Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Superhero ala Melayu ala bangang

Kapoww: Atoi the Ajaib Boy
My rating:

I have had occasion to be accused of being biased against local films in favour of Hollywood ones. A spurious lie, of course - I have given plenty of unfavourable ratings to the latter as well as favourable ones to the former. Still, I can see how a cursory examination of my recent reviews may give rise to this (entirely spurious) impression; my last bad review of a Hollywood movie was a good four months ago. Allow me to offer in my defence that I've gotten a lot choosier when it comes to filem luar negara, so therefore I naturally pick the genres that I tend to like anyway - whereas I watch every local film released, and, well, they are what they are. In fact, I've even admitted to being biased in favour of Malaysian films, simply for being Malaysian.

I'm thinking I shouldn't anymore.

Atoi (Zizan) is a simple kampung boy who has always dreamed of being a superhero. When he isn't being subjected to his friend Aboo's (Bell Ngasri) hare-brained schemes to acquire superpowers, he's helping his mother (Norlia Ghani) out in the fields, flirting with Siti (Lisa Surihani), or getting picked on by village bully Faibo (Khir Rahman). But when he is struck by lightning one stormy evening, he really does gain superpowers - just in time for a superhero audition conducted by K.A.P.O.W.W., or the Kesatuan Antarabangsa Peringkat Olimpik Wira-Wira. And so Atoi joins the organisation that comprises the Astro family of superheroes - Astromen Wau (Awie), Astromen Belalang (Harun Salim Bachik), Astromen Sedut (Delyla Adnan) and Astromen Mak (Rosnah Mat Aris) - led by Jeneral Ucop (Rashidi Ishak), and managed by Din Abu (Afdlin Shauki). But having renamed himself Azroy, the adulation of the masses goes to his head, and he gets all kacang lupakan kulit.

Look, this movie didn't have to suck. Low-rent and low-budget superheroics can still be funny and awesome; cases in point, Mystery Men and The Specials. You can poke fun at superheroes by combining them with other genres; witness Sky High (high school movie) and The Incredibles (family drama). There's a wealth of superhero movies, both parodies as well as serious entries, from which to draw inspiration - and hell, there's no reason not to check out the original comic books while you're at it. Even Japanese tokusatsu has their own set of tropes and conventions, and seeing as how Kapoww's costumes look more Super Sentai than Stan Lee, you'd think perhaps writer-director Azizi "Chunk" Adnan was following that tradition. But watching this movie, it becomes apparent that Tuan Pengarah En. Chunk isn't following any tradition. In fact, he seems utterly ignorant of everything I mentioned above.

For one thing, Atoi/Azroy's superpowers are exasperatingly ill-defined. He has super-hearing and super-speed, and we see him use both abilities only once and never again. The one consistent power he has is shooting energy bolts, but for some reason he does not use it during the climactic fight scene, instead choosing to employ fisticuffs. Wahai En. Chunk, ini filem superhero ke filem kungfu? Thus this film denies us one of the chief pleasures of the superhero movie: singular superpowers and the creative uses thereof. I mentioned tokusatsu earlier, and admittedly, Asian superheroes tend to be less about specific powers and more about martial arts asskickery - but this film just comes across as confused about it all.

For another, Azizi is clearly trying to take superhero conventions and place them in a traditional Malay budak kampung milieu, which... okay. I'm Chinese and I'm a KL boy. This kind of comedy is clearly not aimed at me. But I feel quite justified in calling it stupid. Seriously. Aku tau lah, korang pasti akan try to defend yourselves by saying filem engko untuk masyarakat luar bandar, takkan mereka nak tengok jalan cerita yang sofistikated yang hanya boleh dihargai golongan berpendidikan tinggi blah blah blah. To which my reply would be: korang ingat orang kampung bodoh ke? Korang ingat lawak yang basi dan bahlol sudah cukup untuk memuaskan mereka? Korang ingat kalau ada Bell Ngasri, tak payahlah nak tulis dialog untuk dia sebab dia pandai improvise? All he does is the same stupid schtick he did in his last Malay movie, and he's as annoying and unfunny as ever. In fact, at one point he distinctly says "aku pun tak ingat dialog aku" - and I gotta ask, wahai En. Chunk, kenapaaalah ko left that bit in your movie??

See, I know there's such a thing as "low comedy". But low comedy tak semestinya stupid comedy, i.e. watak-watak yang bodoh dan babak-babak yang memperbodohkan penonton. You just need to look at the films of Stephen Chow to see low comedy done right - comedies that are smart, but that don't need you to be smart to enjoy them. Hell, you've got Afdlin Shauki and Harun Salim Bachik, two genuinely funny comedians, and you completely wasted both of them. So toksahlah ko bagi alasan yang ko buat filem untuk orang desa dan kampung, when all you've done is made a laughably bad movie. Don't think just because superheroes are something fresh and new for Malay films that you can get away with not knowing a damn thing about the genre. And don't think presenting the final fight scene in comicbook panels earns you any style points, when all it does is fail to hide the fact that you've got no fight choreography whatsoever.

I actually considered giving it two stars because of the few things it does right. It actually has a plot, even a somewhat Campbellian one, but hasn't a clue where to go with it. ("You killed my father! Oh wait, another villain just showed up, guess we can be friends then.") And there's one good scene with Lisa Surihani in which she sasses back at Faibo, though that's only because female characters who display any kind of strength are so vanishingly rare in Malay films. But no - no grading on a curve for this movie. Ko sedar tak Tuan Pengarah En. Chunk, filem engko ada potential untuk menarik perhatian antarabangsa? Ramai peminat filem dari luar negara yang teruja kalau mereka tahu ada filem komedi superhero buatan Malaysia. Tapi malangnya, filem engko langsung tak dapat mencapai tahap kualiti antarabangsa. And I think it's high goddamn time we stop making a distinction between tahap antarabangsa dan tahap tempatan. Jaguh kampung tu sama ertinya dengan pecundang dunia.

