Sunday, October 31, 2010

Grumpy old action heroes

My rating:

I was wrong. There are not three somewhat-comedic ensemble action movies released this year, there are four, and this is the latest one. (Perhaps I overlooked it because its title does not start with "The".) And it's even based on a comicbook, like The Losers was. There's a Hollywood term for this: "parallel development," meaning it's all completely coincidental - but yeah, pretty damn coincidental. And it may not be entirely fair to compare them all with each other, but hell, I already have and I'm gonna do it again with this one.

Better than The Expendables and The A-Team, close second to The Losers.

Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) is a retired black-ops CIA agent now living the quiet, boring life; his only excitement is phone-flirting with Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker), the customer service officer at his pension office on whom he has a crush. All this changes when a hit squad raids his house in the middle of the night and he is forced to go on the run - picking up Sarah along the way to protect her from his would-be assassins. Seeking to find out who wants him dead and why, he looks up his old spy compatriots - Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman), Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich), Ivan Simanov (Brian Cox), and Victoria (Helen Mirren). The trail leads to private defense contractor Alexander Dunning (Richard Dreyfuss) and even the U.S. Vice President Robert Stanton (Julian McMahon), with some help from old friend Henry, the CIA's Records Keeper (Ernest Borgnine). His principled opposition is William Cooper (Karl Urban), the agent assigned to hunt him down - who may be more principled than his ruthless superior Cynthia Wilkes (Rebecca Pidgeon).

That's a pretty lengthy synopsis up there, but it isn't because of the plot, it's because of the cast. This movie is all about casting - getting actors like Helen Mirren, John Malkovich and Richard Dreyfuss in a big dumb action movie and letting them ham it up. And it's not even just the veterans in the cast; Mary-Louise Parker is delightful, and it's neat that the producers went with a 46-year-old character actor and star of a highly-regarded cable TV series instead of some cute young ciku to draw in the teenage boy crowd. Karl Urban too has never given a bad performance, and even Rebecca Pidgeon - David Mamet's wife and frequent starrer - is impressive in her small role.

Turns out that having really classy actors in a big, loud and dumb action movie is loads of fun, especially in a movie that knows how to play to that incongruity with tongue firmly jammed in cheek. Aside from Parker, Malkovich is also hilarious as the certifiably loony Marvin, and although Dreyfuss has limited screentime you can tell he's enjoying himself immensely in the kind of sneering B-grade villain role that he's never played before. And Mirren just needs to play up her prim Britishness while at the same time laying the smackdown with a .50 caliber machine gun. Morgan Freeman has already played against type in Wanted, but Brian Cox really should've had more opportunities to let loose.

Because the problem with the movie is that when it's funny, it's really funny - but it doesn't always remember to be funny. As it enters the second half, the tone starts veering towards the serious, right around the time where one of our badass retirees dies in a heroic sacrifice - which is something you'd expect in an action movie, but not so much in a comedy with characters we like and want to see more of. We want to see more of Sarah's excitement over all this awesome spy stuff. We want to see more of Marvin's insane (yet frequently justified) paranoia. We want to see more over-the-top action like that bit where Frank steps out of a spinning car. We want to see Ivan be as funny as the others. The film seems to forget that partway, and it starts to become a typical Bruce Willis action movie.

And ironically, Willis is the weakest link in the cast. Yes yes, I know this film probably couldn't have been made - or wouldn't have been as successful - without him in the lead. But still; for one thing, he doesn't look anywhere as old as his compatriots. (Would it've killed ya to go easy on the foundation, Bruce?) For another, Frank's relationship with Sarah starts off as shy and hesitant, as befits an older man exploring the possibility of romance for perhaps the first time. Willis is long past the point in his career where he can play "shy and hesitant", and thus the chemistry between him and Parker doesn't quite work.

But these are minor niggles - because as I said, when it's funny, it's really funny, and when it's fun, it's lots of fun. Director Robert Schwentke, who previously helmed the vastly-different The Time Traveler's Wife, proves able to handle that delicate balance between action and comedy that a good action-comedy needs - even if screenwriters Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber don't. It's because of their screenplay that I couldn't put a "Comedy" label on this review, and believe me, I really wanted to. But a little dragginess near the end is worth it just to see a cast like this in a movie like this.

NEXT REVIEW: Cuti-Cuti Cinta
Expectations: how the hell does the man make this goddamn many films a year??

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Kill Bill: Medieval China

Reign of Assassins
My rating:

I was gonna start this review by talking about John Woo in the same way my Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame review talked about Tsui Hark - in that both are pioneering Hong Kong directors who went to Hollywood for a none-too-successful spell (although Woo did make one genuinely good movie there) and have since returned to their old stomping grounds. But the thing is, calling Reign of Assassins a John Woo film would be misleading. It's written and directed by Su Chao-pin, and Woo is a producer who got a little more hands-on than usual and earned himself a "co-directed by" credit. Still, it's fun to think of Woo and Tsui releasing competing costume action epics at the same time.

