Wednesday, September 29, 2010

The kids are alright with being scared

The Hole
My rating:

The promo copy for The Hole refers to Joe Dante as a "legendary director", which on the one hand may just be typically overblown marketing spiel - but on the other hand, the man did direct Gremlins and its sequel. Not to mention the original Piranha, The Howling, Innerspace and Small Soldiers. His last film was Looney Tunes: Back in Action, and that was a good 7 years ago - and now he has a new movie out, and it's a return to the genre he's most known for at that. So, pretty significant.

I just wish I liked it better.

Teenager Dane (Chris Massoglia), his younger brother Lucas (Nathan Gamble) and their single mom Susan (Teri Polo) have just moved to the small town of Bensonville, fleeing a troubled past. Dane is unenthusiastic about the move, until he meets their attractive next door neighbour Julie (Haley Bennett). But then the kids discover a trapdoor in the basement floor of their new house, a door that opens to a mysterious pitch-black hole. An evil force lives within that hole, and opening the trapdoor has unleashed it upon all three of them - as it did Creepy Carl (Bruce Dern), the house's previous occupant.

Yes, you read the labels right. It's family-friendly horror, and it's not as incongruous a combination as you might think, especially if you're familiar with Dante's oeuvre. Kids love the delicious thrill of a good scary story as well as adults, and horror can be spooky and creepy without being R-rated (or 18); witness the popularity of the Goosebumps books. But on film, it's a pretty damn rare genre, and we haven't seen much of it since... well, since Dante's heyday during the '80s. So by rights he ought to be the perfect guy to bring it back.

And it sure seems that way in the beginning. Mark L. Smith's screenplay is solid, with appealing characterizations and dialogue that rings true; one neat thing it does is gradually doling out the backstory in a way that keeps the plot firmly grounded in the characters. In interviews, Dante has been effusive in his praise of Smith's script, and it's a script that certainly deserves it. Dante also gets the tone just right for kid-friendly horror, crafting scenes and images that are chilling in just such the way as to make you feel like you're 10 years old like Lucas again. There are bits with an evil-looking clown puppet, always a good source of frights - and there's a subplot involving a little girl ghost (and the way she moves) who is just terrifically scary.

Unfortunately, the more the nature of the hole was revealed, the more disappointed I was. At the risk of spoilers, I'll say that Dane, Julie and Lucas each have to face the horror of the hole individually, but the ways they overcome it feel anti-climactic and unsatisfying. And then there's the acting. Both Chris Massoglia's and Haley Bennett's performances are somewhat low-key, and I'm almost certain they were directed that way by Dante. It worked at first; their acting seemed naturalistic, and I could appreciate what Dante was going for. Then things started getting hairy, Dane and Julie started to face more and more freaky shit, and the word that kept coming to mind was "wooden".

But it's biggest flaw is that its later half couldn't sustain the creepiness of the first half. The tone gradually switches from horror to action-adventure, and it's quite a letdown after the delicious spookiness we were served earlier. I just couldn't muster up much excitement for the big climactic showdown, and the anaemic acting didn't help things either. I'm not sure I can fault Dante for this, since this is pretty much de rigueur for children's films; our kid heroes must triumph over the bad guys at the end. I think he just misjudged which of the film's bits were really scary; he put the best in the beginning and saved the weakest for last.

I wanted to like this movie, I really did. It's Joe Dante after all, and Gremlins was a pretty big part of my wasted movie-going youth. But I think it at least deserves a tentative recommendation, if only because it's kid-friendly horror, and that's a genre that deserves a revival. It doesn't mean the scary stuff is neutered or sanitized; it's a different kind of scary, one that you'll recognize if you're a child of the '80s or grew up reading R.L. Stine. And you'll definitely get it here. It's just a pity that you don't get it all the way to the end.

Expectations: waah, ambitious-nya

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Express elevator to Hell No

My rating:

Looks like the Shyamalan backlash has set in. Dismal reviews from AV Club and James Berardinelli; a not-that-bad 45% on Rotten Tomatoes, but even the positive reviews have caveats about the man's dismal reputation following The Last Airbender. A movie I hated, incidentally, but I was still willing to give the man a chance on his latest. Besides, I believe the reports of his career tailspin have been greatly exaggerated. If the reports are true that the trailer for this film was greeted with derisive laughter in cinemas, I suspect it was more due to the pomposity of the "From the Mind of M. Night Shyamalan" credit rather than any real disdain towards the man himself. After all, Airbender made money.