NEXT REVIEW: Knight and Day
Expectations: no better than a 3-½-starrer, I reckon

Sunday, June 27, 2010

The perfect ending to the story

Toy Story 3
My rating:

Since I started reviewing movies, I've only re-watched a movie twice. (That is, I've watched a movie two times, two times. I mean, two times, I watched a movie twice. You know what I mean... right?) The first was Up, the second is Toy Story 3, and it's probably not a coincidence that they're both Pixar films. I certainly wish I could do it more often - How to Train Your Dragon and Avatar are just two recent movies I had wanted to watch again - but it's taking longer and gotten harder to write my reviews, because I've gotten harder on myself to write better ones. That's why I watched this film twice before I even started writing this review. I've got a lot to write about.

Because this is the deepest, most thematically rich, most emotionally substantial Toy Story yet.

Andy (John Morris) is now 17 and heading for college, and his (few remaining) toys have resigned themselves to being "retired" to the attic - except for Woody (Tom Hanks), his favourite, whom he's planning to take with him to college. But a mix-up sends the gang - Buzz Lightyear (Tim Allen), Jessie the Cowgirl (Joan Cusack) and Bullseye the horse, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head (Don Rickles and Estelle Harris), Rex the dinosaur (Wallace Shawn), Hamm the piggy bank (John Ratzenberger), Slinky Dog (Blake Clark), Barbie (Jodi Benson) and the Little Green Men (Jeff Pidgeon) - to the Sunnyside daycare centre. There they are welcomed by Lots-O'-Huggin' Bear (Ned Beatty) and Ken (Michael Keaton), and at first it seems like heaven for toys; there will always be kids to play with them, and Lotso appears to be the benevolent doyen of the community. But he soon reveals his dark side, and life at Sunnyside turns into hell for our toy heroes. Meanwhile, Woody has ended up in the possession of a little girl named Bonnie (Emily Hahn), and when he hears about the goings-on at Sunnyside, he becomes determined to rescue his friends.

The thing about Pixar films is that they can always be enjoyed by both children and adults, but Toy Story 3 really throws that into sharp relief. The movie can be enjoyed on a purely surface level, and it is fantastically enjoyable. It is frequently and brilliantly hilarious; Spanish Buzz gets my vote for single funniest thing in the whole movie, and believe me, there's huge competition for that title. It is as exciting and thrilling as ever; the toys' elaborate stratagems and acrobatics for getting in and out of tight spots may not be as fresh as it was in the first two films, but they're still wildly inventive and loads of fun. Beloved characters return and are as lovable as ever, even some unexpected ones. (Hint: pay special attention to the garbage man.) It's a perfect family film that will keep viewers of all ages entertained, engaged and enthralled.

But if you look deeper... wow. In my mini-review of Toy Story 2, I said that I hope this sequel would explore the theme of being abandoned by a loved one more fully, and... wow. It did, in ways both unexpected and satisfying. Andy has grown up, and the toys do get (mistakenly) thrown out - and I gotta admit, when I saw the trailers featuring wacky hijinks at a daycare centre with a plethora of cute new toy characters, I was afraid that the movie would forego the serious stuff for the wacky hijinks. But the serious stuff is there, just under the surface, and it proves immensely rewarding if you know where to look. Here's where you can start: note the one thing Woody keeps saying - "we've got to be there for Andy!" - as well as the one thing Buzz keeps saying - "we've got to stay together."

That, in a nutshell, is the theme of the story. Love vs. friendship. Love, for and of a human child, which is pure and passionate and is what toys are literally made for - but is also unequal, because the child does not (and can never) know that his toy loves him back. Not to mention ephemeral, because every child will outgrow his toys; that pure and joyous love will always, always, fade. But the toys also have friendship - friendship between themselves, between equals, who know and accept each other for what they truly are. In the intervening years since Toy Story 2, a great many of Andy's toys have been sold off at yard sales - one of which, sadly, is Bo Peep, Woody's paramour. In losing the one toy to whom he was closest, Woody now clings even tighter to Andy's love. It is he who tries valiantly to persuade his friends to return to Andy, and it is he who accuses them - ironically, but with a grain of truth - of being selfish to want to stay at Sunnyside where they will always be played with by children.

Contrast this with Lotso, who has also suffered a traumatic loss - being replaced by Daisy, his child owner, when he was inadvertently left behind during a family day trip. It is here that another dialogue callback illuminates the theme further; twice, when Lotso angrily says, "she replaced us!", someone replies "she replaced you!" Lotso's true villainy isn't that he rules Sunnyside with a deceptively friendly iron thumb, nor is it that he forces Buzz and gang to be mistreated by the rough play of the daycare's smaller kids. It is that the loss of Daisy's love has made him turn his back on the companionship of his fellow toys, making him cruel and callous to another toy's fate. Only he was replaced by Daisy, but if he couldn't return to her, then he couldn't bear to see any other toy - toys that were once his friends - do so either. And thus he became a toy who would plead to other toys to save his life, then moments later betray them to their deaths.

