I pick on the script. And Date Night's (written by Josh Klausner) isn't a very good one. The third act especially falls apart with contrivances galore; characters forget things they should very well know in a lame attempt at keeping us, the audience, in suspense.

But I didn't really mind. Oh yes, I can already hear the cries of "Traitor!" from screenwriters everywhere, but I really didn't think the lousy script hurt the movie that much. Because it had Tina Fey and Steve Carell, and they are funny. I haven't laughed so much and so hard at a movie in ages, not even the last one I watched. Fey's and Carell's comic chemistry is a thing of beauty, enough to make even contrived scenarios hilarious - or at least overlook-able. Besides, you know you're in a movie that's willing to sacrifice plausibility for comedy when a tax lawyer and a real estate agent display an amazing talent for comic impressions, and use it to get themselves out of more than one scrape.

And I wished Klausner, and director Shawn Levy - who's mostly known for the Night at the Museum flicks - had gone with that crazy, anything-for-a-laugh sensibility, instead of tacking on a character arc for the Fosters. Klausner thought that the way to go with a premise like this is for our couple to work through their marital problems in the course of fighting for their lives - thing is, the Fosters don't have marital problems. They're unhappy with their lives but not with each other; Fey's and Carell's chemistry is one of loving familiarity, not constant bickering. It's nice that the action occasionally slows down to make pointed observations on how even the most loving relationships can become dull, but that thing about how Claire never trusts in Phil's plans? Unnecessary.

But it's still really, really funny. The unnecessary stuff and the bits that don't work don't detract from that - not even the fact that the supporting cast, comprised almost entirely of famous cameos, don't really stand out. Only James Franco and Mila Kunis does, as a much more low-rent couple whose relationship issues mirror the Fosters'; aside from them, only Mark Wahlberg has any significant screentime, and he's perfectly up to the task of walking around looking hunky. (Being an effective vehicle for funny shirtlessness jokes isn't funny in and of itself.) And William Fichtner, a terrific character actor, is strangely miscast in an over-the-top comic role. In the end, it all boils down to Fey and Carell, who literally save this movie from itself. It probably helps that they're both accomplished comedy writers as well as performers (in Fey's case, an award-winning one), and they most probably contributed some of the funniest lines.

Purely objectively speaking, Date Night only deserves three and a half stars. But film criticism is inherently subjective, and I didn't become one so I could coldly dissect the strengths and faults of the films I watch. I've done my best to highlight what I thought didn't work about the movie, so that four-star rating up there? Is how much I liked it. Fey and Carell need to do another movie together; perhaps not a sequel (what are Phil and Claire gonna do, steal another criminal couple's restaurant reservation?) but rather a new story and script that utilises their talents to the fullest. I'd be all over that like a mother-effer.

NEXT REVIEW: Shutter Island
Expectations: Scorsese does horror-thriller? This I gotta see

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

It's funny but contrived, but heartfelt - and funny

It's Complicated
My rating:

It took more than 3 months - it was released in Christmas last year in the States - but I suppose we should be thankful it made it to our screens at all. Romantic comedies about post-menopausal women, even ones starring Meryl Streep, don't exactly rake in the big bucks here in Malaysia; and while I'm sure we have our fair share of divorced women, I can't quite imagine them having a hearty cathartic laugh watching this movie. Because that's the segment that (divorced-and-60-year-old) writer-director Nancy Meyers' film is squarely aimed at, and certainly not at me. Still, it falls to me to decide whether It's Complicated is worthy of recommendation, whether you're young or old, male or female, single, married, divorced, or "it's complicated" on Facebook.

It is. In fact, if you are female and/or older and/or divorced, you might even add a half-star or more to the rating.

Having been divorced for 10 years, Jane Adler (Meryl Streep) finally feels like she's getting her life back together. Her bakery business is booming, she's looking to add an extension to her house, her eldest daughter is getting married, and the youngest of her three kids is graduating college. But at the graduation ceremony, she runs into her ex-husband Jake (Alec Baldwin), with his current much-younger wife Agness (Lake Bell) and 5-year-old son in tow. A spark reignites between them and they end up in bed - and thus begins an unlikely affair in which Jane is now the "other woman". Complicating matters is Adam (Steve Martin), Jane's architect, who is clearly falling for her; not to mention her future son-in-law Harley (John Krasinski) who inadvertently discovers the affair between ex-husband and ex-wife.