But after this? He doesn't deserve to. Make money, that is. Or any more movies. Or inflict upon us anything else from his mind.

Five strangers (Bokeem Woodbine, Bojana Novakovic, Logan Marshall-Green, Jenny O'Hara, Geoffrey Arend) are trapped in a stuck elevator in a Philadelphia high-rise building. Security guards Ramirez (Jacob Vargas) and Lustig (Matt Craven) try to help them, but it soon becomes clear that there is a murderer amongst the five who is preying on the others - and who may be the Devil himself. Police detective Bowden (Chris Messina) arrives on the scene and attempts to rescue them, but even he may have a role to play in the Devil's game.

Now this is why I review movies, and why I think a movie, any movie, is worth writing such lengthy reviews for: because they are complex machines. They are made up of a myriad components - the performance of every actor, the work of every crew member, and each of the thousand-and-one things the director has to decide on - and all these things have the potential to be excellent to middling to awful. Devil does one thing pretty well and another thing pretty damn badly, and I am almost certain that this is where audience reactions will be split.

Let's start with the good thing first, which is that it's perfectly satisfactory at delivering the expected chills and thrills. Director John Erick Dowdle succeeds at creating that all-important sense of dread that had me hugging my backpack tightly in my seat. (Or maybe it was the full-blast aircond in a ¾-empty cinema.) And I emphatically disagree with Berardinelli's review when he said the movie had no sense of claustrophobia. It was plenty claustrophobic; its cinematographer is the excellent Tak Fujimoto, who creates claustrophobia via the simple trick of shooting in tight close-ups of the lift occupants' faces. As a supernatural horror-thriller, Devil is really quite well-executed.

The problem is that the story - the thing that is being executed - is stupid. And it's a story that has Shyamalan's pawprints all over it. It purports to create this mythology whereby every now and then, the Devil likes to pick a bunch of sinners and torment them before killing them and claiming their souls - and it's a mythology that it just so happens Ramirez's mom knows all about. Y'see, Ramirez is the expert on everything that the Devil is up to in this movie, because his mom told him these stories when he was a kid. That is one smart mom. And thus it is up to Ramirez to provide all the exposition and convince everyone else of it, which at one point he does by dropping a piece of toast - because bad things happen when the Devil's around! That's why the toast fell jelly side down!

And the film takes this seriously. That scene with the toast is taken 100% seriously. Because this whole business with the Devil is meant to make Important Points about Morality and Spirituality and it's boooolsheeeit. It's all utterly laughable, because Shyamalan's story and Brian Nelson's screenplay make zero effort to be convincing. Now, let me say that I am not entirely averse to religious or spiritual themes in film; I am, however, averse to lazy screenwriting. I am reminded of Signs, in which Shyamalan's themes of faith and redemption were undercut by the sheer stupidity of that magical substance that is the only thing that can defeat the evil invading aliens. It's lazy.

And that is ultimately the hallmark of Shyamalan's recent work, even in a film in which he only provided the story (and slapped his name all over). His thing has always been to treat sci-fi/fantasy/supernatural material with utter realism and seriousness, but without the skill and effort to make it believable, it just comes off as overbaked silliness. Devil would not be a perfect film even if it wasn't for the story; Chris Messina is awfully wooden, and all the characters feel like pieces in a board game rather than human beings. But Shyamalan's stink is all over it, ruining what is otherwise a neat premise with its pseudo-profound philosophical poppycock.

Expectations: hey hey hey, it's Joe Dante!

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Madu kononnya, racun sebenarnya

4 Madu
My rating:

Y'know, I'm a regular over at the We Hate Razak Mohaideen Movies page on Facebook, but I've only ever seen one of the man's films. He actually had another movie come out earlier this year, but I missed out on it; apparently it did so poorly at the box office that it only ran for less than 2 weeks. Like, ouch, man. But clearly, a man with his own Facebook hate page is a man who has made a mark on the local film landscape. Even if it's just a drainage ditch. So this is only my second film that he's directed, by which perhaps I can find an answer to the question: ada apa dengan Prof. Madya A. Razak Mohaideen?