Oh boy, that scene. The scene where all hope appears lost, and a horrible death is staring our beloved heroes in their faces. You could criticise the movie for having one too many daring-toy-escape action scenes, but they're there to set up this scene in which all their ingenuity and derring-do of the past 1-½ hours fails them. It is grim and harrowing, perhaps too much so for young children - but it is incredibly effective and memorable, and a testament to Pixar's courage to put it in the movie (as well as their skill to make it work). It also makes the inevitable ending a sweet relief, in which our toys end up in the best possible - and unexpected - fate. And what does the ending indicate for its love vs. friendship theme? Which side does it favour? The answer: both. Its final message is no less than that both relationships are worth maintaining, that each has its place in a full and happy life. That love may break your heart, but it is always worth pursuing; and that when you are left heartbroken, it is your friends who will provide the solace you need.

In fact, I've only just realized, as I write this, that Woody, Buzz, Jessie, Bullseye, Mr. and Mrs. Potato Head, Rex, Hamm, Slinky Dog, the Little Green Men... they're not friends. They're family. That's what they're a metaphor for. It is your family that will comfort you when love lets you down, yet you need never choose them over love. You need never choose between the two at all.

There are only two reasons why I'm not giving this movie 5 stars. One is that Lotso's final fate feels like an afterthought, and too closely resembles Stinky Pete's from the second film. The other is that the ending didn't quite work for me; I've read numerous comments about how that scene made viewers teary-eyed, but even on the second viewing it didn't do it for me. (I'll talk about it further in the comments, since I'll be discussing spoilers.) But just like the last Pixar film I reviewed, I just might change my mind after another viewing. There are so many layers of meaning and nuance and metaphor to Toy Story 3, that I feel confident in naming it the most rewatchable Pixar movie to date. (Hell, you could even make a case for it being an examination of the afterlife.) And that's an amazing achievement for a studio that has never made a single bad film, for whom it must get harder and harder to top themselves every time, yet keeps doing it again and again. Proof once again, that they are the greatest film studio of all time.

NEXT REVIEW: Kapoww!: Atoi the Ajaib Boy
Expectations: after Toy Story 3? Looooow

Sunday, June 20, 2010

This team gets a solid B

The A-Team
My rating:

It is the film critic's lot in life to make the occasional unpopular judgement. One of my recent ones was for The Losers, a film that hardly anyone liked but me (and Roger Ebert, so there) - and to those who moaned about that and any other of my reviews that went against popular opinion, tough titties. A critic is under no obligation to like and dislike only the same things as you. In fact, there's a word for those whose tastes always and exactly match those of everyone else's, and it sure ain't "discerning".

Guess what? I'm gonna make another unpopular judgement: I liked The A-Team, but not as much as The Losers.

The A-Team are an elite U.S. Army Ranger unit comprising H.M. "Howling Mad" Murdock (Sharlto Copley), Bosco "B.A." Baracus (Quinton "Rampage" Jackson), Templeton "Face" Peck (Bradley Cooper), and their leader John "Hannibal" Smith (Liam Neeson). While stationed in Iraq, they are contacted by CIA agent Lynch (Patrick Wilson) and told of U.S. currency plates in the hands of Iraqi insurgents being used to print counterfeit currency. They conduct an unofficial mission to recover the plates, but are subsequently betrayed; their commanding officer General Morrison (Gerald McRaney) is murdered, the plates are stolen by mercenary Pike (Brian Bloom), and they are framed for it all. Now fugitives from the law, they must recover the plates and clear their names, all the while hotly pursued by Lt. Sosa (Jessica Biel), an old flame of Face's.

Just like my last review, I grew up on The A-Team. It was one of the holy quadrifecta of '80s TV that included Knight Rider, MacGyver and Airwolf, plus a few also-rans such as Automan, Street Hawk, Manimal and V. Indeed, this was the era in which American prime-time television seemed to cater exclusively to 9-year-old boys, and as I was 9 years old back then it was perfect for me. (Incidentally, this was also the decade in which TV3 was launched, and they scored almost all of these shows. We hardly ever watched RTM from then on.) So yes, I am pretty damn familiar with Hannibal, B.A., Face and Murdock, and I gotta say, this movie doesn't quite do them justice.

First, the good parts. Contrary to your rose-coloured memories of watching it when you were 9, the TV show was actually incredibly cheap and cheesy. The movie does the most obvious thing a movie adaptation should do, which is to have all the big-budget production values a major film studio can cough up. The action scenes have the same sense of ridiculous fun as the show did, only a lot more elaborate and over-the-top. This is one advantage it has over The Losers, whose action was mostly pedestrian. On the other hand, The Losers didn't film its action scenes in shaky-cam. I swear, shaky-cam has practically become Hollywood's default mode of filming action scenes, and that's just stupid. During the Iraq truck heist scene, I couldn't barely make out what the hell was going on.

But while it may not be fair to compare one movie to another, even one with the same premise and a great many oddly coincidental similarities (they both have climaxes that take place at the Port of Los Angeles, for chrissake), it is entirely fair game to compare a remake to its source material. Of the principal cast, only Bradley Cooper is faithful to his character. Liam Neeson's Hannibal is quite a departure from George Peppard's, who was cocksure, unflappable, and had a shit-eating grin permanently affixed to his face. Movie-Hannibal was fiercely loyal to his men and righteously pissed off at the injustices done to them. It's a new and different interpretation of the character, but I could dig it.

