Friday, December 30, 2011

Mission accomplished, and then some

Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
My rating:

The Mission: Impossible film franchise is a curious one. Ostensibly based on the '60s TV series but often having little in common with it - since the hallmark of the show was a tightly-coordinated team pulling off an elaborate con, but the movies usually focused on the solo exploits of Ethan Hunt. There's little continuity between each instalment; the only common denominator is Hunt, who fell passionately in love with a girl in the second film that was replaced by another "one true love of his life" in the third. Even the tone of each three is radically different, since they were made by different directors: Brian DePalma (twisty and convoluted), John Woo (lush and operatic) and J.J. Abrams (gritty and intensely personal). I really did want to do Retro Reviews of them prior to reviewing the new one, if not for - again - lack of time.

But I can say that Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol is the best of them yet, not to mention the best popcorn movie of the year.

Disavowed IMF agent Ethan Hunt (Tom Cruise) is broken out from a Russian prison by an IMF team comprising Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg) and Jane Carter (Paula Patton). Their purpose is to have him lead them in a mission to recover Russian nuclear launch codes that were stolen by an assassin named Sabine Moreau (Léa Seydoux) - who murdered Carter's lover and fellow agent - and is working for a shadowy figure code-named Cobalt, a.k.a. Kurt Hendricks (Michael Nyqvist). But just as the team is infiltrating the Kremlin in order to retrieve vital information, Hendricks orchestrates a massive bombing of the Kremlin and frames the IMF and the U.S. government for it, putting Russian intelligence agent Sidorov (Vladimir Mashkov) hot on Hunt's tail. The President initiates Ghost Protocol, disavowing the entire IMF and leaving Hunt and his team on their own - although they also pick up a new member in William Brandt (Jeremy Renner), an analyst with a mysterious past. Hendricks means to drive the United States and Russia into global thermonuclear war, and the mission is for Hunt, Dunn, Carter and Brandt to stop him - a mission that will take them from Moscow through Dubai to Mumbai.

Fwoar! That was a perfectly-crafted piece of rollercoaster action cinema. And the man to thank for it is Brad Bird, making his live-action directorial debut; he's more known for being an animation director, having helmed my favourite Pixar film of all time, The Incredibles, as well as Ratatouille and The Iron Giant. (Which is also a brilliant and severely underrated animated film; go watch it now if you haven't.) It turns out Bird's animation sensibilities are perfect for action movies; Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol does everything right that n00bs like Michael Bay and Paul W.S. Anderson get wrong. The highlight of the film is the Dubai sequence, in which Hunt climbs around the outside of the Burj Khalifa; Bird's camera succeeds terrifically at capturing the heart-stopping vertigo of the world's tallest building (something that Brett Ratner failed at). And with nary a pause for breath, he follows that up with a foot-and-car-chase through a sandstorm that's almost as pulse-poundingly thrilling - and the climactic fight scene in Mumbai set in a vertical, multi-platform parking garage that's a masterclass in complex yet coherently-filmed action.

What does Bird do to distinguish this instalment of the M:I franchise from the others? He makes it the most purely fun one yet. It's not an out-and-out action comedy, but there's a light touch throughout the film that meshes remarkably well with the ostensibly serious, world-shaking stakes. Simon Pegg, returning as Benji Dunn from the last film, provides most of the comic relief, but there are flashes of humour from Cruise, Jeremy Renner and the Anil Kapoor cameo - all of which emerge naturally from the characters and never seem contrived or break the overall tone. And early on, there's a deliciously suspenseful sequence in the Kremlin involving an ingenious piece of holographic technology, that perfectly illustrates its blend of laughs and tension. Humour tends to deflate suspense, but Bird balances them perfectly and allows them to complement each other. In fact, the tension never lets up, through a trick the screenplay - by André Nemec and Josh Appelbaum, who both wrote several episodes of Abrams' TV series Alias - employs again and again: at every turn, our heroes' plans keep going wrong.