The answer is that he sucks. But if he deserves a hate page, then so does the entire industri filem Melayu.

Azlan and Azrul (Saiful Apek in a dual role) are long-lost brothers reunited upon the death of their father, who has a RM160 million fortune to bequeath to them - under certain conditions. As conveyed by their father's lawyer Dato' Rahim (Dato' Rahim Razali), both of them must marry four wives - an orphan; a blind woman; a divorcee; and, um, one more, whoever they like - one after the other, within stipulated deadlines. So it becomes a contest between them to fulfill their the conditions of the will. Azlan is accompanied by his friend Budi (Iedil Putra Alaudin) and Dato' Rahim's assistant Jaja (Almy Nadia), and marries Suriati (Rosnah Mat Aris), Ros (Fasha Sandha) the love of his life (kononnya), Jane (Sazzy Falak) and Zarra (Marsha Milan Londoh). Whereas Azrul is aided by Juju (Allana Amir) and marries Latifah (Ayu Raudhah), Weena (Bienda), Jaja (who, um, switches over to Team Azrul), and his first wife Ghasidah (Rozita Che Wan). Ain't polygamy grand?

Well, it's an improvement over Skrip 7707, I'll say that. Not the least because comedy is... um, I was about to say easier than horror, but no, comedy is not easy. It's just that a bad horror film is really bad, whereas a bad comedy can still claim to be merely boring. And at least 4 Madu has some decent eye candy, provided by some of the hottest Malay actresses in the biz today. (Almy Nadia cun giler lol!!!11 XD) But as is dah biasa untuk filem tempatan, sumorang berlakon over, buat schtick je lebih sebab dalam skrip memang tiada perwatakan langsung. Contohnya Latifah, apakah pendirian dan personalitinya? Dia seorang gadis yang selalu ketawa terdekit-dekit macam puntianak annoying gila babi sampai nak cekik dia sampai mampus.

Y'see, it's a very pointless movie. Maklumlah, ini komedi ringan, bukannya filem yang hendak menyampaikan Ajaran Yang Mustahak Untuk Masyarakat Kini. But it almost seems like there's a subtext, a makna tersirat, that it's trying to convey - only it keeps shooting itself in the foot. As Azrul and Azlan's matrimonial endeavours develop, it slowly becomes clear that Azlan - the lowly hotel worker - is lucking out by finding sweet and loyal girls to be his wives, whereas Azrul - the well-to-do businessman who just fell victim to Ah Longs - is saddled with a bunch of greedy bitches who are only marrying him for his money. This has the makings of a morality tale, a criticism against materialism and how it cheapens the institution of marriage.

And then Azlan marries Jane. Who is an unashamed pisau cukur, and little different from Azrul's wives except that she stays married to him instead of divorcing him the instant he wins his inheritance. Apekebende?? Wahai Tuan Profesor Razak, why?? Just 'cos Sazzy Falak plays her, and she seems like the high-class Melayu celup type, so the only thing you can think of for her to do is play a gold-digger? Ini bodoh. In fact, filem ni makin lama makin bodoh; kenapa semua isteri-isteri Azrul tak sabar nak cerai dia? Sebab cek RM1 juta tu - their price for marrying him - lebih bernilai daripada suami yang bakal mewarisi RM80 juta? Tapi Ghasidah masih setia mencintainya, which... again, this is stupid. For one thing, she's played by Rozita Che Wan, who may be a perfectly decent actress (it's hard to tell when you're in a Razak Mohaideen movie), but "sweetly loyal wife" is not a role that suits her. For another, she left him in the very beginning of the movie! Setia kepala hotak engko.

So yes, it's a pointless movie, in that it doesn't know whatthehell point it's trying to make; it's also a very thoughtless movie, in that Razak clearly wrote the script without thinking any further than "apa lawak yang boleh aku buat sekarang?" There's a bit right after Azlan learns of the will's conditions, in which he protests being asked to marry other women because the only girl he loves is Ros. I was like, "Good for you! Lelaki yang setia dalam percintaan!" But by movie's end, he's Mr. Happy Muslim Polygamist, smugly enjoying the affections of four women who are equally happy to share him. Don't bother looking for any genuine romance in this movie, 'cos all you'll find are travesties of it. Azlan's fourth wife? Zarra? Bertemu dengannya buat kali pertama, tetiba je nak kahwin.