First impressions weren't very good. TMBF is male, single, and inclined towards the geekier pursuits (e.g. movies), and there's something about Meyers' world of upper-middle-class
whitebread older-womanhood that I found annoying. Jane was annoying. Her gorgeous California ranch house was annoying. Her same-age girlfriends, with whom she has regular get-togethers for pastries and gossip, were annoying. The girliness and bourgeoisie of it all was annoying, and I'm thinking this reaction of mine might be due to the fact that I have a penis. Fortunately, things got better once the plot kicked in.

Things also got better once it started getting funny. Even with this, there's a caveat - the jokes don't always work. The subplot about Harley knowing about Jane and Jake's affair, for one; John Krasinski has some priceless reaction shots, but I have no idea why he's so discombobulated about it. There's also a scene in which half the cast smoke pot, and it just seems like the actors are acting wacky without Meyers' script giving them any actual funny things to say or do. (The cuts courtesy of our venerated Lembaga Penapisan Filem may have something to do with it too.) But most of the funny bits are funny, and the big comic setpiece - involving video messaging and male nudity - gets some genuine big laughs.

But even with the contrived nature of some of the jokes, what comes through is a very insightful look at love and relationships in the golden years. While Jane wonders if she's lost her mind, Jake is ecstatic; he suddenly finds her so much more exciting than his hot young(er) wife, who is currently pressing him to have a baby with her. The sheer unlikelihood of their affair, Jake's wheedling over Jane's doubts, the good ol' old-people-acting-immature jokes - this is where the movie is at its funniest. Adam is also a divorcee, and it is through this commonality that he connects with Jane. And yes, there's a love triangle at the heart of this rom-com, and it's certainly refreshing to watch one that actually keeps you guessing which guy the girl is gonna end up with.

The fact that the principal cast is made up of older actors promises great performances, and for the most part it delivers. Streep is effortlessly watchable in the role, and perhaps even likable - once I got past my initial annoyance with her. (Still, I really wish Hollywood would stop throwing awards at her for every movie she does. "Effortless" means good but not great.) Alec Baldwin has proven himself a gifted comedian in recent years, and he has a terrific role to chew on here; in fact, Jake's characterization is remarkably subtle in how it balances both his charm and his caddishness. On the other hand, Steve Martin's role is disappointingly subdued. This is Steve Martin, Ms. Meyers; you couldn't have made him as funny as Baldwin? His Adam is sweet, but it's when Jake is onscreen that the film really becomes fun.

I've said before that I like romantic comedies, and I don't let testosterone get in the way of enjoying them. Thus I feel perfectly qualified to recommend this one, even if the first twenty minutes or so did get on the wrong side of my Y chromosome. (I seriously doubt I'm qualified to review Sex and the City 2, however.) It's a smart and fresh new take on long-term relationships, and the occasional lazy jokes don't detract from the genuinely funny ones. So to all the divorced ladies, go watch it, and hope you have plenty of good laughs at it. They may even be cathartic.

Expectations: Tina Fey and Steve Carell? Okay

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Filem yang penuh aksi (gay)

Evolusi KL Drift 2
My rating:

A while back, TMBF and a few of his colleagues found themselves listening to KRU's "Awas." One of them enthused about the first time he heard that song, saying, "It made me feel like Malaysian music has finally made it." Pretty funny of him to say that now, when "Awas" sounds exactly like the incredibly cheesy and dated piece of '90s hip-hop that it is - but y'see, us Malaysians are very insecure. We want so much to be as good as the rest of the world that we can be very forgiving of any token attempt at it. Hence the various enthusiastic reactions to the trailer of Evolusi KL Drift 2. They saw the car stunts and the Mazda RX-7 getting totaled and cried, "Fwoar, this is Hollywood-quality action man! Malaysian movies have finally made it!"

Sigh. No. No, they haven't. And no, it isn't.

After the events of Evolusi KL Drift, Zack (Syamsul Yusof) is now a professional drifter, while Sham (Farid Kamil) - now disabled with a crippled leg - works on his crew. Zack befriends Aleya (Scha Al Yahya), another drifter, but this arouses resentment in Sham, whose dreams of drifting ended with his injury. Meanwhile, vicious drug dealer Joe (Aaron Aziz) is still at large, and this time he is joined by Ery (Shaheizy Sam), who shares his grudge against Zack. Inspektor Kamal (Remy Ishak) wants Zack's cooperation to bring Joe down, but Zack just wants to let bygones be bygones - even as Joe and Ery plot to wreak bloody revenge against him.