To be honest, the strings being pulled here are somewhat obvious; at one point, the machine that makes those face masks, for which the series is famous, breaks down for - I swear to God - no reason whatsoever. Leaving our heroes to attempt a con job on the bad guys bare-faced, thus upping the tension of that scene. This is the most contrived example I noticed, but practically every plan of theirs is full of things going wrong and their mission becoming more and more impossible. But hey, remember the title of the movie? Why should you mind an action movie that goes out of its way to be suspenseful? Far better than an action movie that pulls strings to get its heroes out of tight spots, via deus ex machina contrivances that leave audiences feeling cheated; Nemec and Appelbaum (with contributions from Bird, surely) employ diabolus ex machinas that force Hunt and his team to work even harder and rely even more on improvisation, ingenuity, teamwork and sheer dogged determination. And why should you mind an action movie that gives its protagonists such qualities?

What I expect Bird also brought to Nemec's and Appelbaum's screenplay is a polish on all the characters. There's no such thing as superfluous characters in animation (which is ironic, considering how much more alive and interesting an animated character can be than a flesh-and-blood one), and there are none here; everyone contributes to the film, whether via the main plot or a subplot of their own or even just to provide a funny moment or two. Even Sidorov, the Russian cop who's the Wile E. Coyote to Ethan Hunt's Roadrunner and has barely 10 minutes of total screentime, gets fleshed out well enough for us to appreciate his presence. Don't get me wrong - this is an action movie, not an in-depth character study like, oh, say, The Hurt Locker. William Brandt is clearly not as complex and multi-dimensional as Will James, even if both characters were played by the same actor. But the little amounts of personality that this film gives to all its characters is not only welcome, it's also what very few action movies do well or even bother to do.

There's already been talk of a fifth Mission: Impossible movie, owing to the stellar reviews and strong early box-office for this one - which, I have to say, does not exactly make me eagerly anticipate the next one. Such is the nature of this franchise; each entry has been so different from each other, with so little in the way of continuity, that there's little reason to expect the next one will be as good as this one. (Oh, and speaking of continuity, there is a nod to the last film in here, and it's a welcome and good-natured one considering Mission: Impossible III ended on an unequivocally happy note for Hunt.) Unless, of course, it's directed by Brad Bird, who is the only real winner here. The latest news indicates his next project will be another animated film, but there's no doubt he'll be inundated with offers to direct more live-action movies and that he'll have his pick of the lot. I'm hoping he'll take one of them, and use the new-found Hollywood cachet that's clearly coming his way to give us another dazzling film - action or otherwise. I'll be first in line for his next, whatever it may be and whatever medium it's in. There's no way I won't, after he made the best action movie of the year and earned a definite spot in my list of best movies of the year.

Expectations: oh boy, this looks good

Friday, December 23, 2011

The Muppets are as sweet and earnest - and magical - as ever

The Muppets
My rating:

It was either this or Arthur Christmas for my next review. I'm missing out on a lot of big movies in an (increasingly desperate) attempt to catch up on current cinema releases; although the Aardman Studios animated film has been garnering great reviews, I ultimately chose The Muppets due to its greater, um, shall we say, "cultural significance." (Even though its cultural significance here in Malaysia is somewhat suspect.) Boy, I'm glad I did! I'd forgotten that the new Toy Story short from Pixar, Small Fry, is attached to it, and I would've hated myself for missing it. Although it feels like a massively shortened version of the first movie (Buzz gets left behind again), the hilarious spoofs of cheesy fast-food kid's meal toys make up for it. And of course, it's a pleasure just to see Woody and Buzz and the rest of the gang on the big screen again.

And The Muppets? Glad I caught it too.

Gary (Jason Segel) and Walter (voice of Peter Linz) are adopted brothers and lifelong fans of the Muppets - especially Walter, who is clearly a Muppet himself but apparently no one ever comments on this fact. On the 10th anniversary of Gary's and his girlfriend Mary's (Amy Adams) relationship, they go on a trip to Los Angeles and bring Walter with them, who is especially excited to visit the famed Muppet Studios. But upon arrival, they find it run down and the Muppets disbanded, having lost their popularity. Worse, an evil oil baron named Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) is planning to buy the property, tear it down and drill for oil. Thus, Gary, Walter and a slightly reluctant Mary must gather the old Muppet gang - Kermit the Frog, Fozzie Bear, Gonzo, Animal, Miss Piggy, Swedish Chef, Rowlf, Camilla the Chicken and all the others - and save the day the only way they know how: by putting on a show. But first, they must convince hard-nosed TV executive Veronica (Rashida Jones) to give them a slot, then get Jack Black (Jack Black) to be their celebrity host - and finally, defeat the machinations of Richman, who mean to ruin them at any cost.