However, movie-Murdock and movie-B.A. don't fare as well. Sharlto Copley, last seen in District 9, is an unusual choice for a big-budget Hollywood action movie, but he proves to be a less than inspired one. Dwight Schultz brought a manic improvisational genius to the role of Murdock, whereas Copley just competently performs his lines. (Although he does get plenty of funny lines.) And despite being given plenty of opportunities to be badass, MMA fighter Quinton Jackson is wooden and uncharismatic, which are the last things anyone taking over a role originated by Mr. T should be. There's also a subplot in which B.A. takes a vow of non-violence, which the film inexplicably treats as a serious thing.

The original A-Team was a marvel of casting; four actors that flawlessly inhabited four iconic, larger-than-life characters. It was lightning in a bottle, and this movie doesn't quite manage to capture it again. I still liked it, I still think it's a fun action movie that does a decent job at turning an '80s TV show into a '00s theatrical blockbuster, and that alone is probably enough for most people. But for me, and for this one instance, I'm placing more importance on the characters. I liked the original's better than these. And yes, I liked The Losers better than these guys.

NEXT REVIEW: Toy Story 3
Expectations: ohhhh yes

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Karate or kungfu, it still works

The Karate Kid (2010)
My rating:

For my return to the realm of competent filmmaking, I of course had my choice between The A-Team and The Karate Kid. I chose this one first because I'd heard that it was surprisingly good; surprising for an obvious vanity project for Will Smith's kid and an arguably unnecessary remake of a 1984 movie that is still a cornerstone of my generation. (I remember that during its Malaysian cinema release, it went by the title The Moment of Truth. I'd love to know why.) Yes, I grew up on the original, and though I haven't seen it in ages my memories of it are quite fond. I remember it as a movie that's just, in a word, effective at what it set out to do.

Guess what? So's this one.

Twelve-year-old Dre Parker (Jaden Smith) is moving from his home of Detroit to Beijing, China with his widowed single mother Sherry (Taraji P. Henson). Although he doesn't know anyone and he doesn't speak the language, he manages to charm Meiying (Wenwen Han), a cute girl his own age - but this brings him the unwanted attention of Cheng (Zhenwei Wang), the school bully and local junior kungfu champion. When Cheng's bullying turns particularly violent, an unlikely saviour steps in - Mr. Han (Jackie Chan), the maintenance man of Dre's apartment building, who happens to be a secret kungfu master. To get the bullies off Dre's back, Mr. Han agrees to train him for a kungfu tournament in which he will challenge Cheng - whose own Master Li (Yu Rongguang) believes in a merciless and dishonourable brand of martial arts.

Just in case you haven't read it anywhere else: yes, the martial art on display here is Chinese kungfu, not Japanese karate. It appears they're only calling it The Karate Kid out of a desire to maintain the brand name, which, well, I guess that's understandable. They've certainly maintained everything else about the original. This is a scrupulously faithful remake; every step and beat of the original's storyline is there. There's a Cobra Kai. There's a magic "burning hands" healing technique. There's a "wax on, wax off." There's a "Daniel-san." There's a crane kick. There's a "sweep the leg, Johnny." And there's the pleasure of seeing familiar faces like Jackie Chan and Yu Rongguang in the equally familiar, iconic Mr. Miyagi and John Kreese roles.

Wait. When did The Karate Kid become an icon? It's not like it was a fresh and innovative story way back in 1984. But here we are, 26 years later with a remake that works almost... almost as well. Which is a testament to the original, even if it wasn't very, y'know, original. Still, was there a previous film that successfully combined teen drama, underdog sports movie, and ass-kicking martial arts action? I'm thinking there isn't. I'm thinking that The Karate Kid doesn't get enough credit for melding so many elements - class-differences romance, a fish-out-of-water scenario, Eastern exoticism, an intergenerational (and intercultural) friendship, in addition to the above three - that on their own would be cliched, but together work really, really well.

And it took a remake to prove it - because this remake has all those elements, and once again, they work really, really well. Even when it's demonstrably not as good as the original. Jaden Smith is great for a 12-year-old kid, and he looks set to rival his dad for sheer screen presence in a few more years, but here he's still a little raw. Zhenwei Wang scowls quite effectively in the Johnny role, but William Zabka had more charisma. The chief weakness is the Mr. Han character. No slight on Jackie Chan, who gives what may be his most dramatic performance yet in a Hollywood film, and if it gets him better roles over there, more power to him. (But we've already seen him at his best.) Thing is, Mr. Miyagi was fun; Pat Morita's Oscar-nominated performance had a quirkiness and warmth that was a big part of what made him such a, yes, iconic character. Mr. Han is a gloomy Gus, haunted and broken by a past tragedy. His subplot is effective at bringing the pathos, but it ain't no fun.

The other major departure this movie takes from its source is the setting. Beijing - filmed-on-location, street-level Beijing - isn't someplace you see often in Hollywood films, and it's pretty neat to see it here. It's also pretty neat to see the Forbidden Palace, the Great Wall of China, and even a monastery in the Wudang Mountains that has people simply doing cool kungfu stuff out in the open any time you visit. This is where the "in association with (state-owned) China Film Group" credit that appears at the beginning comes in, and the fact that the PRC gave its thumbs-up to this movie probably mitigates the whole "black American kid beats Chinese at their own martial art" thing. The fight choreography is also a lot more polished than the original (which wasn't half bad at it itself), albeit it may be a little too violent for 12-year-olds. But the shaky-cam. Gaaahh, the shaky-cam. Watch the original again to see how you don't freaking need to film every fight scene in shaky-cam.