Which isn't really surprising, seeing that all the eight wives and wives-to-be in this movie are fully aware that there's an RM160 million fortune to be made. So really, everyone in this movie is stupid and greedy and materialistic, and this entire movie is a Broken Aesop - filem yang kononnya ada mesej, tapi mesej itu langsung tak menjadi. This is a rare occasion that I find myself agreeing with a mainstream press review (and an Utusan review at that); ini adalah sebuah filem yang memperbodohkan ikatan perkahwinan. So yes, Razak made an incredibly clueless and borderline incompetent film - but does he really deserve to be the scapegoat for the epic fail that is the entire local film industry? No, not really. I'll need to see more of his movies to be sure, but I already suspect that he's just not even distinctive enough to be called Malaysia's worst film director.

Expectations: from the mind of the man that brought you this!

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Because Fan Bingbing, that's why

Wheat (2009)My rating:

Yes, it's a 2009 movie, and it's only now come to Malaysia courtesy of GSC's International Screens program. (Which I recall was launched with some fanfare several years ago, with the goal of bringing quality foreign and non-mainstream fare to local audiences - and now they only release, what, a handful of films a year?) And the only reason why I'm watching and reviewing it instead of, say, Resident Evil: Afterlife, is this LoveHKFilm review - or more specifically, its description of leading lady Fan Bingbing as "insanely beautiful". I saw her in Bodyguards and Assassins last year, and damn, she is. Also, it was a positive review, so it definitely seemed worth watching.

Well, I didn't like it as much as LoveHKFilm did. But Fan Bingbing, man.

It is the Warring States period in China's history. Lu Yi is a remote town in the kingdom of Zhao comprised entirely of women, the men having gone to war with the state of Qin - including Lord Cu Jong (Wang Xueqi), the husband of Lady Li (Fan Bingbing), who is now the mistress of the city. One day two Qin army deserters, Xia (Huang Jue) and Zhe (Du Jiayi), find themselves in Lu Yi, and pose as soldiers of Zhao with a story of Zhao's glorious victory in battle, thus earning the adulation of the women. But the truth is that the Zhao army was completely annihilated, the kingdom is wide open for invasion, and the soldiers' deception will not hold for long.

I've been wondering if I'm not too fixated on genres and formulas - that in trying to pigeonhole every movie I watch into neat little boxes, I'm blinding myself to what they're really trying to accomplish. The premise of Wheat is similar to any number of films based on one or more persons deceiving a larger group of people and getting in over their heads (let's see, While You Were Sleeping, ¡Three Amigos, A Bug's Life - and yes, they tend to be comedies), and I kept expecting it to either follow those conventions or knowingly subvert them. Most of my dissatisfaction with the film arises from the fact that it mostly does neither.

It did not have an auspicious start, what with an opening scene that delivered exposition via extremely on-the-nose dialogue. ("Oh, it's so hard living in a women-only town in the state of Zhao where all the men have gone to war!" "Yes, but we loyally support the war against Qin, so let us patiently wait for our men to come home!") But it soon becomes clear that the film employs a kind of stylized theatricality, in the performances, the staging, the gorgeous wide-angle cinematography, even the exacting Zhang Yimou-ish art direction - f'rinstance, the uniform white workclothes that all the women of Lu Yi wear. Wheat clearly isn't going for gritty reality, so I can forgive a little on-the-nose dialogue.

What isn't as easy to forgive is its often directionless plot. The formula dictates that the soldiers would soon grow fond of Lu Yi (and why wouldn't they? Feted as heroes in a town full of lonely and horny women?) and eventually throw their lot in with them when their deception is revealed. But Xia and Zhe alternate between living it up, plotting to capture the town for Qin, and attempting to escape, with rarely any clear motivation for this constant gear-switching. When a group of bandits raid the town and attempt to turn it into their own personal fiefdom, this is the expected turning point where the soldiers fight them off and save their new home - but just minutes earlier, they were scheming to slaughter the women themselves.

