Thursday, July 29, 2010

I kept waiting for Mickey to show up

The Sorcerer's Apprentice
My rating:

So the provenance of this movie is, apparently, the segment in the 1940 Disney animated film Fantasia in which Mickey Mouse played the titular sorcerer's apprentice. It was the one where he enchants a broom to do his chores for him, but instead causes a flood in his master's laboratory. Remember that one? Now, apparently Jerry Bruckheimer - or one of his flunkies - thought it would be a good idea to make a movie out of this. Of course, a theme park ride is also a dumb thing to make a movie out of, but those actually turned out pretty good. Which proves that, as with all things, execution is key. Yes, precisely nobody was waiting for this film with bated breath, but if it had turned out good it would've shut all the naysayers up.

I'm still saying nay.

In 740 AD, the wizard Merlin is betrayed by his apprentice Horvath (Alfred Molina) and killed by his arch-enemy Morgana (Alice Krige). His two other apprentices Balthazar (Nicolas Cage) and Veronica (Monica Bellucci) manage to trap Morgana within a magical doll called the Grimhold, but Veronica ends up imprisoned along with her. Balthazar spends the next 1,000 years fighting other evil sorcerers and searching for the Prime Merlinian, prophesied to be the only one to defeat Morgana once and for all - and in present-day New York, he finds him in Dave Stutler (Jay Baruchel), a young physics nerd. Dave is more interested in pursuing his childhood crush Becky (Teresa Palmer), but when Horvath reemerges with a plan to free Morgana and end the world - aided by Drake Stone (Toby Kebbell), another modern-day sorcerer - Dave must learn to control his own nascent magical powers and fulfill his destiny.

Bruckheimer made his name by making hyper-macho action movies (in fact, he's one of the few Hollywood producers, as opposed to directors or screenwriters, who puts his unique stamp on all his films), but he seems to be on a kid- and teen-friendly roll lately. It started with the Pirates of the Caribbean series, of course, then continued with G-Force and Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time... and also, um, Kangaroo Jack. Smart move on Bruckheimer's part, since his something-must-blow-up-every-10-minutes formula ought to work like gangbusters on 12-year-old boys of all ages - but it would've been smarter if more of those movies were actually good.

I'm going to unfairly compare The Sorcerer's Apprentice to Prince of Persia now. Unfair? Perhaps, but really, this movie kept reminding me of it. It doesn't suffer from the breakneck editing that spoiled Prince, but that just means Prince had a better movie buried deep within it, whereas this one doesn't. Prince at least tried to tell an interesting story; this one is your typical Campbellian Hero's Journey that doesn't so much rip off Joseph Campbell as it does Harry Potter. And its problem isn't so much that it employs a classic story as it is the fact that it's so generic and uninspired. One of the archetypical beats of the Hero's Journey is the Refusal of the Call, which happens here when Dave quits halfway through his training under Balthazar - which makes no sense, because by then he had already discovered that he has magical powers.

But making sense isn't high on this movie's list of priorities. Nor is telling a smart story, one that holds up to the scrutiny of anyone above the (mental) age of 12. Once again, Prince was cheesy and lightweight, but it wasn't as deliberately kiddish as this. Nowhere is this more evident than during its one nod to its source material; yes, there's a scene in which Dave brings some mops and broomsticks to life, things go haywire, they cause a flood, Dave panics, har de har har not. That's the general tone of this movie - a live-action cartoon, and not a very good one at that. The only really funny bits were a smash cut to a Buzz Lightyear toy near the beginning, and a Star Wars reference later on, and it's telling that this movie's best jokes are references to other movies.

If there's any reason to catch this, it would've been for a typically gonzo Nicolas Cage performance - and sadly, it disappoints in this regard too. Both he and Alfred Molina, another veteran scenery-chewer, are far too restrained to be much fun. Monica Bellucci and Alice Krige (the Borg Queen, man!) are equally wasted in what are little more than cameos. Teresa Palmer was actually quite impressive in a thankless role; she was the only one playing it straight while everyone else was doing broad. (And she's also verrry cute.) Toby Kebbell was fun - a lot more than he was in Prince of Persia - so why he gets so little screentime I'll never know. And Jay Baruchel? I like the guy. I missed him in She's Out of My League, but he was good in Tropic Thunder, and his voice work was great in How to Train Your Dragon. But he's lousy here; he overdoes the awkward geeky tics, and his perpetual freaking out at the freaky magic stuff comes off as annoying. The problem is that his dialogue is crappy, and also that he's directed by Jon Turteltaub.

Jon Turteltaub, man. What a hack. He's known mostly for the inexplicably successful National Treasure movies, and he brings the same complete and utter unremarkability of those to this film. Its saving grace is that things move fast enough that you won't get bored, and the SFX are well-crafted enough to be mildly thrilling on occasion. But ultimately, naah; even Prince was a tad better than this, because it wasn't as lazy and formulaic and made for the kids. There was this bunch of teenage boys sitting next to me in the cinema who seemed to dig it; they laughed at all the jokes, they ooh-ed at all the magical razzle-dazzle, and they walked out chatting happily. But they also sat through the Tron: Legacy trailer with absolutely zero reaction. So whose judgment are you gonna trust, mine or theirs?