This is definitely the better one - but it does fall somewhat short of greatness.

Drizzle is a member of the gang of assassins known as Dark Stone, tasked by her leader Wheel King (Wang Xueqi) to steal the mummified remains of the famed Bodhidharma - a holy relic rumoured to possess mystical powers. But an encounter with a monk named Wisdom (Calvin Li) moves her to abandon her former life. She hides away the remains, undergoes a face-changing surgical procedure, and becomes the perfectly ordinary Zeng Jing (Michelle Yeoh); she even attracts the affections of the equally simple Jiang Ah-Sheng (Jung Woo-sung), who marries her and gives her a taste of wedded bliss. But soon her past catches up to her; Wheel King is still after the Bodhi's remains, and he has the rest of the deadly Dark Stone assassins - Lei Bin (Shawn Yue), the Magician (Leon Dai), and Turquoise (Barbie Hsu) - at his command.

Does or does not that synopsis sound like Kill Bill? It totally does, man! This is Kill Bill in Ming Dynasty-era China, in which The Bride gets a taste of an ordinary life and defends it instead of avenging its loss. Instead of the Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, we get Dark Stone, which sounds equally cheesetastic, and it's led by a Bill-analogue. And those names! Drizzle, Turquoise, Wheel King and Magician lack a unifying theme a la Cottonmouth, Copperhead and California Mountain Snake, but are no less cool. And there's a Macguffin in the form of the Bodhi's remains, which a bunch of folks called the Kongdong sect are also after - and okay, this is where the analogy breaks down. But I'm finding the comparison useful, since this movie sits squarely in the middle of the spectrum between Kill Bill on one end, and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon on the other - and the latter is what it's trying to be.

It doesn't quite achieve that level, but it makes a game try. It starts off with a bang, then settles down to some gentle domestic comedy featuring the courtship between Jing and Ah-Sheng. Which is really quite charming, and establishes the emotional stakes for when the action starts up again later (although the fight scenes are noticeably bloodless, even when guys are getting slashed to ribbons by really sharp implements). There's a realistic and lived-in feel to the film, from the flawless production design - seriously, it's amazing that China can mount such pitch-perfect historical recreations - to the dialogue - little details like a shopkeeper reciting his accounts in silver and gold taels - that really fleshes out the world. And the characters are all interesting, even the minor ones; from the psychotic nymphomaniac Turquoise, to the taciturn Lei Bin who stands in opposition to Jing's desire for a normal life whilst having a wife and child of his own.

But there's also some pseudo-profound Zen philosophy that ultimately doesn't amount to anything. It's not very well-paced, and there's no real sense of mounting tension or rising stakes; one thing happens, then another thing happens, and finally it ends. There is some nice acting here though; Michelle Yeoh gets star billing, of course, and while she's not an actor with a great deal of range, here she gets to stretch her chops just enough and also showcase her terrific screen presence. Her co-star Jung Woo-sung is a little wooden, but he's likable enough as the big lug who loves her, and Barbie Hsu and Shawn Yue are also impressive. But there's also Wang Xueqi, a "prestige" actor in Chinese cinema who is very good in dramatic roles, but somewhat miscast as a mustache-twirling villain.

No, this film works better as a good old-fashioned kungfu action flick, the same kind that inspired Quentin Tarantino to make Kill Bill. It's got all the requisite tropes - the paralyzing nerve strike, aspirations to either rule the "world of martial arts" or retire from it, and seemingly invincible kungfu techniques that can only be countered by other secret techniques. But it's also got lots of neat little touches, such as primitive plastic surgery, wuxia CSI (a character studies the notches on a sword, and determines that it was used to fight someone who wielded a sword as if it were a sabre. This matters.), and a villain's motivation that's just the right kind of crazy-awesome. The fight scenes are, sadly, shot and edited in the usual tight shots and quick-cutting - all the better to hide the lack of real physical prowess in anyone not named Michelle Yeoh. But still, it's all really quite fun.

"Fun" is really what Su and Woo should've went for, instead of trying to make a stately and thoughtful wuxia epic a la Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Because they could've instead made something like Kill Bill - because there can be a beauty and profundity even in deliberately exploitative violence, as Tarantino managed to show us. Reign of Assassins aims for beauty and profundity and falls short, because Su isn't a filmmaker on the same level as Tarantino or Ang Lee and James Shamus. But he did achieve a smart, witty, affecting, and fun action movie, which ain't bad at all. (Oh, and do avoid looking up online sources of info on this film, all of which are stupid with spoilers. Even its Wikipedia entry gives away the major third-act plot twist in its first paragraph.)