I can be quite forgiving of formulaic films if the formula is well-executed. This particular one was executed terrifically well in 1984, and it's done pretty well too here. And some formulas work better than others - or perhaps, it works on me better than others. Purists can moan all they want, but I liked this remake, and I hope they go on to do the sequels. Remember those? They sucked, didn't they? How about remaking them, and making them at least as good as this one? Maybe then, The Karate Kid (2010) wouldn't turn out to be unnecessary after all.

Expectations: I still liked The Losers

Friday, June 11, 2010

Busuk betul. Buruk betul. Teruk betul. Sial betul.

Kecoh Betul
My rating:

(Amaran: yes, it's another one-star movie. That means I break out the swearing. Pengidap penyakit jantung dan ibu-ibu mengandung dinasihatkan agar tidak membaca rebiu ini.)

Through a quirk of our local cinema release schedule, I have had to watch three Malay films back to back. I once said I could barely handle watching two in a row, but the only other movie I could've picked was Marmaduke, which, well, no. Besides, I've also just renewed my commitment to watching and reviewing every local film made, so I thought I could handle it. It's been rough going though, what with the first two being pretty damn terrible.

Wouldn't you know it, the Movie Gods saved the absolute fucking worst for last.

Aiman (Nabil Ahmad), Joe (Bell Ngasri) and Belon (Shah R) are three friends and mat rempits dispatch riders. Aiman rescues Dayana's (Diana Danielle) purse from a snatch thief, so he sorta starts to beromen with her. Then gets fired from his job for being an idiot and an asshole, so he starts working at the pizza place run by Abang Don (Saiful Apek) where his friends also work. But they're still total bums who can't make their rent, so they get kicked out, but then they find rooms to let from Salmah (Sheila Mambo), who is being wooed by her neighbour Pak Ajis (Dato' Aziz Sattar). And Joe gets the hots for Salmah's daughter Yatt (Yatt). Then Aiman gets into a street race with some drug dealers, wins, and it turns out Dayana is their moll, so now she goes to stay with them. But the drug dealers retaliate by stealing their motorbikes, so they get loans from some Ah Longs, which gets them into well-deserved trouble. But then the cops show up and arrest the Ah Longs, then Pak Ajis and Salmah get married, and my torment the movie ends.

Why yes, I did just reveal the entire plot of the movie. No, I did not "spoil" it, because this movie is already a rancid heap of putrefaction. This is the absolute most pathetic fucking excuse for a movie I have ever seen in my career as a critic of Malaysian films, and I seriously contemplated giving it my first ever half-star or even no-star rating. It does, however, present an interesting challenge on how to review it. My modus operandi on both my previous reviews was to mention as many of the movie's numerous instances of suck and fail as I could remember, but if I do that here I'll probably never finish this review. So, hmm, how do I present a sorta general overview of how fuck-me-gently-with-a-chainsaw horrible this movie is?

How 'bout I start by saying that co-writer-directors S. Baldev Singh and Ikhzal Ideris are total lazy-ass incompetent morons. I swear to Allah S.W.T. that this movie had no script. It just had some vague scene directions into which the actors are thrown into, then told to ad-lib their own dialogue and buat lawak sendiri. Lacking the skill for comic improvisation, the cast just generally act like budak kecik darjah satu. Seriously. I went to grab a bite at a KFC after the movie and saw two kids playing... well, one of them was playing. He kept pushing the other kid and running off giggling like an idiot, and that other kid was just barely restraining himself from murdering him with his bare hands. Because that's how kids behave - like total fucking assholes who think it's fun to annoy the crap out of you.

That's what this movie does to you. That's what these characters do to each other, and therefore to the audience as well. And the only people who can enjoy this shit are budak kecik darjah satu, or those who are mentally the equivalent. There were actually a handful of people in the cinema with me who were laughing at the onscreen antics, and I really wanted to ask: what is wrong with you people?? Are you retarded?? But no, the real villains here are the purveyors of this kinda shit, i.e. Messrs. Baldev and Ikhzal. Ko tengok lagi sekali watak-watak yang telah kamu cipta tu. Bodoh, pemalas, pendek akal, tak amanah, dan tak boleh diharap. Ko sedar tak, inilah yang membuatkan bangsa Melayu dipandang rendah, tau?

Oh yeah, I went there. I got political on this movie's ass. See, I got perspective; I know it's pointless to rage at people who enjoy stupid crap, because there will always be people who enjoy stupid crap. If Hollywood can make stuff like Epic Movie and Meet the Spartans and, hell, Marmaduke, we can have our Kecoh Betuls and our Semerah Cinta Stilletos. But as I said in my review of that Ahmad Idham anti-masterpiece, this kind of fucked-up filmmaking is the standard for Malay movies. It may not always be this bad, but it rarely ever gets much better. And the average Malay moviegoer will come to believe that there is no better, and they'll pay to watch this stuff because they gotta watch something. And, gradually and inexorably, otak mereka akan reput. (And yes, I said Malay movies and Malay audiences. 'Cos Chinese make better movies. Yeah, I went there, motherfuckers.)

There's nothing worth saying about the cast; some of them have been decent in other movies, but it's not their fault they got roped into this steaming turd. I certainly feel sorry that they're in this flop - and yes, seeing that it opened the same week as Lagenda Budak Setan, you'd best believe it's a flop. I seem to remember that it's Finas who arbitrarily picks the release dates for local films, so I guess it's bad luck a fate that could not be better deserved for Baldev and Ikhzal. Y'know those people in the audience who were laughing? They only laughed at a few bits; they were quiet for long stretches of what's supposed to be a comedy. Walaupun ada audience yang sanggup merencatkan akal sendiri untuk menikmati filem korang, tapi korang masih tak reti nak menghiburkan mereka sepenuh-penuhnya. What the fuck are you guys doing making movies? Lebih baik korang jual burger je laa. Tiada rezeki bagimu dalam dunia perfileman.