Expectations: this looks like it'll be something new

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Vampires, werewolves, even heroine - finally cool

The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
My rating:

I went into the latest installment of the Twilight series expecting to mock it. I didn't hate the previous two, but I didn't think it would be any different. I was planning to do that thing where I don't review the movie so much as I do the (*puts geek glasses on*) sociological implications of the franchise, and I figured I had plenty of fodder in the fact that the Malaysian Twilight fanbase seemed to be primarily Malay girls. I was all ready to comment on how this exposes the patriarchalism inherent in modern Malay-Muslim society, which gives rise to exactly the kind of female submission fantasies that Twilight perpetuates. It woulda been a kickass post, I tellya, although it probably wouldn't have been much of a review.

And then I ended up liking the movie. Which just spoils everything.

Edward (Robert Pattinson) has asked Bella (Kristen Stewart) to marry him, but she demurs; her true wish is for him to turn her into a vampire like himself, a wish that he too is reluctant to grant. And Jacob (Taylor Lautner) has made his feelings for Bella known, causing her to be torn between her vampire and werewolf paramours. But a storm is coming to their town of Forks. An army of newborn vampires is being created, led by Riley (Xavier Samuel), and it soon becomes clear that he is doing the bidding of Victoria (Bryce Dallas Howard), the vampiress who has sworn vengeance against Edward and Bella. The Cullen clan must unite with the Quileute werewolves to face the coming onslaught of newborns - who are stronger, faster, and more bloodthirsty than even normal vampires.

David Slade previously directed 30 Days of Night and Hard Candy, both of which I thought were pretty good. Both of which employed a brutal, hard-R-rated approach to horror that couldn't be more different from the PG-13 tween-girl-fantasy of Twilight. But bringing Slade on board the franchise was a move that paid off in the best of the series to date. There are some cool action scenes, especially a climactic fight scene that's actually pretty awesome; there's some undercranking (i.e. deliberately dropping the film's frame rate so as to make things look like they're moving faster), but if that's what it takes to make actors like Bryce Dallas Howard look badass, then so be it. And yes, the vampires are actually pretty badass here, even - nay, especially - the perpetually-Gap-beclothed Cullens. Mainly because they finally have a sense of purpose, when in the last two movies all they did was ponce around looking pretty.

Slade also shows a deft touch at building up the suspense throughout the film, so that it's not just action scenes punctuated by boring talky scenes. The vampires-vs-vampires/werewolves battle feels like something the entire series has been building up to, and this film finally makes it worthwhile. The werewolves get a little short shrift - the CGI beasties look too unreal and insubstantial - but the vampires really do appear supernaturally fast, strong and deadly, for the first time in three movies. The film even shows an occasional nasty streak that's also pretty unexpected in a Twilight film; no spoilers, but it involves the brutally matter-of-fact murders of two people who might be considered minors. They may have been in Stephenie Meyer's source material, but I feel quite confident in crediting Slade for making those scenes seem actually horrific.

Of course, the boring talky scenes are still there, and they do detract from the more fun stuff. And of course, the talk revolves around the perpetually drippy Bella and her love triangle between Edward and Jacob, which... isn't too annoying this time, actually. Screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg does a pretty damn decent job at crafting the script, despite the occasional tortured dialogue (for which I feel quite confident in blaming Meyer for instead of Rosenberg). She handles the themes and emotional underpinnings quite deftly, employing callbacks and payoffs and all the tricks of a professional screenwriter's trade. And there are also three flashback scenes that continue the job of expanding the Twilight world that New Moon began. One tells the root of the ancient animosity between Forks' vampires and werewolves, and the other two give us some interesting backstory for Jasper (Jackson Rathbone) and Rosalie (Nikki Reed), who were previously nothing more than flower vases. I actually wish we could've seen flashbacks for the rest of the Cullens as well.

The most obvious indication that the writing has improved is that Bella actually displays more of a spine this time. When Jacob makes an inappropriate pass at her, she slugs him; when Edward tries to stop her from comforting Jacob, she spits an angry "Don't!" at him. (Oh, and I didn't really think Jacob was rapey and abusive here; he was just being a dumb and impulsive teenager.) It's still quite Mary Sue-ish how the whole plot revolves around her, and she's still kinda dumb for being more concerned about her superpowered friends than the superpowered bad guys who want to kill her non-superpowered self - but at least she shows a lot more courage and determination than she ever did. There's even a speech she delivers, right at the end of the movie, that almost seems like a response to criticisms of Bella being a hopelessly weak and personality-devoid character.

And it helps a lot that Kristen Stewart plays her. Honestly, Stewart gets a lot of undeserved flack for being in these films, but she's actually a great choice for the role. (Please check her out in Adventureland.) She's a natural at portraying strength and vulnerability in turn, which really helps to balance the way Meyer portrays Bella. Suffice it to say that she's actually, finally, pretty good here. Robert Pattinson also seems to have improved; there's still little real chemistry between him and Stewart, and I'm still not feeling this all-consuming love that they supposedly share, but he gets to display a somewhat wider range of emotions this time - he smiles a few times, and actually cracks the occasional joke. Taylor Lautner is still pretty wooden though, and he has even less chemistry with Stewart. It's becoming even more clear now that he was cast just for his abs. But Billy Burke is really turning out to be the series' secret weapon, as Bella's father Charlie. His birds-and-the-bees conversation with her is really pretty funny.