Wahai Tuan Penulis Lakonlayar Syamsul Yusof, please learn the meaning of "on-the-nose dialogue" - 'cos good Lord, your movie is full of it. Everyone in this movie says exactly how they feel and exactly what the movie wants you to think, in suspiciously proper Dewan Bahasa dan Pustaka-approved sentences to boot. It sounds bloody unnatural. Now, En. Syamsul might give the usual "ini filem untuk orang biasa, bukannya orang yang banyak berfikir, ini filem yang mudah difahami" excuse. The thing is, if you make it too mudah difahami, you inadvertently convey something entirely different from what you intended. Ko sedar tak movie ko ni homoerotic gila babi??

I'm talking about Zack and Sham. Those two are gay. Zack keeps going on and on about how Sham is his best friend and how much he values Sham's support, and he's so conscientious and sensitive to Sham's dejection over his leg. And when he starts to beromen with Aleya, Sham merajuk like a girlfriend who got dumped. They have an honest-to-goodness lovers' spat in front of all their friends. Then later they make up over the phone, telling each other how sorry they are, while emotional music plays in the background. This. Is. Gaaaaaayyy. This is what happens when you write dialogue that's absolutely nothing like the way close male friends (who don't want to kongkek each other) actually talk.

When Joe and Ery pay a visit to Zack's workshop and point a gun at Zack's head, one of Zack's friends has this brilliantly insightful comment on the incident: "Aku rasa Joe tak puas hati lah." Later, when Joe frames Zack and has him on the run from the cops, Sham thinks, "Aku rasa Zack berada dalam bahaya sekarang." Eh, ya tak ya jugak kan?? Nasib baik ko cakap, kalo tak, manalah kita tau?? The movie is full of incredibly lazy writing, which means the plot is as bad as the dialogue. Joe and Ery confront Kamal, point guns at him, have a fight scene, do not kill him for some reason, and later Kamal still says he lacks the evidence to arrest Joe. Zack and Aleya have a rendezvous at some deserted alley, and then tetiba je Ery shows up, somehow knowing they'd be there. Why? Because it's time for (another) car chase!

Which brings us to the action scenes. Wahai Tuan Pengarah Syamsul Yusof, a good car chase, like any good action scene, has beats. There are moves, counter-moves, tactics, reversals; a good action scene is a mini-story in itself. Your car chase scenes are just one car speeding after another - nothing else happens. (Except that they drift a lot. A lot. If you were to play a drinking game based on every time a car does a drift, you'd need really big glasses.) I know you have two big crashes and a car roll scene, and that about blew your budget for vehicular carnage - but it just means your action scenes are all climax, no foreplay. And the incessant shaky-cam and quick-cutting started to make my head hurt after a while. Yes, I can watch the films of Paul Greengrass without flinching, but the difference is, Greengrass actually knows what he's doing. Syamsul main lantak je.

But the acting proves quite entertaining, especially from the villains. Aaron Aziz is quite good with the badass posturing, but Shaheizy Sam steals the show as Ery - who, curiously, has a very Cinapek accent. I have previously mentioned my disdain for Malay movies casting Malay actors in non-Malay roles, but somehow Shaheizy makes it work; he makes Ery a guy of indeterminate ethnicity who just happens to speak that way. Scha Al Yahya was awful in Papadom, but she's surprisingly good here; the exaggeratedly tomboyish Aleya just seems like a natural fit for her. Farid Kamil, however, is as wooden as ever. And Tuan Pelakon Utama Syamsul Yusof is a pretty okay actor, although again, his screenplay didn't do his character any favours. Zack comes across as quite the Mary Sue, what with the one too many instances of people enthusing over what an awesome drifter he is.

No, it's not a good movie at all, but it is unintentionally entertaining enough to get two stars from me. It's hopelessly cheesy, right down to the shameless product placement. (Motul and Toyo Tires, you guys totally got your money's worth.) Now, Hollywood action movies like The Fast and the Furious series, which this film is totally riding the coattails of, are plenty cheesy too, so does that justify Evolusi KL Drift 2? No it doesn't, for two reasons: one, as dumb as those movies are, there is at least a bare minimum of logic and realism to their storylines that this movie lacks. And two, those aren't good movies. If Syamsul wants to make Hollywood-quality action films, he should aim higher. Dude, jangan marah my snarkiness, gua respek lu sebenarnya for what you're attempting. By all means, give it another shot - but first, please, learn how to write.

NEXT REVIEW: It's Complicated
Expectations: not much