NEXT REVIEW: The Karate Kid
Expectations: some competent filmmaking, at long fucking last

Thursday, June 10, 2010

Lagenda yang penuh WTF gila babi setan

Lagenda Budak Setan
My rating:

I said in my 1st anniversary post that watching and reviewing Malay movies is like exploring a whole other world, and it really is. Did you know there's this Malay novel called Lagenda Budak Setan, authored by Ahadiat Akashah, that was, like, hugely popular back in the mid-'80s? I didn't, man. I only found out when I was reading up on Lagenda Budak Setan the film adaptation. It's actually quite fascinating to discover stuff like this, but it also makes me a little sad. Our society is so segmentized and ghetto-ized across racial lines, even in our pop-culture worlds. How to achieve 1Malaysia laa like this?

But what's even sadder is that, due to the novel's legions of fans, this insanely stupid movie is probably gonna pecah panggung.

Kasyah (Farid Kamil) is the "budak setan" of his college, an inveterate prankster and trouble-maker, but he reforms when he falls for Ayu (Lisa Surihani). They are separated for a year whilst he goes off to some isolated village for a research assignment, during which Ayu's mother (Sheila Mambo) persuades her to marry her abusive ex-boyfriend Azmi (Que Haidar). Thus when Ayu's friend Suzana (Raja Farah) breaks the news, the heartbroken Kasyah tries to get on with his life by getting a job with Emilia's (Shiqin Kamal) company. But wait! Turns out that after a violent argument with Azmi, Ayu was horribly disfigured in a car accident - so she got a whole new face through plastic surgery, and now she's actually Emilia! I am making none of this up. Oh, and when Emilia's company goes bankrupt, Kasyah gets another job with Kate (Nur Fazura), who also gets the not-at-all-unethical hots for the guy who works for her.

Look, I've never read the novel, okay? And given that it's 900 pages long, I probably never will, because I don't want to get a hernia. Maybe it's really really good, I dunno. All I know is that the movie sucks, and a great deal of its suckitude is due to its storyline, which would of course be from the book... but again, I shall cast no aspersions on a novel I haven't read. (Oh, maybe just one: Note the names of the author and his dashing romantic hero. Ladies and gents, I believe we have a Mary Sue! Okay I'm done.) I can certainly believe that director Sharad Sharan and screenwriter Armantono did a hackjob of an adaptation. The dialogue is terrible. The production design is ridiculous; the college is full of rejects from Grease 2, and Ayu's home is the world's most interior-designed kampung house. The soundtrack consists of one drippy little song that plays ooover and ooover again. The camerawork is annoying and distracting, with the constant shaky-cam and the deep close-ups that often can't even keep the actors' faces in frame.

But the storyline. Oh God, the storyline. Yes, there is Magic Plastic Surgery, there is domestic abuse, there are deep dark angsty secrets, there is a car crash, and there is not one but two inappropriate workplace relationships. But there's also amnesia! Yes, at one point someone gets violently assaulted, hit on their head, and gets amnesia (and possibly also brain damage). In fact there's more than one violent assault in this movie, none of which are ever reported to the police or brought to justice, so clearly this film takes place in an alternate reality in which society has broken down and anarchy rules the day. One of these violent assaults is perpetrated onto Kasyah by Kate's jealous ex-boyfriend, whom Kate dumped because he's gay. Yes. And lastly, Ayu/Emilia has a baby, and try and guess how that turns out. Go ahead, give it a shot. You can do it.

Y'see, Lagenda Budak Setan is the worst kind of soap opera - the kind that piles on cliche after contrivance after implausibility, all in the name of making its characters suffer for our entertainment. Its characters are thoroughly dislikable idiots whom we are expected to sympathize with; the first we see of our hero Kasyah is in a football match in which he beats up the referee and puts the guy in a hospital for a week. It has no idea how real people behave; Kasyah's college buddies apparently have a "we hate gurlz!" policy, and then later they shed heartbroken tears when he leaves for his research study. (Which makes this Farid Kamil's second movie in a row with a gay subtext.) And it has no conception of realism or common sense. Kate says she's going to L.A. to further her studies, and she tells Kasyah this before he even marries Ayu. Then she shows up to say goodbye at the hospital where Ayu is giving birth. Did she take 9 months to figure out how to buy a plane ticket, or is this some kind of mutant hellspawn baby that gestates in mere weeks? Well, bapak dia kan budak setan...

Can we please call a moratorium on Farid Kamil's acting career? Guy's the single worst leading man in the local film industry today. He's smarmy when he's supposed to be charming, petulant when he's supposed to be passionate, and confused when he's supposed to be sad. And he has absolutely no chemistry with Lisa Surihani. None. Zero. Zilch. Because you see, Lisa is a much better actor, and I'm thinking the reason why they keep getting paired together is that she's the only female lead who can do a scene with him and keep a straight face. One of the many dumb things this movie does is replace her with not-at-all-promising newcomer Shiqin Kamal midway through the movie; fortunately, around the same time we get Nur Fazura. She's not done a movie since Pisau Cukur, and she brings some much-needed liveliness to the proceedings. Oh, and Que Haidar? All is forgiven for Duhai Si Pari-Pari. You actually tried to give depth to Azmi, even though I don't believe for a second that there was any in the script.