There was an anonymous commenter on my New Moon review who called me gay for not hating it. (Hon Woon, was that you?) Well, phooey to him, and to anyone else for whom hating Twilight is an uninformed kneejerk response. Then again, my kneejerk response is to hate the books and Meyer's writing, because I really think the movies have been getting better. With source material this bad, I think it can only get better, and I think the films' makers - especially Rosenberg - have been working on it long enough that they can't help but elevate it. I think Stewart's and Pattinson's performances are proof of that, as is hiring Slade as director. Then again, the worst of the source material is yet to come, and I truly do not envy Bill Condon for signing on to make two movies out of it; I doubt even Slade is up to the job. (Perhaps David Cronenberg.) In the meantime, someone else will have to write that Malay-Muslim feminist critique of The Twilight Saga: Eclipse. 'Cos I liked it.

NEXT REVIEW: The Sorcerer's Apprentice
Expectations: meh

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Belum cukup mantap lagi, En. Azhari

My rating:

(Apologies for not reviewing Zoo. Work and personal obligations got in the way. Not because I'm deliberately avoiding anything that involves the Senario crew. Oh no.)

I may have been a little too harsh on Azhari Mohd. Zain. When I reviewed Jin Notti, I didn't know that that was his first film; and when I reviewed Santau, I didn't know that that was his first horror film. Now, none of this denies or mitigates the fact that both were terrible, terrible films - but inexperience is not the same as incompetence or apathy. And an inexperienced filmmaker certainly has room to improve.

Okay, the man has improved. But not enough to make Mantra a good movie.

When his wife Ani (Ana Dahlia) is afflicted with a supernatural curse, Muzir (Zul Suphian) resorts to black magic to save her - but this only earns him an arrest and incarceration. In his prison cell, he is visited by Mbah Suro (Ruzaidi Abdul Rahman), a practitioner of sorcery who imparts to Muzir his knowledge of the dark arts. Ten years later, Muzir is ready to take his revenge; with the unwilling aid of his Pak Long (Hamdan Ramli) who is also his prison guard, he makes good his escape. The target of his ire is Hasbi (Hasnul Rahmat), his former friend, who has since taken Ani as his wife and raised his son as his own - and who also has sorcerous powers of his own.

Now, when I say Azhari has improved, I meant as a writer. The bare bones of the plot is surprisingly solid, and I was even somewhat impressed by how economically it dealt with Muzir's backstory in the opening scenes. Nothing happened that didn't make sense, although the links between many plot points could've been made clearer. Soon after escaping, Muzir kills the first luckless dude he runs into, then transforms the guy's body into a decoy of his own so that he appears to have died in prison - only the film forgets to show how he got the body back into his cell. There's more than one instance where an attentive viewer can sort of figure out things that aren't shown or motivations that weren't spelled out, but come on En. Azhari, this isn't Inception.

But while the bare bones of the plot works, the meat is sadly malnourished. What era is this movie set in? Is this a period film? Why does no one think of calling a doctor when their wife or daughter is deliriously ill? All they do is call Hasbi, but does the guy have a job aside from local ghostbuster? Ani's mum goes missing, and Ani worries aloud about her (she's a mean old hag who made Ani divorce Muzir, so you can guess what he does to her), but nobody ever calls the police. And at one point, Hasbi asks Ani where their son Borhan is, and Ani says, "dia belum balik." And I'm thinking, he must be at school, so okay, there's some form of civil society in this movie. But no. Borhan is out cycling. Alone, through deserted forest paths. This after Hasbi is well aware that Muzir is out there with a grudge against him. All these plot holes could've been dealt with if the writing were a little more diligent.

And though I said Azhari's writing has improved, his direction sadly has not. All he does is rely on jump scares and goofy creature effects and what little gore is allowed by our cherished Lembaga Penapisan Filem. And there are a number of unforgivable continuity errors borne of sheer carelessness. At one point, Hasbi heals a cursed wound on Ani's arm, but in a subsequent long shot the wound is still there. Later Muzir does a similar thing to Borhan, but the makeup department must've been on their tea break or something, because we never even saw the wound. And there's a supposedly scary scene with Ani on the steps of her house that takes place at night, only it's sandwiched between two daytime scenes that ostensibly follow each other. It seems nothing more than an excuse to show Ana Dahlia in a kemban.

Then there's the way he directs his actors. This is only Zul Suphiaan's second film after Santau, so Azhari must've been responsible for his performance - which is to growl and scowl and loll his head about like he's been possessed by the demons he's summoning. And both he and Hasnul Rahmat are all constipated grimacing and shouty chanting during their many voodoo duels, which lends an overheated cheesiness to the whole proceedings. A little restraint, En. Azhari, would've worked better. Ana Dahlia was unremarkable, but she was playing a terribly-written character; Ani is this weak and simpering woman who does nothing to prevent two men from destroying themselves over her. If Hamdan Ramli's girly screaming was meant to be comic relief - it didn't work. It was just annoying. And Bob Lokman shows up towards the end as an imam that at first seems like a tacked-on "Islam pwns black magic, Allah FTW!" message, but actually turns out to be a half-decent plot twist. So there's that.