Expectations: looks like fun

Sunday, October 24, 2010

As close to being buried alive as you'd want to get

My rating:

I am mildly claustrophobic. I became aware of this fact just a few years ago, when I visited the Củ Chi Tunnels during a holiday in Vietnam. There was a short circuit of tunnels that the guide brought me through, and I chickened out of it two-thirds of the way through. (Also, I feel slightly uneasy whenever I take the SMART tunnel.) It was therefore with some trepidation that I went to watch this movie, knowing that it takes place entirely within the confines of a coffin. I was even worried about watching it with a rushed meal of Ipoh hor fun that I had but 20 minutes to finish before showtime sitting in my stomach.

It was bearable. But man it was intense.

Paul Conroy (Ryan Reynolds) has been buried alive. He works for a civilian contractor in Iraq, his convoy was ambushed by insurgents, and he has just regained consciousness and found himself in a wooden coffin that's been buried in the desert. All he has is a lighter, a cellphone and a few other items his captors left him, and he must use the phone to call whoever he can - his wife Linda (Samantha Mathis), his employers (Stephen Tobolowsky), his wife's friend Donna (Warner Loughlin), a man named Dan Brenner (Robert Paterson) who represents what slim hope he has of rescue, and even his kidnapper (José Luis García Pérez).

You have to respect director Rodrigo Cortés' and screenwriter Chris Sparling's uncompromising approach to their concept. It's true, there isn't a single scene that doesn't take place inside the coffin; no "8 Hours Ago", "2 Days Ago" or anything like that. In fact, the film actually begins with a pitch-black screen for a full minute, with only the sounds of Conroy waking up and realizing the horror of where he is. The only actor on screen is Ryan Reynolds; the other names I mentioned in the synopsis appear only as voices on his phone. Despite this, there's plenty of action and nail-biting tension. (I've seen comments on calling it "boring", and I don't think they could be more wrong.)

Cortés is getting all the credit here, and it is not undeserved; there's a lot of very skilled camerawork and lighting on display here, and there's no shortage of imaginative angles he can find to film the action. But it's Sparling who came up with the original concept, and it's his script that ingeniously fleshes it out to a full-length film. It very cleverly fills in the backstory without resorting to flashbacks; everything from how Conroy got kidnapped, to his relationships with his wife, his wife's friend, his coworkers, and his mother. And all this without even any on-the-nose dialogue. Except that besides telling a harrowing tale of a man who's been buried alive, Sparling also has some pointed jabs to make about how institutions - private and government - betray the trust of the little guy.

And here's where the SPOILER ALERT begins (seriously, don't highlight the following until after you've seen it): There's no getting around it, that's a pretty unsatisfying ending. I can understand why Sparling and Cortés did it that way - but you can't spend 1-½ hours in the company of a man trapped in a coffin and not dearly hope that he gets rescued. The fact that the film doesn't give him this means they were more keen on staying faithful to their premise, and to their agenda of criticising the Iraq war, than in giving their viewers a satisfying experience. The audience at my screening were all going "WTF?" at the end, and I had to sympathize; I think the movie could've done better, both in terms of box-office and word-of-mouth, with a different ending.

Few actors would relish the prospect of a film in which they are the sole performer, reacting to nothing but voices on the other end of a phone. But Reynolds is very good in this; it's not a role that requires a lot of skill, but it is certainly an intensely demanding one, both physically and emotionally, and he carried it very well. The man's having a great career right now - former sitcom actor now getting a wide range of matinee lead roles that showcase his boundless screen presence (but not anything that's beyond his range - yet). The actors who appear only as voices provide able support as well; the standout is the excellent Stephen Tobolowsky, whom I didn't know was in this till I saw the credits. Describing his character would be another spoiler, so suffice to say he definitely makes an impression.

Be warned, folks - this is not a pleasant film. If your fear of confined spaces is greater than mine (which, despite the thing with the SMART tunnel, isn't really that bad), I'd advise catching it on DVD. Nor is this a usual film. If you've been hearing people griping about it, it's because they saw something they weren't expecting - so manage your expectations accordingly, and you'll be able to appreciate a terrific premise, brilliantly executed by director and writer and lead actor. Buried is 94 minutes of sustained terror, claustrophobia and despair. That's not an easy film to like, but it's an achievement that deserves much respect.

NEXT REVIEW: Reign of Assassins
Expectations: John Woo, don't let me down

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Tsui Hark and the Mystery of Where His Form Went

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
My rating:

Y'wanna know what's my all-time favourite Hong Kong movie? Peking Opera Blues, man. Directed by Tsui Hark, who is a justifiable legend of Hong Kong cinema. Every great Hong Kong film of the past 30 years has been influenced by him - but his heyday was a good decade-and-a-half ago. (Although to be fair, so was the HK film industry's.) He has returned from his short but embarassing sojourn in Hollywood making crappy Jean-Claude Van Damme flicks, but his films of the last few years have been hit-and-miss - and now he is part of that dubious league of filmmakers everyone wishes would return to their previous form.

He hasn't yet with this one. It only seems like it on the surface.