And then it ends with a "Tamat Bahagian Pertama", because apparently Lagenda Budak Setan is a series of novels. The cinema I was at had a pretty good turnout, so a sequel seems likely - but I can already guess what happens next. Kate will return to Kasyah, but Azmi will show up again, kidnap her and demand Kasyah's baby as ransom. In the ensuing struggle, Azmi will be killed, but Kate will be paralyzed and wheelchair-bound. She will get depressed and attempt suicide, but the ghost of Ayu will appear to her and tell her to be strong for Kasyah. So Kate and Kasyah will be happy for a while, till Kate's ex-boyfriend shows up again and tries to make nice. But he's part of a secret gay ninja assassin squad who's plotting to ruin Kasyah's life, and he was hired by... Ayu's mum, who blames Kasyah for her daughter's death. And she has black magic powers that she employs to curse Kasyah, who must fight back by learning from a wise old kungfu pawang sifu. Then Kasyah will wake up one morning, Ayu will step out from the shower, and it will all turn out to be a dream.

NEXT REVIEW: Kecoh Betul
Expectations: siiiiiiiiigh

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Kemunculan kembali yang terlampau tidak menjadi

Andartu Terlampau... 21 Hari Mencari Suami
My rating:

You know what's the hardest thing about watching crappy Malay movies? It's not the actual watching of them, to be honest. Yes, the experience can be teeth-pullingly painful, but it usually only lasts ninety minutes to two hours. The hardest thing is trying to figure out what to write about them afterwards. Eventually they all just blur together into the same old moronic dialogue, incoherent storyline, schtick acting and unfunny jokes. Sometimes I like to take a page out of Roger Ebert's book and talk about the wider issues that the film raises, instead of the film proper.

Other times I just do a running list of all the movie's stupidities. This one, f'rinstance, has plenty.

Nik Melati Sukma (Haliza Misbun) - who prefers to be called Nikki - is unlucky in love. Her parents (Maimon Mutalib and Datuk Jalaluddin Hasan) want her to get married, but despite a parade of prospective suitors - geeky Ayob (Azhar Sulaiman), macho Omar Shariff (Fahrin Ahmad), psychiatrist Dr. Ryan Diprojo (Ari Wibowo), much-older Dr. Sheikh Muzaffar (Dato' Rahim Razali), two-timing Jamil (Azizi "Chunk" Adnan), egotistical Putera Aziz Al-Biruni (Awie) and much-younger Jeremy (Fizo Omar) - none of them herald wedding bells for Nikki. So after a lot of faffing around, her parents give her a 21-day deadline to find a husband, and she spends most of that time faffing around even more.

Is this film supposed to be Haliza Misbun's big comeback vehicle? 'Cos according to her profile on Sinema Malaysia, she's not made a movie since 1996 (although she might have been doing TV dramas in the meantime). If it is, then damn Cik Haliza, you picked the absolute wrong screenwriter and director. Sophia J. Rhyland's script is fundamentally incompetent at delivering humour, romance, sympathetic and/or believable characters, or even narrative focus of any kind. For Allah knows what reason, the movie starts with Nikki in her teens (sporting a butt-ugly afro), then fast-forwards to 15 years later in which basically nothing has changed. It isn't till fully halfway in that Nikki's parents deliver the 21-day ultimatum that is the entire premise of the story. There's virtually no plot, just a lot of the aforementioned faffing about, during which Nikki is stupid and indecisive and dicks around with her parents and her various suitors. And who's the guy she chooses in the end? Spoiler alert: it's someone who literally appears out of the blue. Aiyoo, movie, what laa??

Din CJ's direction is equally incompetent. Guy wouldn't know comic timing if it bit him in the ass, and the movie has to resort to cartoon sound effects - yes, cartoon sound effects - to draw laughs. And was he responsible for the moronic continuity errors? I counted two: at one point, Nikki starts up a dating service called "Andartu Dot Com", but we see those words on Nikki's office wall before she even got the idea. And then we see Nikki and Omar going on a date, and it isn't a minute later that we get a scene in which they run into each other for supposedly the first time in years. There's a pointless musical montage that actually goes a step beyond pointless - it spends its chunk of screentime replaying previous scenes. And finally, this movie also features the ubiquitous nightclub scene common to soooo many Malay movies, in which we are meant to shake our heads at all this gejala pergaulan bebas diantara jantina. Yeah right, sedangkan engko selaku pengarah yang cast awek muda dalam scene ni, bagi diorang pakai baju ketat dan mendedahkan kulit, dan suruh diorang menari seksi seseksi-seksinya. Hypocrite.

Then again, it may not be fair to lay all the blame on Din and Rhyland, since Haliza - as executive producer - clearly has her fingers all over this movie. (She also takes credit for "idea/cerita asal".) But frankly, I'm kinda inclined to think kindly of her. The fact that this is her comeback to movies may explain why she tries really, really hard in her performance - way too hard. (Goddamn, these things really do happen in twos.) No, it's not a good performance at all; bad enough that her character is horribly written and comes across as a thoroughly dislikable bitch (who nevertheless has men falling all over her. Mary Sue much?), she also has a horrible tendency to deliver her lines in an ear-splitting screech. But I think if she can channel that... um, enthusiasm... into a role that genuinely shows off her talent and screen presence, she could do well. After all, I've always taken the position that we've got good actors but terrible directors, writers and producers, and it's the latter bunch that are most responsible for shitty movies.