The thing about making a film is that it's easy to get so caught up in the minutiae that you lose sight of the big picture. I think that's what happened to Azhari here. I think when he sat down to write the screenplay, he did a solid piece of work - but when words turned to performances and shot compositions and art direction and shooting schedules, it all just got away from him. I don't know if he's actually getting better as a filmmaker, or if the few things good about it are flukes, so I guess we'll just have to see more from him to know for sure. In any case, Mantra still isn't a good film, but at least it's not as bad as his previous ones.

NEXT REVIEW: The Twilight Saga: Eclipse
Expectations: let's just get this over with

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Incept this: movies can be smart, and so can audiences

My rating:

I totally loved The Dark Knight. Screw anyone who didn't; I thought it deserved every critical rave it got, as well as every one of the $1 billion-plus dollars it earned at the box office. And that's the really amazing thing, that such a dark and uncompromising film could also turn out to be so universally popular. The lion's share of the credit has to go to writer-director Christopher Nolan; although his brother Jonathan and David Goyer contributed to the screenplay, it was Nolan's direction that took a typically dark Batman story (typical, in that the comics had been doing it for decades) and faithfully - and very effectively - translated it into film. A film that I'd gladly give 5 stars to.

Inception gets 4-½ stars from me. But goddamn, who's counting?

Dominic Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is an "extractor", a corporate spy who utilises futuristic technology to enter people's dreams and steal secrets from their subconscious. He is hired by a very wealthy and powerful man named Saito (Ken Watanabe) to perform a wholly different job - that of inception, planting an idea into another person's subconscious in such a way as to make them believe the idea was their own. Most people think this is impossible, but Cobb accepts and begins assembling his team: point man Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), forger Eames (Tom Hardy), chemist Yusuf (Dileep Rao), and newcomer and "dream architect" Ariadne (Ellen Page). Their mark is Robert Fischer, Jr. (Cillian Murphy), heir to a billion-dollar corporate empire and Saito's business rival. But Cobb's subconscious is haunted by traumatic memories of his wife Mal (Marion Cotillard), whose manifestations threaten to wreak havoc with an already difficult job.

I feel it best to posit a warning for those intending to watch this movie: be prepared for people talking in the cinema. I've seen it twice now (and yes, that does put it in rare company), and both times there was someone in my audience who kept explaining the movie to their companions. Are you an inattentive viewer? When you go to the movies, do you think nothing of munching noisily on snacks, carrying a conversation with your friend or on the phone, or stepping out for a pee/cigarette/leg-stretching break? If you are, then do not watch this movie. This is a film that requires concentration. It demands your fullest attention. It necessitates you to continually think about what you're being shown and told. Which, by the way, is the proper way to watch a film, although films that reward this kind of mental investment are rare. And Inception's rewards are myriad and immensely rewarding. (Also, if you are that kind of viewer, screw you, and stay the hell away from any cinema I go to. And if instead you are the kind of viewer who likes to show off how smart you are during the movie, screw you too.)

But as complex as it is, and it is a very complex movie, it's still pretty accessible - provided you are able to pay attention. It lays out all the rules of the dreamworld(s) in elegant ways - expositional dialogue worked into scenes in which the plot continues moving forward, and/or there's something interesting happening on screen. The first time Cobb takes Ariadne on a tour of the dreamscape is the most obviously explaining-things-to-the-audience scene, and that's the one with the spectacularly trailer-and-poster-worthy scene of an entire city folding back on itself. It's only after the midway point of the film, in which the heist finally begins, that all these rules are demonstrated - and broken - in deliciously twisty ways. But while I'm still puzzling out all the details of its mind-bogglingly meticulous plot, the basic storyline remains clear and engaging throughout.

Because I guarantee you this: it all makes sense. Trust me. I know movies that tried to get all deep and complicated and failed to make sense, but this isn't one of them. It never lost me - in fact, I was constantly open-mouthed in awe throughout the film. Yes, Avatar did that to me too with its amazing visuals; Inception did it to me with both amazing visuals and amazing ideas. The dream-Paris scene had me awestruck even before the folding-over, because of Cobb's running explanation of how dream-sharing works. And then there are the legitimately awesome scenes, such as the hotel hallway fight scene, first with its constantly-shifting gravity, and then with zero gravity. Whoo. That. Was. An. Awesome scene, and I can guarantee you've never seen anything like it before. It's stuff like this that qualifies Nolan into the hall of all-time great film directors; he can make an effective blockbuster film, with plenty of action and spectacle and special effects, and still base it on fascinating ideas and genuine human drama.

And yes, there is genuine human drama in this film. I've heard Nolan criticized as being an emotionally cold director, but I don't think that's true; the emotions in his films are dark, not cold. Cobb reconciling with his memory of Mal is front and center in the story, but only a little to the periphery is the subplot of Fischer reconciling with the memory of his father. This is executed with as much care and attention as the former, and neither would've worked as well without some terrific acting. Leonardo DiCaprio and Cillian Murphy are faultlessly convincing, even if Murphy gets the somewhat thankless role of the mark - and even if DiCaprio, perhaps coincidentally, does a redux of his traumatised widower performance from Shutter Island (a film that is, perhaps coincidentally, similar to this one in more than one way). The rest of the cast are all charismatic performers who imbue their supporting roles with as much flair as they are allowed, but the standout is Marion Cotillard. Whoo, she is terrific - hers is the most emotionally complex role, and she not only pulls it off, she looks smokin' hot while doing it. No film with a performance like hers in it can be accused of being emotionally cold.