It is 689 AD in Tang Dynasty China, on the eve of Wu Zetian's (Carina Lau) coronation as the first female Empress. A giant Buddha statue is being built to commemorate her ascendancy - until two mysterious deaths by spontaneous human combustion halt the construction. Wu's loyal handmaid-cum-bodyguard Shangguan Jing'er (Li Bingbing) recommends enlisting the famous Di Renjie (Andy Lau), a court official who has languished in exile for 8 years for rebelling against the then-Regent Wu. With Jing'er and another court officer Pei Donglai (Deng Chao) tagging along, Detective Dee takes the case. He seeks the aid of the statue's architect and Dee's old comrade Shatuo (Tony Leung Ka-fai), as well as a medicine man named Donkey Wang (Richard Ng) - but a visit from the openly treasonous General Li Xiao (Lu Yao) exposes intrigues that could threaten the entire Middle Kingdom.

Tsui is most famous for reviving the wuxia genre, but at least one pie that he's always had his finger in is fantasy - see Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain. And Detective Dee is much more a fantasy film than it is wuxia, making use of its historical China backdrop the same way J.R.R. Tolkien evoked the European Middle Ages. Ostensibly it's a detective story, in which seemingly supernatural mysteries are revealed to have mundane causes - but "mundane" is relative here, since the causes themselves are pretty far out there. So yes, fantastical detective story in set in Tang Dynasty China with plenty of elaborate action setpieces - it's the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes meets Lord of the Rings in China. And directed by Tsui Hark. Sounds awesome, duzznit? It should've been - if it weren't such a complete and utter mess.

For one thing, the plot is incredibly confusing. Plot points are glossed over, characters get no proper introduction, and exposition is treated as an inconvenience to be done with as quickly as possible. This plus Tsui's penchant for throwing as much weird-ass stuff into his movies as possible means you'll be going "WTF?" every few minutes throughout. Not only are there character motivations to decipher and a mystery to be investigated, there's also a talking deer, a mace with +5 Sunder Weapon, steampunk robots, magical acupuncture, and some creepy-crawlies known as "fire beetles." And there's an underground Phantom Bazaar that seems to be Tsui's version of the Troll Market in Hellboy II: The Golden Army - but lacking Guillermo Del Toro's imagination (and budget), it's just a bunch of pale-faced guys in rags.

Which is emblematic of how Tsui's ideas in this movie far exceed his ability to execute them competently. I'm honestly shocked that this movie was made by one of the greatest film directors of all time. The direction is terrible. Over and over again, Tsui chooses the absolute wrong shot or camera angle. Not only does this make the plot hard to follow, it renders its lead actor's performance moot. Detective Dee is supposed to be a quirky genius in the vein of Holmes, as irreverent as he is brilliant. But every time he says something witty or does something clever or makes an ingenious deduction, the camera cuts to someone else's face. Whatever Andy Lau did with the role, for some inexplicable reason Tsui won't let us see it. (The rest of the cast aren't too impressive either; most of them struggle with the film's cheesy-melodramatic tone.)

And when did he forget how to film an action scene? Bad enough the fight scenes employ the kind of excessive physics-defying wirework of '90s Hong Kong flicks, once again the camerawork and editing ruin whatever thrills they could offer; they certainly hide whatever kungfu skill Lau, Deng Chao and Li Bingbing trained for. The sad thing is that the genuinely spectacular setpieces are the film's only saving grace, and it's enough to earn it 2-½ stars from me. The climax set within the interior of the giant Buddha statue - because of course you gotta have an action scene in such an elaborate set - is so full of this-could-be-so-cool that it's almost actually cool. But the mid-second-act fight scene between our three investigators and a mysterious assailant with a multi-vector assault mode (yes) is just sloppy.

Sloppy really is the best word I can think of to describe this film (and the sloppiness extends to the subtitles, which keeps referring to the fire beetles as fire turtles. Seriously, WTF?). Despite its quite technically proficient CGI and gorgeous production design, Detective Dee feels like one of those early-'90s cheapies that folks like Wong Jing would rush out half a dozen of in a year. But to be honest, Tsui himself cranked out a few of those during that time - so, is this, in fact, a return to form for him? Only in the sense that he's back to making the kind of wildly imaginative action movies he's most famous for - but not in the sense that he's made a good one. Which only goes to show that, even when playing with his favourite toys, he's still very much hit and miss. This one goes wide off the mark.

Expectations: aaaaa claustrophobia

Sunday, October 17, 2010

The street is as mean as ever

Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
My rating:

I have only just watched the original Wall Street - like, the day before I watched the sequel. Yes yes, a shameful omission in my cinematic knowledge; I know it's considered a classic and all, but my tastes during the '80s ran to the lowbrow. (Still do.) And I didn't dislike it, but I'm afraid I don't see what was so great about it. The storyline is familiar and predictable, the acting is often stilted, and it can get incredibly heavy-handed and on-the-nose. I think a lot of its appeal is due to its very timely release, just a couple of months after the stock market crash of 1987; it certainly feels like a movie that's very much of its time.