Then again, Haliza is the producer on this thing. She's most likely the one who decided to put Abby Abadi and Erra Fazira in this movie for possibly no other reason than that they are her BFFs, even though their roles are completely superfluous. (Erra fares better because she's playing a broad caricature; Abby is kayu nak mampus.) And does Dato' Rahim Razali have financial problems? Is he desperate for cash? Why else would he take on so many stupid roles in crap movies in which he can only give terrible performances? This is what happens when our film industry can only produce stupid comedies made by idiots who can barely write and/or film a proper joke; actors of Rahim's and Datuk Jalaluddin Hasan's stature, who deserve to be in serious dramatic roles that showcase their gravitas, are instead forced to indignify themselves doing silly comic schticks. I'm sure you guys got bills to pay, but good God, tak malu ke??

Still, Cik Haliza has my sympathies - which is a pretty neat trick, considering the character she plays in this film does not. This is a terribly misguided movie, in which all of its star's talent, effort and energy went completely to waste; quite sad, since she obviously put a lot of herself into it. So here's hoping she makes more movies, takes a more hands-off approach as producer, and finds herself a better director and screenwriter. (Um, good luck with that.) And I also hope she stops having to fend off all the tohmahan about her low-cut outfits in this film. Korang ni jakun ke, tak pernah tengok cleavage perempuan? It was nice cleavage too. Appreciate lah sket.

NEXT REVIEW: Lagenda Budak Setan
Expectations: siiiiiigh

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

No kiasu jokes, promise

My rating:

Apologies to Singaporean readers for labeling this review "Made in Malaysia". You guys don't make that many movies, and I doubt I'll be watching so many as to justify creating a whole new "Made in Singapore" label. 'Sides, it stars one Malaysian actor and two Malaysian-born actors. (And hey, are we not, at heart, one nation country culture y'know what, forget it.) Having not watched any Singaporean films before, I had no idea what to expect - other than McGarmott's helpful comment that they tend to try too hard.

Well, yes, Kidnapper did. But I'd rather a movie try too hard than not try hard enough.

Lim Seng Huat (Christopher Lee) is a ne'er-do-well cab driver raising his son Wei Siang (Jerald Tan) on his own whilst fighting a custody case against his ex-wife. Wei Siang is kidnapped by the sadistic Ah Hu (Jack Lim) who mistakes him for the son of the wealthy Mr Sng - but even after discovering his mistake, Hu continues to threaten Lim for the $1 million ransom by torturing the boy. Hu's accomplice Mrs Sng (Phyllis Quek), the stepmother of the intended victim, begins to regret her involvement; but not even her revelation that her daughter Jia Wei (Regene Lim) is also Hu's child deters him. As Mrs Sng wrestles with her conscience, Lim scrambles to raise the money within the 36-hour deadline - before Hu loses patience and murders his son.

Here's what I mean by trying too hard: this is a somewhat over-directed movie. Director Kelvin Tong goes a little overboard with the arty shots, quick cuts and fancy colour treatment. Being unfamiliar with Tong's filmography, I don't know if this is his thing; here, the Tony Scott treatment is hit-and-miss, occasionally effective at generating suspense but also occasionally distracting. Also kinda overboard is the "parents will do anything for their children" theme, as demonstrated by Lim's increasingly desperate means to raise the ransom money. He gets beaten up (and pissed on!) by the Ah Longs whom he attempts to borrow money from, and goes so far as to seek out black-market organ traffickers. 'Cos Singaporean cab drivers are just that well-connected, it seems.

I keed, I keed. It's actually quite a slick little movie, and largely effective as a high-octane thriller. It has its fair share of plot holes - why does Hu keep pressing Lim for money he knows the penniless cabbie doesn't have? Why doesn't Lim go to the police when his predicament becomes more and more dire? - but it moves fast enough that you can set those questions aside and just go along for the ride. And the script is really quite smart, and has plenty of unexpected reversals in the cat-and-mouse game between Lim and Hu. There's a bit where Lim is making the ransom drop, and Hu makes him climb up and down several flights of stairs. It seems like Hu is just sadistically toying with him, and he probably is - but it's also part of Hu's plan to literally grab the money from him and run, when Lim is exhausted and unable to give chase.

And there's also some solid performances in here, chief amongst them Christopher Lee. His low-rent cabbie character is a far cry from evil wizards and Sith Lords (and I bet he's never heard that one before), but Lee never misses a beat through all the melodramatics the plot puts him through; he keeps the audience rooting for him from start to finish. Jack Lim also couldn't be more different from his role in Woohoo! - he plays a truly hissable villain, as cold and vicious as he is intelligent. There are hints of deeper motivation in him, something that made him particularly despise the bond between parent and child - it's a pity the film doesn't explore that further. I've read reviews that rubbish Phyllis Quek's acting, but I thought she was perfectly effective, if unexceptional. (Doesn't hurt that she's pretty damn hawt.) And there's a pair of terrific performances from Jerald Tan and Regine Lim, and they are exceptional for Asian child actors.

This is gonna be a pretty short review, because on the whole, Kidnapper is just well-made but unremarkable. What's particularly sad that is that it fails to nail its ending - it doesn't quite satisfactorily deliver its emotional payoff, both in terms of the villain's comeuppance and the hero's deliverance. (Also, I really wish films that lack the budget for proper car stunts would stop trying to do them in CGI. It never works! A car stunt is supposed to make you go "whoa!" A CGI car stunt just makes you go "cheh.") But it is well-made; that much is clear, and that's why it deserves three-and-a-half stars. Kelvin Tong may have tried a little too hard, but I sure wish some of that would rub off on our filmmakers. Most of those morons don't even try.

NEXT REVIEW: Andartu Terlampau... 21 Hari Mencari Suami
Expectations: siiigh