So why aren't I giving it 5 stars? For one reason alone: I felt that it started to drag towards the end, and that the editing there could've been tighter. (Whereas The Dark Knight had me gripped from start to finish.) But having read a number of negative reviews, I'll gladly defend it against any other criticism. Emotionally cold? No freaking way. The action scenes were lackluster? No, they were unremarkable but perfectly competent, and anyway, the hotel hallway fight scene, so there. The dreamscapes were mundane, and not as bizarre as we all know dreams can be? They're meant to be mundane, because the whole point is to fool someone into thinking it's real (on one level at least), and anyway the film already establishes that the more fantastical the dream gets, the more the subject rejects it. Mainly, my answer to these complaints would be that you can't have it all. What this film sets out to do, it does extremely well already, and I think that more than forgives the things it doesn't pay as much attention to - which, again, are perfectly competent at least.

Sigh... I know, my review is terribly late; most of you reading this would've seen it already. This has not been an easy one to write, and I doubt I did a very good job of it; I've been so caught up in discussing the movie, online and with friends, that I haven't given this review the attention it deserves. So let me close by saying this about Inception: you will discuss it. You will talk about it, right after you step out of the cinema and perhaps even days after. You will think about it - about the intricacies of its plot, about the rules of its dreamworld(s), about the themes and the issues it raises, and especially about the ending. (Whoo. What an ending.) And that's the beauty of this film; it makes you think, from the very first scene till the very last shot and long after. It's a film that proves that thinking about a film can be a terrific pleasure. So get on the forums, have long mamak-session debates, and talk about it till the cows come home. Better yet, watch it again. Prove to Hollywood that audiences are smart enough to enjoy smart movies, and that you want more of them.

Expectations: Azhari Bloody Zain again

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Disappointingly meh

Despicable Me
My rating:

You may have noticed that I rarely mention anything about the 3D whenever I review a 3D movie. That's because I almost never watch them in 3D. The only ones I've seen so far are G-Force and Avatar, and I wasn't hot about the 3D in both - no, not even the latter, which is a perfectly great movie without it. I'm a total cynic about this 3D fad, and yes, a fad is all I think it is. I just don't think it adds anything to the movie-watching experience; in fact, all that stuff flying out at me is more often than not a distraction from the story. But I forked out the RM17 to catch Despicable Me in 3D, because I'd heard there's an end-credits sequence that plays with the 3D effects. I figured that's as good an opportunity as any to give this 3D business another chance.

It was okay, I guess. The 3D, I mean. The movie, not quite.

Gru (Steve Carell) is a supervillain. He may live in a typical suburban white-picket-fence neighbourhood, but deep under his ordinary-seeming house is a supervillain's lair, complete with army of Minions (voices of Pierre Coffin and Chris Renaud) and scientist assistant Dr. Nefario (Russell Brand). His reputation has taken a few hits lately though, what with an upstart new villain named Vector (Jason Segel) having made his name by stealing the Great Pyramid of Giza. So Gru masterminds a new plan to steal no less than the moon - but first, he will need to get his hands on an experimental new Shrink Ray. And when Vector snatches the Shrink Ray right out from under his nose, Gru plots to make use of three orphan girls - Margo (Miranda Cosgrove), Edith (Dana Gaier), and Agnes (Elsie Fisher) - to get it back. But it isn't long before his three new adopted daughters begin to melt his villainous heart.

It's not funny. It just isn't. Is it just me? I pretty much sat through the whole thing without laughing once. Every joke was obvious and belaboured and, worst of all, given away in the trailers. The bratty tourist kid who discovers the fake inflatable pyramid? In the trailers. Gru's introduction scene with the kid who dropped his ice cream? In the trailers. Gru cutting the queue at Starbucks with his freeze ray? In the trailers. Gru's failed attempts at getting past Vector's defenses? In the trailers. Agnes' cutest moments? In the trailers. Gru blowing away the concession stand? In the trailers. And really, few of these were very funny to begin with. Only the little vignettes with the yellow Minions were... well, amusing is the word I guess, since they didn't really make me laugh either. They were more cute than genuinely funny.

And boy, does this movie trade on cute. Cute is pretty much all it has. It substitutes cute not only for humour, but also for heartwarming. Gru goes from misanthrope who intends to abandon the three girls at a theme park to a loving foster father in a heartbeat, and the catalyst for this change of heart is little more than Agnes being cute. And the other two have even less personality, so I'm wondering what Gru sees in them. Consider the character of Dr. Nefario, and how the story makes use of him. He's the one who sees the girls as a distraction to the steal-the-moon plan, and he's the one who calls Miss Hattie (Kristen Wiig), the orphanage director, to take them away. But come the inevitable happy ending, he's suddenly all happy-happy-joy-joy with the girls. That right there shows how lazy this movie is when it comes to characterization.