So now you know where I'm coming from when I say its sequel is a good deal better.

Jacob Moore (Shia LaBeouf) is a bright young trader at investment bank Keller Zabel, with a beautiful girlfriend Winnie (Carey Mulligan) and a passion for green technology. Suddenly his bank crashes due to the huge amount of toxic mortgages on its books, and when its managing director - and Jake's beloved mentor - Louis Zabel (Frank Langella) fails to get a buyout, he commits suicide. Jake believes rival banker Bretton James (Josh Brolin) started rumours that led to Keller Zabel's demise, and plots revenge - with the aid of the perfect accomplice. The infamous Gordon Gekko (Michael Douglas), having served his prison sentence, has reinvented himself as an author and lecturer, and bears no love for James either. But Gekko also happens to be Winnie's estranged father - and he will help Jake, on the condition that Jake helps him reunite with his daughter.

This is going to be as much a review of the original Wall Street as it is of this sequel. I don't think I would've enjoyed the latter as much if I hadn't watched the former just beforehand - because it does a terrific job at tackling the same themes in fresh new ways. Wall Street was a very simple tale of an innocent seduced by the high life, then learns the error of his ways when they come back to bite him in the backside. Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is a more complex and less predictable story; for example, Jake Moore is a more nuanced character than Bud Fox was. There's a scene where Jake easily resists the same temptations of obscene wealth that Bud fell for - because he's already as rich and successful as Bud longed to be, and his ideals mark him as a morally stronger person than Bud was. It's only a short bit that quickly tells us this sequel will not be a retread.

And Gordon Gekko also plays a more multi-dimensional role here than the purely Svengali-type villain he was before. The subplot of him trying to reconnect with his daughter and recover the years he lost in prison is effective and makes him more sympathetic, although knowing who he used to be lends an unpredictability to his motives - and Michael Douglas' performance neatly balances genuine remorse with an underlying sense of menace. The original film had Gekko playing one half of two mentors (the other being Bud's father, played by Martin Sheen) that represented opposing moral forces battling for the protagonist's soul. This sequel adds a new dimension to the theme. Jake seeks to avenge one mentor by becoming protégé to two others; Gekko, as well as Bretton James, whom he starts working for in an effort to secretly undermine.

Which, of course, doesn't go the way he planned. Now, I confess, I'm a total n00b when it comes to finances. I can't even do my own taxes. (Thanks Mum!) But both films manage to make the world of high finance engrossing, even if I'm sure I'd enjoy it more if I understood what all this buying and selling of shares meant. (I still don't know why insider trading is such a bad thing.) The real story isn't in the rise and fall of stock prices, it's in the characters - Bud discovering the personal cost of his wheeling and dealing, and Jake risking his girlfriend and his passion project for his pursuit of revenge. Director Oliver Stone wisely focuses on the human story rather than the financial minutiae - and in this sequel, he has the benefit of Allan Loeb and Stephen Schiff's screenplay, which is much less on-the-nose than the one he wrote with Stanley Weiser 24 years ago.

He also has the benefit of modern filmmaking technology, which makes this film a very visually flashy one. Stone has never been a subtle filmmaker, and he can get as heavy-handed in his direction as in his writing; there's a voiceover by Jake expositing about financial bubbles, and then later there's a long tracking shot of a soap bubble blown by some kids in a park. But a little hand-holding isn't too annoying with a plot as complex as this, and his stylistic flourishes can be a lot of fun; speaking of long tracking shots, there's another really cool one that takes us from street level to the dizzying heights of a Wall Street office building.

The cast are also on their game here. Douglas has no problem slipping back into Gekko's skin, even a kinder and gentler Gekko. Shia LaBeouf holds his own, Frank Langella is impressive in his short screentime, and Carey Mulligan does wonders with a pretty underwritten role. There's also Susan Sarandon playing Jake's mother, and although her subplot is somewhat superfluous, their scenes together are still fun to watch. The only slight disappointment is Josh Brolin, who really should be a much more hissable villain. But if he's the weak link in this cast, that's already a major improvement over the original film, who had Daryl Hannah. Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn't mention the cameo by Charlie Sheen, and I won't spoil how Bud is doing in the present day; suffice it to say that his appearance is pure fanservice, but also very effective fanservice.

And it does end on a somewhat too pat and happy note. But on the video intro that Stone recorded for the Wall Street 20th Anniversary DVD, he repeatedly mentioned that he loves its characters, and I suspect he's a softie for Jake and Winnie as well. I'm kinda disappointed at the mixed reviews it's gotten; even my favourite critics have been lukewarm to it. But I have no rose-tinted memories of the original, and I can see where this sequel clearly improves on it. Wall Street was a sign of its times (somewhat despite itself, frankly). Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps is not, but that shouldn't be held against it when it is in fact a damn fine movie all its own.