Oh I'm sorry, were you expecting these guys to be heroic? They aren't, not very, at all. In fact, Zhe - the supposed bumbling comic relief of the two - is a borderline retard and played by an incredibly annoying Du Jiayi. He's just cowardly, greedy, selfish and stupid from start to finish. Xia is the typical soldier who's sick of war and just wants to go home to his farm (sentiments echoed in Jackie Chan's character from Little Big Soldier, and this kind of anti-war message is definitely a thing with Chinese cinema), and Huang Jue plays him with plenty of gravitas and charisma; it's a pity that, once again, his motivations just aren't very clear. Also, Wang Zhiwen is terrific in his one scene as the bandit leader - a grinning, viperously charming psychopath who treats all life, including his own, as disposable.

But Fan Bingbing, man. She's not only fabulous to look at, her performance is incredible and makes for reason alone to watch the film. It's not an easy role either; it soon becomes clear that Lady Li, as well as all the women of Lu Yi, have become increasingly unhinged from their loneliness and isolation. And since their inevitable fate is to be conquered by Qin, there can be no happy ending for these characters. Perhaps that's what He Ping is going for - a dark tragedy, in which whatever comedy there is is meant to be black. Maybe my preoccupation with genres and formulas blinded me to that, such that I couldn't tell if it accomplished what it aimed for. But I can be sure of this: as a vehicle for Ms. Fan, it's terrific.

Expectations: it's Razak Mohaideen!

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Garam yang tawar, asam yang basi

Senario Asam Garam
My rating:

I had to. I cannot be TMBF, fearless chronicler of local films no matter how bad, if I've never seen a Senario movie. There have now been 9 of 'em since 1999; they're practically a national institution, for better or worse. And I've already missed out on one, and skipped another movie that starred two of the group. So, no more excuses, no more ignorant assumption that they're shitty, time to bite the bullet and go watch the latest one and see for myself exactly how shitty they are.

Okaylah, taklah taik sangat. Tapi busuk jugak.

Adam (Azlee Jaafar) and Asam (Zaibo) are contractors who frequently compete for jobs, as well as the affections of the MILFy Hawa (Julia Hana), whose warong brings all the boys to her yard. (She can teach you, but she'd have to charge.) When a mysterious fire burns the place down, Adam and his partner Tam (Sathiya) are first to help her build a new warong, because Hawa's son Amin (Shafimie Saedon) and her sisters Odah (Nadia Mustafar) and Yan (Adeline Tsen) are sweet on him already. But Asam isn't out of the game yet, and he and his assistant Garam (Mazlan Pet Pet) have some no good to get up to.

Now, perhaps I'm not getting the full Senario experience here, since this particular go-around is missing one-third of the usual Senario crew; Wahid is not in this. So we have Zaibo to fill in for him, and from what I can see he fits right in. Apa yang ko expect dari filem Senario, semua ada - Azlee and Lan Pet Pet asyik buat muka sewel, the rest of the cast berlakon over-the-top gilebabi, dan setakat itulah komedi dalam filem ini. Lawak yang hanya dianggap kelakar oleh budak berumur 7 tahun, atau orang dewasa yang otaknya terencat pada tahap umur 7 tahun. (And by the way, I was right - this is the exact same kind of thing that fans of Phua Chu Kang enjoy.) Tapi sekurang-kurangnya, filem ni ada jalan cerita, sepertimana yang di-intended-kan oleh penulis-pengarahnya Profesor Hatta Azad Khan.

Sebenarnya artikel kat link tu buat aku ketawa. Kalau adanya jalan cerita ialah sesuatu yang baru untuk filem Senario, jadi filem-filem Senario yang sebelum ni memang tak ada jalan cerita? Plotnya cuma "kumpulan Senario berada di suatu tempat dan buat lawak sukati diorang"? I haven't watched them so I wouldn't know, but I guess so lah kan? Takpe, takpe; kita reviu filem ni, bukan filem-filem tu. And I suppose it's a good thing that there's an actual plot, and that Azlee and Lan play actual characters instead of just dua ahli kumpulan Senario yang hilang sorang. Even then, it's pretty clear that the plot is way too slight to fill its 83-minute running time.