Did The Muppet Show ever air in Malaysia? TMBF was a bona fide TV addict throughout the '80s, and I don't recall ever seeing it. (And I recall Fraggle Rock.) There's a great deal of love and nostalgia for the Muppets amongst the pop-culture-geek websites I hang out on, none of which I or anyone I personally know feel; sure, I've heard of Kermit and Miss Piggy through cultural osmosis, but that's about it. So I came to this movie with none of the pop-cultural baggage that it seems to be deliberately addressing - such as the basic storyline about how they've fallen in popularity and need to convince the world, both in the film and in real life, that they're still relevant. I also came to this movie with a somewhat removed impression of the Muppets' appeal, i.e. I know people like them because they're charming and funny and cute, but I haven't really experienced it myself. Now that I have, I can sum it up in one word: sweetness.

Which is a difficult thing to aim for, since it can so very easily end up as cloying sentimentality. It's also very easy for most people to adopt a cynical, cooler-than-thou hipness that looks down on something as unfalteringly clean and cheery as the Muppets. But I see now that what makes them so beloved - and what this movie succeeds at capturing - is their ability to make sweetness sweet, and not cloying or corny. This is a delightfully candy-coated confection of a film, one that knocks down every wall of cynicism to put a gleeful, child-like smile on your face that you can't wipe off - to paraphrase a lyric from one of its songs. And yes, it has songs; it's a musical, which I've said before is my least favourite genre, but this movie shows that there's nothing like a showstopping, intricately-choreographed song-and-dance number to convey effervescent joy. That's what The Muppets offers - effervescent joy.

How does it accomplish that? First, by being very very cute. In this day and age when there's a multi-billion-dollar corporation that does nothing but create marketable icons of cute, it's enlightening to consider what Jim Henson created 35 years ago through the old-school art of puppeteering. Second, by investing each and every one of those creations with personality - something Sanrio has never bothered to do - via voice acting, puppetry, and plain ol' good storytelling. Third, by adopting an ironic sense of humour that pokes fun at itself more than anything, which therefore gives it license to also poke fun at everything. The funniest jokes in this movie come from its gleefully fourth-wall-breaking moments - like when an entire chorus line collapses in exhaustion after the principal characters leave the scene, or even offhand bits like when Kermit first balks at Walter's plea to reunite the Muppets and Mary says, "This is going to be a very short movie."

But where it resolutely refuses to descend into irony is in the emotional subplots - Gary's and Mary's relationship issues, Walter's identity crisis, even Kermit's and Miss Piggy's on-again off-again romance. Which tend to bog the movie down in its midsection; none of them have any real dramatic weight for the amount of screentime they take up. Albeit the Kermit-Miss Piggy one works better, since the Muppets' brand of earnest sentiment works better when it's played by Muppets instead of flesh-and-blood actors. Because if there's another word that best describes the Muppets, it's earnestness. It's there not only in the sentimental scenes, but also in its entire approach to entertainment at its cheesiest. It's what accounts for Camilla and gang clucking their way through an all-chicken rendition of Cee Lo Green's Forget You (the clean version of the song, of course), as well as the bit where Chris Cooper starts rapping. The former is fun - the latter is a little cringe-inducing. Just as well that neither goes on for too long.

But I feel guilty just for saying the slightest uncomplimentary thing about it. A Muppet movie isn't supposed to be dramatically weighty, after all. It's not a great film, as my rating indicates, and I wouldn't even place it among the year's best. It's just a highly entertaining little movie that kids will enjoy, that'll turn hardened adults into kids again, and that'll leave a smile on your face that'll last a lot longer than most empty-headed kids' movies. (Despicable Me, I'm still looking at you.) Still, I wouldn't put it past some people (Malaysians in particular, if only because we never grew up watching The Muppet Show) to be immune to the Muppets' charms - to think of a movie starring old-school, non-CGI-animated puppets to be uncool. Just look at Walter, the one new Muppet character created for this movie, and see how the same piece of inanimate felt can convey heartbreaking sadness, overwhelming joy, and the entire gamut of emotions in between. There's a magic in that - magic that Jim Henson discovered and that his successors carry on. For those on whom that magic doesn't work, you clearly live in a colder and bleaker world than the rest of us.