NEXT REVIEW: Detective Dee
Expectations: Tsui Hark, don't let me down

Monday, October 11, 2010

Road trip of self-discovery, or something

The Joshua Tapes
My rating:

I like writing nasty reviews. Sometimes it's the only satisfaction I'll get from a crappy movie that I spent good money on and that I knew was gonna be crappy. But sometimes I find myself in the curious position of writing an unfavourable review and taking pains to not make it nasty. The Joshua Tapes has a page on Facebook with notes from some of the cast and crew on their experiences making this film, and they are all so earnest and heartfelt (and articulate) that I can't find it in myself to snark all over them.

Because y'see, I really didn't like the movie at all.

Reza (Baki Zainal), Ryan (Phoon Chi Ho) and Ajeet (Matthew Ho Tien Li) are three friends on a road trip to the East Coast, a trip that was their friend Joshua's (Alfred Loh) idea. It was at Joshua's farewell party - hosted by Ryan's ex-girlfriend Sam (Grace Ng Fei Fen) - that he first proposed the trip as a last hurrah before he goes overseas for studies and they all go on to lead separate lives. As they drive through small towns and back roads, secrets and resentments and true feelings will be revealed - as well as the reason why Joshua himself isn't with them.

There have been precious few local English-language films made, which could account for why the whole film never quite felt natural to me. It could be because the acting is unpolished, albeit the cast all give game tries. It's very likely because screenwriters Lim Benji's and Priya Kulasagaran's dialogue is somewhat overwritten and occasionally gets terribly on-the-nose; case in point, when Ajeet and Ryan are guffawing over the supposedly hilarious story of why Reza isn't allowed to drive his own mum's Pajero, and then they ask him to tell the story again for the audience's benefit. But maybe it's just because, as I said, we so rarely hear Malaysian English on screen. Perhaps it's just that unfamiliarity that makes The Joshua Tapes feel slightly "off" to me.

But the main reason why I didn't like it is because I didn't like the characters. These guys are assholes. Right from the start, Ajeet and Reza are sniping and snarking at each other, such that I can hardly believe they were ever friends. Later, it turns out one of the deep dark secrets revealed on this trip is that Ajeet is suffering from depression and is cutting himself (on his back. How does one cut one's self on one's back?). Reza forces him to admit this, because... he cares? He's the kind of person who always tries to help others out of misguided concern? Um, no. Not buying it at all. 'Cos Reza seemed more of a malicious little bastard who took sadistic pleasure in dredging up and exposing Ajeet's pain. Who is this guy?? Who would want to go on a road trip with him??

And then there's Ryan. At first he seems the most level-headed one, always the peacemaker to the other two's bickering. But then we learn that his secret pain is that he resents Joshua getting into a relationship with his ex-girlfriend Sam and hiding it from him. Ex-girlfriend. Yes, I know there's an unspoken rule among male friends that you don't date your mate's ex - but I can't help but think Ryan reacted like a whiny little drama queen when he blew up over the matter. (Guys: it would've worked better if Sam were cheating on Ryan with Joshua.) And it doesn't help that it was Reza who so eagerly spilled the beans to Ryan - 'cos he's "looking out for his bro" konon - which just makes him more of a hateful little batu api.

Look, I don't mean for this review to so nitpicky. But the fact is, this story just rubbed me the wrong way. I didn't like the characters. I didn't find them interesting or well-developed, and I couldn't care less if they came to a place of emotional truth or whatever their journey was meant to represent. I didn't laugh at the movie's attempts at humour; Ajeet's beer-addled banter isn't funny, nor are the private jokes between this bunch of friends, nor is the tonal dip into broad comedy during the bit with the "quirky" innkeeper (a cameo by co-screenwriter and co-director Lim). It's partly the writing, and partly the acting; as I mentioned, the cast all do their best, but I think most of them just never found the right tone for their characters.

Because the thing is, indie road movies of this sort are not easy to do well. They're popular with indie filmmakers, because all you need is a car and some picturesque locations - but to really pull off a journey of emotional discovery demands some A-game writing and acting. I admit I'm not a fan of indie road movies - but then I remembered that I enjoyed Little Miss Sunshine a lot. That's as good an entry in the genre as any, and sadly, The Joshua Tapes is nowhere near its level. For all that co-director Arivind Abraham and Lim and Priya and the folks at Perantauan Pictures had their hearts in the right places, I just didn't like the movie. Sorry guys, this is as non-nasty as I can get.

NEXT REVIEW: Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps
Expectations: I seriously need to watch the first one first

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Owls are badass. O rly? Ya rly.

Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole
My rating:

Could this movie have a more dull and generic title? Seriously. I mean, I know, it's based on a young adult fantasy novel series called Guardians of Ga'Hoole, which lacks the name recognition of, say, Harry Potter. So, worried that people unfamiliar with the books would think Ga'Hoole sounds goofy (which it does), the producers gave it a title that tells us two things: 1) it's about some folks who must be good guys because they guard stuff, and 2) there's, like, a legend about them. Am I the only one who has a beef against movie titles that start with "Legend of the"? We're the audience - we'll decide if your movie is legendary or not, thank you very much.

Okay, so the title sucks. The movie's pretty good though.

Soren (Jim Sturgess) is a young owl who lives with his family, including brother Kludd (Ryan Kwanten) and younger sister Eglantine (Adrienne deFaria). One day they are kidnapped by the Pure Ones, led by the evil Metalbeak (Joel Edgerton) and his mate Nyra (Helen Mirren) who are raising an army of owls to conquer the world. Kludd falls for their fascistic ideology, but Soren and a fellow captive named Gylfie (Emily Barclay) manage to escape. Later they meet other owls Digger (David Wenham) and Twilight (Anthony LaPaglia) and Soren's nest-maid snake Mrs. P (Miriam Margolyes), who join them on their quest to find the Guardians of Ga'Hoole and seek their help to rescue the kidnapped owlets from the Pure Ones. But finding the Guardians is only half the battle; Soren will have much to learn from the grizzled veteran Ezylryb (Geoffrey Rush) about the true nature of heroism.

Sweet Lord, this is one beautiful film. It's the first time I wished I'd watched a 3D movie in 3D, regretting my usual cheapskatery. The owl characters are incredibly expressive, and every flutter of feathers is gorgeously animated. The visual design is pretty neat too, especially the Pure Ones' craggy lair and the Guardians' badass helms and steel talons. But two scenes that stand out are the rainstorm in which Ezylryb teaches Soren a lesson in flying, and a forest fire during the action-packed climax. I would've called these scenes photorealistic, if it weren't that not even photorealism could be so breathtakingly composed in every raindrop and lick of flame. It trumps even Pixar's Finding Nemo, the previous title-holder in beautifully realistic CG animation.

It's a pity then that the story doesn't match up to the visuals. It's not even that it's generic epic fantasy (I like epic fantasy, generic or not) - it's that the story is cobbled from no less than three novels in the series, and the seams show. Writers John Orloff and John Collee and director Zack Snyder (yes, that Zack Snyder) do a bang-up job in weaving the books into a cohesive and well-paced narrative, but not without sacrifices. A number of supporting characters get short shrift - what purpose does Mrs. P serve here anyway? Or Eglantine? Or this other Guardian whom Soren meets named Otulissa? It's obvious that all these characters have much more detailed stories in the books that the movie just doesn't have time to delve into.

But the sorest shortcoming is in the world-building. The Pure Ones' home base is called St. Aegolius - which is, like, gee, kinduva pretty name for an evil HQ, innit? Not like Mordor or the Death Star or even Snake Mountain. But it turns out that St. Aegolius is an actual orphanage for owlets, which the bad guys have co-opted to recruit soldiers and slave labour. Ah, so these are civilised owls then, complete with social welfare system? There's a brief mention of "owl kingdoms" in the dialogue, but we sure don't see none of 'em. And who are these Guardians anyway? What do they guard? Are they like some kinda Jedi Knights of the owl world? I think they are, but again, none of this is made very clear. We just never know what's so special about them, or why they're so legen - wait for it - dary.

And our protagonist is this total fanboy of the Guardians, and he's so earnest and passionate and believes in them so much that it's honestly quite annoying. Compounding this is Jim Sturgess' voice performance, which must be one of the whiniest I've ever heard in an animated film; I'm tempted to side with Kludd in wanting Soren to just shut up about the Guardians already. It doesn't help either that he gets the standard-order "believe in yourself" character arc that just comes off as tacked-on and cliched. We've seen it before in most other animated movies, but it works better when the hero has a more likable personality.

But I carp too much. It's still pretty good, and it gets genuinely fun and exciting towards the end. Snyder hired stuntmen to choreograph the owl fight scenes, and their efforts pay off in some really cool action scenes. I'm generally not a fan of Snyder's slo-mo-fast-mo style, but I have to admit that it works here in showcasing the avian martial art that they've created. It also helps that one of the climactic fights has a real Darth-Vader-vs-Ben-Kenobi weight of history behind it that makes it all the more thrilling - that is, when it doesn't keep cutting back to the comparatively dull Soren-vs-Kludd fight. That's about it for Legend of the Guardians' pleasures that go deeper than the surface; cool fight scenes and very pretty pictures are pretty much the most it has to offer. But it is a very shiny surface nonetheless.