There's a bit early on in which Asam sends Garam to make an offer to Hawa to rebuild her warong - and next thing we see, Odah and Yan are chasing after him with penyapu dan rotan. Now, see what I did there? I made it sound like a Gilligan Cut. Wahai Tuan Pengarah Profesor Hatta, ko reti tak abende tu Gilligan Cut? It's one of the most basic filmic comedy gags, and if done well it's always funny. You missed a prime opportunity there to do a Gilligan Cut, and frankly, I know why - it's because that gag depends on economy of storytelling and snappy comic timing. And you can't have that, because cerita ko tu tak cukup untuk penuhkan masa. Ko kena tariiiik panjang-panjang, sampai jaguh Cabaran TariKing F&N pun kalah ngan ko.

So yes, it's very very slow-moving. Whatever jokes that aren't completely bangang betul are ruined by being dragged out long past the point where they could ever be funny. And I can think of at least one scene the movie should've had but didn't. Kenapa Adam dan Asam tak pernah bertemu sehingga ending? In any movie where the hero and villain are rivals, there should be a scene that sets up this rivalry; this scene will then establish how dastardly the villain is, and how awesome the hero is. (Alternatively, it shows the hero losing to the villain, but in such a way that we sympathise with and root for him.) Ini takde. Ntah nape. Frankly, other than that Zaibo overacts his kejahatan, I'm not even sure why we're supposed to root for Adam, or why Hawa's family likes him so much. Ini panggil Designated Hero.

Random thoughts: Julia Hana is a perfectly pleasant-looking lady, but adeke dia hawt sangat? Aku lebih rela nak renung Adeline Tsen yang jauh lagi kiut. For a family whose sole livelihood is a single warong, Hawa and Co. sure live in a damn fine kampung house. Oh, and I thought it's nice that little Amin is this electronics whiz kid, whose talents are even put to use in the movie's climax. I may be grasping at straws, but watak yang cerdik dan pandai memang jarang dalam filem Melayu. And Shafimie Saedon has a bright future ahead of him; tak bolehlah nak kata lakonan dia bagus, but he was comfortable in his role, which is promising for a child actor. Tapi in the end, ini sebuah filem Senario, yang formulanya tak ubah-ubah selama 14 tahun. Berapa lama nak sebat kuda yang dah mati ni? Korang dah basi dah. Dah busuk dah. Dah reput sampai jadi gas asli dah.

Expectations: Fan Bingbing *drool*

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Goes where most rom-coms don't - down to earth

Going the Distance
My rating:

The modern Hollywood rom-com (romantic comedy, for those who ain't down with the lingo) is all about the complication. A boy and a girl meet and fall in love, but there's always something that keeps their relationship from smooth sailing all the way. This is of course based on the principle that conflict creates drama; people who are happy and content and always get what they want make for a boring story. The problem with the typical modern Hollywood rom-com is that the complication is often so contrived and artificial - see How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days for one of the most moronically convoluted examples - that it makes the whole movie feel fake. Indeed, "contrived" is a word I use a lot in my rom-com reviews.

So when one comes along that makes a sincere attempt to be honest and real, I have to praise it like I should.

Garrett (Justin Long) meets Erin (Drew Barrymore) and have a whirlwind romance, but with the understanding that she is due to move back to San Francisco in six weeks' time while he remains in New York. But as she is about to leave, they decide to take the plunge and commit to a long-distance relationship. As they endure the loneliness and frustration of being apart, Erin is comforted by her older sister Corinne (Christina Applegate) and Garrett hangs out with his friends Box (Jason Sudeikis) and Dan (Charlie Day). But their respective careers and ambitions - Garrett is a music label executive, and Erin is trying to get a job in the dying newspaper business - further complicate their hopes of eventually being together in the same time zone.

It's not unqualified praise though. Going the Distance suffers from one of the hoariest old rom-com cliches: the quirky comic-relief friends/family members. And boy do they lay the quirkiness on thick. Box and Dan are various degrees of obnoxious and stupid, Corinne is a neurotic neat freak, her husband Phil (Jim Gaffigan) is henpecked, and even her daughter Maya appears to have ADHD; it's like Garrett and Erin are the only two normal and well-adjusted people in this world. And it's really quite glaring how almost every time we have a funny scene, the plot stops dead in its tracks. First-time screenwriter Geoff LaTulippe barely even tries to integrate the laughs with the central storyline, which is what a well-written comedy should do.