Indeed, this movie is very very lazy. Consider the Minions. There's a bit in which one turns the other into a glowstick, and while the audience around me were guffawing away, I was wondering: what are these Minions anyway? They certainly don't appear human. Are they aliens? Some kind of subhuman race that Gru discovered and befriended? Or are they genetically-engineered creations of his, designed to emit light when given a back-crack? We never find out, and thus the glowstick gag is a gag, nothing more. Nor does it bother to deal with what could really happen when the moon disappears from the earth's orbit. Am I being too nitpicky about a kids' animated movie? Perhaps. Or perhaps I've just been spoiled by Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs, an all-ages animated movie that's actually smart, and treats its audience as if they were smart too.

You know how else an animated movie can be lazy? When it hires a bunch of famous names to voice its characters, but all of them give dull performances. Steve Carell is a very funny guy - he was one half of the best comedic pairing of the year so far - but here, his comic talent is hidden under an Eastern European accent that is pretty much all the characterization Gru gets. Jason Segel, Kristen Wiig and Russell Brand are pure stunt casting. Of the three orphan girls, only Elsie Fisher is noteworthy - because, again, only she gets to be cute. Julie Andrews is unrecognizable as Gru's mother, partly because she too puts on an accent, but mostly because she too has nothing interesting to do. I almost wish they'd did the typically lame animated-movie standby of making pop culture references to the actors and their most famous roles; at least it would've justified casting all these people.

Okay, it's not egregiously bad. Egregiously bad would get two stars from me; this one is still fitfully amusing enough to garner two-and-a-half. But 2-½ stars is a big step down from all the terrific animated films we've been getting lately. Cloudy is much smarter and much funnier. How to Train Your Dragon is much more thrilling and exciting. Toy Story 3 is much, much more substantial and emotionally engaging. I can't imagine any reason to watch this when the bar has been set by the above three films, the last of which is still showing in cinemas. If you haven't seen Toy Story 3, go see it. If you already have, go see it again. Watching this after Pixar's latest masterpiece would be like having a meal of the finest Wagyu beef, deciding you want some more, then going for a Ramly burger.

(Oh by the way, apologies for not reviewing Shrek Forever After. I just didn't want to do Retro Reviews of the previous three in the series.)

NEXT REVIEW: Inception
Expectations: Christopher Nolan FTW BABY YEAH

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Welcome back, you ugly motherf***ers

My rating:

I really should've done Retro Reviews of the Predator series. I have the first two on DVD (albeit one of those crappy 8-in-1 ones), and I watched them both not too long ago - but then I remembered I'd probably have to do those two Alien vs. Predator movies too, which I do not own on DVD and have never watched to boot. And I wasn't particularly keen to, since both are reportedly not very good (the second one infamously so). But not to worry, since as a child of the '80s, TMBF has more than a passing familiarity with the series - enough to be worried that, seeing as how it's another jungle setting with virtually the same premise, this sequel-cum-reboot might turn out to be a beat-for-beat rehash of the first.

Fortunately, it isn't. It's smart enough and good enough to be a proper Predator sequel, and better than all the others.

Eight people are literally dropped into a hostile jungle: an American mercenary (Adrien Brody), an Israeli sniper (Alice Braga), a Mexican drug cartel enforcer (Danny Trejo), a Russian Spetsnaz commando (Oleg Taktarov), a convict on Death Row (Walton Goggins), a Yakuza member (Louis Ozawa Changchien), an African death squad assassin (Mahershalalhashbaz Ali), and a geeky doctor (Topher Grace). They realize that they are all trained killers - with the exception of the doctor - and that they have been brought here by the Predators, an alien race of big-game hunters. It is all they can do to stay alive at first - but when they encounter Noland (Laurence Fishburne), a long-time survivor, an opportunity arises for the hunted to become hunters.

Okay, let's do this quick: The first Predator was one of the best sci-fi/action movies of the '80s - not just for introducing the nifty concept of the Predator, but also for the entertainingly over-the-top characters and dialogue, and how the tone delicately straddles cheeseball and serious action-horror. (And yes, the Predator series is horror. They're practically slasher films.) Predator 2, on the other hand, was a disappointment; it wallows in bad cop-movie clichés, its brand of cheese was of the taking-itself-far-too-seriously variety, it was often unpleasantly sleazy and exploitative, and Danny Glover was miscast. (You don't get a guy who's most famous for playing Roger Murtaugh in the Lethal Weapon series to play a Martin Riggs-type character.)

Predators is a Predator sequel done right, in all the ways that count. From its thrilling opening, where Adrien Brody's character (he remains unnamed till the end, as do most of the others) wakes up to find himself plummeting through the air, the film maintains an atmosphere of constant tension and dread throughout, comparable to the 1987 original. What that one did was to take seven badass guys, supremely confident in their badassery, and have them gradually realize there's something out there that utterly pwns them. In this film however, our guys are also pretty badass, but right from the beginning they are lost and disoriented and well aware that they are out of their depth. It's a different dynamic, and director Nimrod Antal - with plenty of guidance from writer and producer Robert Rodriguez, I'm sure - makes good use of it.

It helps that it's R-rated, with all the violence and gore that entails. (None of which, profane dialogue included, is censored, hurrah!) Which helps a lot - nothing like knowing the movie isn't afraid to spill blood, dismember appendages, or eviscerate body parts to keep you in suspense. All of which helps you overlook its small weaknesses: the characters aren't as cool as the first, it offers a glimpse into the Predators' world - the fact that there are two feuding factions of them - without delving into it satisfactorily, and it's somewhat predictable which of the eight are gonna die next. But seriously, the constant tension makes up for a lot. Even a lengthy, exposition-heavy dialogue scene in its midsection holds your attention - partly because of Laurence Fishburne's enjoyably nutty performance in it.