NEXT REVIEW: The Joshua Tapes
Expectations: indie road movie? Looooww

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Sebuah filem KRU Studios yang teramat okey

My rating:

Fantasy adventure-comedy that parodies a whole bunch of characters from Malay folklore? That's actually a great idea. That's what I thought when I saw the trailer for this. It's a concept that lends itself to a lot of imagination, and if it can live up to that potential, we might have a decent local film here. ('Cos even a decent local film is such a rarity.) But the thing about that trailer that gave me pause is that it's also a musical. Aiyaa, why laa? As I have previously mentioned, musicals are perhaps my least favourite genre. I couldn't help but think this movie simply didn't need to break out into song every ten minutes or so.

Turns out I was right, on both counts.

Ayu (Diana Danielle) and Malik (Fimie Don) are brother and sister who have just buried their deceased mother at her rural kampung. After a childish argument, Malik runs off into the jungle, Ayu goes after him... and they both tumble through a gateway into the land of Magika. Malik is quickly kidnapped by Nenek Kebayan (Ziana Zain), who plans to use him to make her youth potion for an eager clientele that includes the Puteri Gunung Ledang (Ning Baizura). Ayu, on the other hand, runs into Pak Pandir (Aznil Nawawi) and Mak Andeh (Raja Azura), sees Mahsuri (Vanidah Imran) get run through by Awang's (Norman Hakim) spear, is briefly accompanied by Hang Tuah (Saiful Apek), and finally finds a friend in Badang (Mawi), who helps her rescue Malik. And they'll have more wacky hijinks to get into before they find their way home.

I'm beginning to think that KRU Studios may be the most competent local film studio working today. They made My Spy, which wasn't a very good movie but at least had some solid production values. They made Jin Notti, which was an awful awful movie but at least it had some original ideas. And they made the two Cicakman films, which I haven't seen but at least deserve points for ambition (if they're better than Kapoww, they're good enough already). Such low standards is where our industri filem tempatan is currently at, but hey, baby steps. What makes Magika stand out from the typical local film is that it is overall a perfectly competent film.

Of course, you come to TMBF to hear more than just "citer nie kira okeylah", so here goes my usual rebiu yang panjang lebar. The writing is pretty solid; the dialogue largely avoids on-the-nose exposition, and can occasionally be pretty witty. Especially the parts where they fool around with their source material of Malay folk legends. The funniest scene was Sabri Yunus playing a hilariously droll Bendahara chastising the Puteri Gunung Ledang for being a drama queen with the Sultan Melaka. (And hey, kenapa Sabri jarang buat filem? Dude is funny.) Also, I may have heard my first honest-to-God instance of sexual innuendo in a Malay film ("tadi kecik, sekarang dah besar"). It's too bad they don't go as far with the spoofery as, say, the Shrek movies, but the bits we get are welcome.

But as I suspected, the musical parts are what dragged the movie down. Yes yes, I'm no fan of musicals, I am clearly biased, I'm just a mean ol' meanyhead being mean. But the thing is that the movie uses its musical numbers as a substitute for genuine emotional scenes. Ayu and Badang have a romance, Malik has survivor's guilt over his mum's death, and the two bickering siblings must learn to love each other. How are these character arcs conveyed and resolved? They sing about it. Now, maklumlah dalam genre muzikal ni, itulah fungsi adegan nyanyian - to provide emotional resonance as well as advance the plot. But I just ain't feelin' it, guys. It's like, no matter what deep emotional trauma you suffer from, nyanyi lagu je semuanya baik.

Or maybe it's just the way the musical scenes are executed here. The thing about musicals that I can never quite get is the tonality; what kind of world is this where people sukati je bernyanyi dan berdansa? It would've worked better if only the denizens of Magika do the singing and dancing, but noooo, Diana Danielle just had to show off her pipes. Musicals operate in a kind of heightened reality, and not everyone has the acting chops for that. Most of the cast do fine by just hamming it up, although some try too hard to make too much of their screentime. (Raja Azura, ngkolah tu.) But although Diana is pretty good when she's not singing, she never seems comfortable with her musical scenes; during her reconciliation song with Malik, dia macam bermiang dengan adiknya sendiri. (Um, yes. Ewww.) Mawi also never quite gets the tone right. Dashing hero, dia boleh buat. Dashing hero yang bernyanyi dan berdansa, dia kayu.

The thing about Magika is that it's ambitious for a local film, but that's a low standard - it's not really ambitious enough. Making it a musical seems obligatory, like they did it just because Hotel Mania is a hit on TV3 and they're hopping on the bandwagon. (Macamlah Hotel Mania tu original sangat.) But as much as I've been carping about it, citer nie kira okey jugaklah. You'll probably like it more than I did if you like musicals. There's a singing-and-dancing fight scene between Badang and Nenek Kebayan that's gloriously silly, and the climactic action scene involving a CGI dragon is... okay, it's not a very well-staged action scene, but points for effort. I'm feeling good about KRU Studios right now, enough to even forgive them for Jin Notti; if they keep aiming as high as this, I reckon eventually they'll make a genuinely good movie. (Hell, maybe this could be it.)

NEXT REVIEW: Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga'Hoole
Expectations: dammit that title is just so lame