But I laughed anyhow. Yes, as contrived as it all was, it still managed to draw some decent guffaws from me. Hey, I'm not made of stone, if a comedy manages to charm me I'll laugh at its jokes. And there's some weapons-grade charm in this movie, chiefly provided by Justin Long and Drew Barrymore. Not only are they two effortlessly likable actors with proven rom-com cred, they play two characters who are mature and understanding and always do the sensible thing. When Garrett feels threatened by Erin's hunky British co-worker, all it takes is one conversation to resolve his jealousy (and that subplot). And later when it seems Garrett might fall for the temptations of his cute co-worker, both of them astutely avoid turning it into a "wacky" misunderstanding.

Man, this is rare. I can totally forgive LaTulippe for the other thing, because he understands that the real difficulties of a long-distance relationship are complications enough, without the couple doing stupid things to create drama for themselves. The film grounds itself in the real-life issues of young people balancing love and career, and how one so often conflicts with the other. The high cost of plane tickets means Garrett and Erin can only fly out to see each other every few months. They sometimes miss each other on the phone, because of the time difference. And they both have passions and ambitions outside of their relationship, all of which makes them so much more real and relatable. Which, yes, is rare among Hollywood rom-coms, and it only makes you wonder why.

A curious thing about the movie is its R-rating - curious because it really didn't need to be. I suppose its producers and director Nanette Burstein deserve kudos for insisting on this, whereas a PG-13 might've earned them more box-office. There's a sex scene - played for laughs - that presumably showed some nudity (censored of course, but still pretty funny), a scene where Garrett and Erin share a bong (cute, but largely unnecessary), and lots of profanity-filled dialogue throughout. Perhaps it was Burstein's background as a documentary filmmaker - this is her first feature film - that led to such a down-to-earth approach to the dialogue; because horny bachelors like Garrett and his buddies would naturally talk like that, as would perpetually stressed-out married couples like Corinne and Phil.

Which brings me to a truly unique pleasure that Going the Distance offers: its BM subtitles. The subtitles are awesome! I really wish I could credit the subtitler by name like I did once before, because he or she very diligently translated almost all of the dialogue, no matter how crude. Did you know that "dry-humping" in Malay is "ringan-ringan"? I didn't, but I do now! And the next time I have cause to insult someone in BM, I'm totally gonna use "makanlah semangkuk anu" ("eat a bowl of dick"). Dear Mr. or Ms. Unknown Subtitler, I bet you had loads of fun working on this; thank you for that, because I sure did too!

So yeah, hilarious BM subtitles (hilariously accurate, for once); if that draws a few more butts into seats for this movie, I will have done my job. It may not be the best rom-com about long-distance relationships that could be made, but it's definitely the best that has been made; it's sweet, charming, funny, and when it aims for poignant it even succeeds at stimulating the tearducts. It's definitely one of the better modern Hollywood romantic comedies out there, and a solid indicator of how good they could be.

NEXT REVIEW: Senario Asam Garam
Expectations: the bullet, it must be bitten

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Pray, pray that Phua Chu Kang goes away

Phua Chu Kang: The Movie
My rating:

Has Phua Chu Kang ever been good? Damned if I know. I do know that the latest episodes of the 13-year-old Singaporean sitcom have been mind-bogglingly awful. Or at least what little I've seen of them, because I've never been able to sit through an entire episode. The show is stupid. To call it broad comedy would be an insult to the entire genre of broad comedy, and it's laughable to think of Singaporeans acting all high and mighty and oh-so-much-more sophisticated than us "ulu" Malaysians when this is their greatest contribution to pop culture. (Ahem. TMBF is no saint; I am not above the friendly rivalry barely-restrained animosity we share with our southern neighbours.)

It is with this entirely fair and balanced viewpoint that I went into Phua Chu Kang: The Movie, and thus came out declaring that it sucks.