Apparently Adrien Brody lobbied hard for his role as the de facto leader of this motley band of action anti-heroes. It's nice that an Academy Award-winning character actor is a fan of the Predator franchise, but honestly, I thought casting him in this was a gamble that didn't exactly pay off. He's okay in the role, but he doesn't quite reinvent himself as the next Schwarzenegger either. The acting in this is kinda hit and miss, really; Alice Braga is somewhat flat (and I happen to think she's really hawt), and Topher Grace is also just about competent. Aside from Fishburne, the most entertaining one is Walton Goggins, who gets some of the funniest lines. But honestly, don't go into this one looking for great acting, which is a small disappointment because the original did have some fun performances.

When I walked out of this, I was ready to proclaim it as good as the first. I'm no longer so sure though. Granted, I never did think Predator is a classic or anything; it was just very good, and looking back on it right now I'd give it 4 stars. This one isn't as well-crafted, but it gets the important things right - the constant sense of dread, and the right balance between action and horror, plus a few bits of smart writing to boot. Rodriguez titled it Predators because he wanted it to be Aliens to the original's Alien. It doesn't quite reach those heights (very few sequels do), but it's still the best Predator movie since the original. And for a concept that's as cool as the Predators, that's still very good.

NEXT REVIEW: Despicable Me
Expectations: been hearing good things about it

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Little Afghan girl's big (symbolic) adventure

Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame
My rating:

I am somewhat less familiar with arthouse and international films than a film critic should perhaps be. I've vaguely heard about how Iranian films have become quite popular and highly-acclaimed among the arthouse circuit - some of which have even been screened in Malaysia - but I haven't seen one till now. I freely admit that my cinematic tastes run more to the lowbrow, but it's good for a film buff (and a self-proclaimed film critic, more so) to every now and then watch something outside his comfort zone. Also, I was drawn to Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame because of its clear reference to the Bamiyan Buddhas, the destruction of which I remember reading about and feeling as outraged as the rest of the world over. So I had that as a point of reference, at least, to a film that was otherwise to be a completely unfamiliar experience to me.

Maybe I just need to pick better Iranian films.

Baktay (Nikbakht Noruz) is a 5-year-old girl living in Bamiyan, Afghanistan, in the caves under the remains of the Buddha statues that were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001. One day she overhears the neighbour boy Abbas (Abbas Alijome) reading aloud from his schoolbook, and makes up her mind to go to school. But she can't find her mother, who has left the house to get water, and so she must set out all by herself. First she must raise the meagre amount of money to buy a notebook, then she must find the girls' school - but her greatest challenge will be the gang of boys playing Talibans-and-Americans, whose childish game both mimics the violence around them, as well as reflects the social injustices under which girls like Baktay live.

As per my last attempt at reviewing an arthouse film, I immediately went looking for reviews to help make sense of clarify what I just watched. (Seriously, this is totally what film reviews are for. Read 'em before you watch a movie, so's you know whether it's worth watching - but also read 'em after you've watched it so's you appreciate it better.) With their aid, I can tell you now that this film is essentially the adventure of an incredibly cute little girl who just wants to go to school. It's a simple story, simply told, and it can be quite charming. Nikbakht Noruz is adorable, and any heart that her gap-toothed grin cannot melt must not be a human one. And of course, what makes her story interesting is that she lives in a part of the world in which even her simple desire to learn how to read is fraught with difficulty - even danger.

But, y'know, simply told is one thing; well-told is another entirely. I'm okay with the fact that it doesn't follow your traditional Hollywood three-act structure; its spends its first third on Baktay trying to buy the notebook, and it isn't till around the halfway mark that she meets that gang of boys. But its unstructured narrative is also an often unfocused narrative. It's okay for a scene to be incidental if it's also entertaining, e.g. the one where Baktay mischievously keeps stepping out of the gang leader's (Abdolali Hoseinali) chalk-circle prison. But a lot of them aren't - e.g. the one where Abbas falls victim to the boys as well, or the one where Baktay meets a traffic policeman. And when Baktay finally makes it to school... okay, no spoilers, but suffice it to say that this is where the story takes a turn that had me scratching my head. It's almost as if director Hana Makhmalbaf simply couldn't get the performance she wanted out of Noruz, so she just decided to go with this new direction.

That schoolroom scene is problematic for more than one reason. The film's soundtrack is sparse, as befits a low-budget indie film that tells a very simple story - but its use of music is embarrassingly heavy-handed. Every time the (single piece of) music comes up, it signifies that A Very Important Point Is Being Made Here. Because y'see, what with this movie being titled the way it is, Makhmalbaf clearly isn't just telling the story of Baktay's Big Adventure here; she is also making Very Important Points about the Taliban and their cultural ignorance and subjugation of women. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it didn't have to be done so clumsily. Yes, the music comes up during the classroom scene, in which poor Baktay can't find an empty seat. The problem with this scene is that this makes the teacher stupidly oblivious of a new girl in her class climbing all over the chairs and tables. "Contrived" is not a word I would've expected to apply to an Iranian film. (And all this even before the storyline takes that turn for the odd.)

Strangely enough, my opinion of it was somewhat raised by its ending, in which it becomes clear that Makhmalbaf is attempting to be symbolic in delivering her Very Important Points. What else to make of (again, trying to be careful with spoilers here) the bit where someone cries "die, and you'll be free!" which immediately cuts to actual footage of the Bamiyan Buddhas getting blown up? No, the symbolism probably doesn't all hang together - it certainly isn't very comprehensible - but it did finally make clear to me what Makhmalbaf was trying to accomplish with this film. And when it comes to arthouse films, I consider it a success if I'm merely able to figure it out. So three stars then, which just about makes this a favourable review. Hopefully, as with my review of At the End of Daybreak, I've told you enough about it that you may enjoy it more - or understand it better - than I did.

NEXT REVIEW: Predators
Expectations: hoping it's not just a rehash of the first

Monday, July 5, 2010

No, we never find out what the "Day" refers to

Knight and Day
My rating:

There are films based on ideas so fresh, so innovative, so compelling, that they practically demand to be made. A director or screenwriter may have thought of it, mulled it over in his mind, found himself getting more and more excited about it until he's practically rushing to his PC, or even pen and paper, to get it down before another stray thought evicts it from his mind, never to return. And a good many years later, it may finally see the light of day as a theatrically-released motion picture that makes audiences go "OMG that was such a great movie, and it was based on so simple but so fantastic an idea, how could it have taken Hollywood this long to make it?" Knight and Day is not one of those films.

But for what it is, it's pretty damn good.

June Havens (Cameron Diaz) bumps into handsome stranger Roy Miller (Tom Cruise) at the airport, and when they end up sharing a plane, an attraction instantly develops. Then she steps out of the bathroom to find that Roy has killed every other passenger - including the pilots - and is maneuvering the plane into a controlled crash landing. It turns out that Roy is a rogue CIA agent on the run from his own people, and has in his possession a super-battery called the Zephyr that he claims his partner Fitzgerald (Peter Sarsgaard) is planning to sell to arms dealer Antonio Quintana (Jordi Mollà). Thus begins June's whirlwind adventure at Roy's side as he takes her around the world, picking up Simon Feck (Paul Dano), the teenage inventor of the Zephyr along the way, as her feelings for Roy swing wildly between infatuation, fear, and mistrust.

Imagine some Big Shot Hollywood Producer came up to you and said, "Okay, we got Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz available to make a movie together, and you gotta write the script. It's gotta be a comedy 'cos Cameron's good at that, it's gotta be an action movie 'cos Tom's good at that, and it's gotta be a romance 'cos, duh, Tom Cruise and Cameron Diaz. Get to it." This movie is probably the best possible thing you could've come up with under such less-than-artistically-ideal conditions, which is a minor miracle considering the even worse conditions under which it was actually made. Of the odd dozen writers who worked on it, the lion's share of credit probably goes to writer-director James Mangold, a journeyman director who has always done perfectly competent work.

Here, he shows a remarkable talent for taking a dull and generic premise and fleshing it out with a dozen little grace notes that make it a surprisingly well-written film. June is an unexpectedly well-developed character, for one. She restores classic cars for a living, but this tomboyish profession isn't the be-all and end-all of her character; it gives her depth, it makes her believably tough and brave when necessary, but she can also be as ditzy as the needs of comedy demands. The dynamics of June's and Roy's relationship are also interesting. No matter how much she freaks out or does foolish and foolhardy things, he is never anything but respectful, reassuring, even empowering. You believe her when she says "he makes me feel strong." (Ladies: this is what you should expect from your man.) Even plotwise, it's more conscientious than you'd expect in making sure its typically far-fetched action-movie plot hangs together; there's a bit where a Beach Boys song is used just to take extra care in linking two plot points together.

Cruise and Diaz are two of the most charismatic movie stars of our time, and at first I wondered why they'd never done a movie together - until, of course, I remembered 2001's Vanilla Sky. But Diaz played Cruise's psycho ex-girlfriend in that one, so here's where we get a proper romance between the two. Diaz is delightful (and yes, I may be biased in that I am a heterosexual male, but what the hey). As mentioned, her character is developed well enough that she can vacillate between ditzy and smart and be believable at both - although it is when she is the former that the film gets most of its laughs. Cruise is of course an old hand at playing action hero, and his unflappably charming Roy is a neat variation of the ones he's done before, but he's not so successful at generating heat with his co-star; whatever chemistry the two have together is largely due to Diaz.

I actually considered giving this movie four stars. I can't think of anything it did wrong, other than perhaps it could've played up the laughs more; Mangold is great with action and thrills, not so much with comedy. And there's a late-stage chase scene in the midst of a bull run that features some very obvious CGI bulls and green-screen work. But ultimately, what keeps it from greatness - or at least the greatness that a four-star rating from TMBF bestows - is that it's just a very well-executed example of a very unremarkable story; I doubt I'll remember much about it in a couple months' time. Still, it's a more than worthwhile way to spend your RM10++ (depending on venue, cinema chain, day of the week, and a bunch of other factors that us moviegoers really ought to be privy to).

NEXT REVIEW: Buddha Collapsed Out of Shame
Expectations: my cinematic horizons broadened