Phua Chu Kang (Gurmit Singh) greets his Ah Ma (Neo Swee Ling) who has come to KL to visit her son - but instead, she chooses to stay at the Seow Soon old folks home, spending time with a mysterious resident there. Curious as to what she's up to, Chu Kang bids for a renovation contract with Seow Soon's director Lim Lau Pek (Henry Thia), and enters a heated competition for a much more lucrative contract against his arch-rival Frankie Foo (Lim Kay Siu). Meanwhile, Chu Kang's wife Rosie (Irene Ang) discovers many unsavoury things about Lim; Chu Kang's dimwitted worker King Kong (Charlie Tan) falls for Lim's assistant Angel (Angie Seow); and Ah Ma drops a bombshell on her son - the mysterious old man is his long-believed-dead grandfather (Gurmit Singh).

Well, it's not as bad as I thought - at least not as bad as k0k bL0k's review made it out to be. This is largely because it pretty much does what a theatrical film adaptation of a TV series is supposed to do. It features actors playing well-established roles with the ease and comfort of long experience, plus a few fan-favourite minor characters. The plot has the feel of a story that's large enough to warrant the silver screen; a larger canvas, higher stakes, and more narrative momentum. Director Boris Boo's camera is also a lot more dynamic and cinematic than the typical three-camera sitcom setup. It has everything a PCK fan could expect in a PCK movie, and enough of it to ensure they walk out happy.

But hell no I am not a PCK fan, nor do I wanna know any of 'em. 'Cos the movie is every bit as moronic, unfunny and annoying as the series. The subplot about Chu Kang forgetting his wedding anniversary is as fresh as The Honeymooners. The Nippon Paints product placement is so blatant and tacked-on, I'm surprised a Geoffrey Nicholson voiceover didn't come on. And Gurmit Singh's affectation for playing Chu Kang's grandfather and father in flashbacks makes it impossible to suspend disbelief in the former case - and in the latter, subjects us to cringe-inducing love scenes between Gurmit and Neo Swee Lin. Guys, you've been playing mother and son for 13 years, like, eww. The whole movie is incredibly juvenile; the ones laughing the loudest in my cinema were the kids, and I can only assume the adults I heard chuckling along were busy re-engaging with their inner childs.

And sweet Jinjang Jehosophat, the movie's colour grading. Skin looks green, lips look pink, and the eye-searing colours of Rosie's makeup and Frankie's shirts are even more garish and hideous. It's a very, very ugly movie, and I suspect Boo and the rest of the show's producers did it on purpose. Y'see, PCK started out as a spoof of Ah Bengs - their speech patterns, their fashion sense, and their taste in interior decor. But whatever humour they've been tapping from that vein has long since gone bone-dry, because they're now waaaay past poking fun at it and plunged headlong into reveling in it. Yes, they have become the very thing they once parodied. They're no longer spoofing Ah Beng-ness, they're rubbing the audience's faces in it. They have stared too long into the abyss, and now the abyss stares out of them and into us with every loving close-up of Chu Kang's mole.

Acting? There is none. These may be actors, but there is no acting to be found in this movie; all there is is shtick. Of course, most of the cast have been doing this shtick for the better part of 13 years, thus their ease and comfort that I mentioned earlier. Doesn't make their shtick any less stupid and annoying. What's sad is that you can actually see some glimmers of talent in Gurmit, Ang, Neo and Henry Thia, and I'm sure they've demonstrated it in other shows and films they've done. I wonder how they keep from feeling like they're debasing their craft doing crap like this - or have they just gone way past that and into simply enjoying their paychecks.

And yet I'm giving it 2 stars, having said earlier that it's not as bad as I thought. I am forced to arrive at this conclusion because, looking at the kind of movie I usually give 1-½ stars to, I am forced to admit that something like this would be a small improvement over the typical Malay movie. (At least it has a plot.) But now that I've brought it up, I have this to say to fans of this ridiculously inane TV-show-turned-movie: you don't watch local films? You couldn't be paid to go see 'em, wouldn't be caught dead watching 'em? You think they're stupid and unfunny and insulting to your intelligence? Phua Chu Kang: The Movie is the same. Thus it is quite appropriate that I label it under "Made in Malaysia". If you enjoyed it, you should catch Senario Asam Garam next.

NEXT REVIEW: Going the Distance
Expectations: this looks like it could be good