NEXT REVIEW: Mission: Impossible - Ghost Protocol
Expectations: wow, AV Club, really?

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

"Kisah cinta agung" kepala hotak engkau

Ombak Rindu
My rating:

Sesebuah filem haruslah dinilai atas dasarnya sendiri. Ini sepatutnya menjadi Peraturan #1 buat pengulas filem, tapi bukan semua pengulas yang reti. Ramai reviu yang menunjukkan kedangkalan penulis mengecam filem yang diulas atas sebab ianya bukan filem yang ingin ditontonnya; e.g. dia tak suka filem aksi, jadi dia hentam filem aksi kerana banyak sangat babak aksi. Tetapi juga ada satu lagi Peraturan #1 buat pengulas filem: sesebuah filem haruslah dinilai berdasarkan pendapat sendiri yang jujur. Komen yang paling tak guna dalam ulasan filem ialah yang berbunyi "jika anda peminat filem sebegini, anda akan minat filem ini." Adalah mustahil jika penulis cuba meramal apa yang akan mendapat sambutan dari orang lain, macamlah "orang lain" ini mempunyai citarasa yang sama keseluruhannya. Suka atau tidak, mesti berani mengatakan suka atau tidak. Kedua-dua peraturan ini merupakan Peraturan #1, sebab tiada satu yang lebih penting dari yang satu lagi; dua-dua mesti diimbang dan dicari titik persamaan di antara mereka.

Tetapi adakalanya sukar - terutamanya bila sesebuah filem nyata dibikin dengan elok, tetapi mendatangkan reaksi mual dan marah.

Izzah (Maya Karin) seorang gadis kampung yang bekerja sebagai ustazah, berkawan dengan Mail (Bront Palarae) yang menaruh hati terhadapnya, dan tinggal bersama makciknya (Delimawati) yang sakit tenat dan pakciknya (Kamarool Yusof) yang kejam. Malangnya, Izzah dibawa oleh pakciknya ke kotaraya KL dan dijual kepada bapa ayam, lantas dirogol oleh seorang anak kaya bernama Hariz (Aaron Aziz). Hariz kemudian membeli Izzah dan menyimpannya sebagai perempuan simpanan dan hamba seks, tetapi mula jatuh hati dengannya lalu menikahkannya. Namun begitu, Hariz sudah bertunangkan seorang pelakon filem bernama Mila (Lisa Surihani), dan ibunya Dato' Sufiah (Azizah Mahzan) juga menggesanya supaya mengahwini Mila. Walaupun Izzah dilayan baik oleh Pak Dollah (Zaidi Omar) dan Mak Jah (Normah Damanhuri), pekerja keluarga Hariz, namun dia terpaksa menghadapi pelbagai rintangan dan kesengsaraan demi cintanya terhadap si perogol Hariz tu.

Masyallah. Inikah "kisah cinta agung" yang berjaya meraut lebih RM12 juta di box-office? Kisah cinta antara wanita yang lemah dan tidak berpewatakan dengan lelaki yang menderanya secara fizikal, emosional dan seksual? Filem ini menjual female submission fantasy, atau fantasi pengakuran wanita, kepada masyarakat dimana hampir 40% wanita menghadapi keganasan rumahtangga. Dan apakah mesej disebalik fantasi ini? Jika anda didera, diseksa dan dicabul kehormatan anda, baik diam saja? Hanya kerana laki kau hensem macam Aaron Aziz? Kau ingat makin kau biar diri kau didera, makin pendera kau akan jatuh cinta dengan kau? Kalau kau lawa macam Maya Karin mungkinlah, tapi kalau tak, mampuslah kau? Pasal filem ni, rosak segala usaha NGO seperti Pertubuhan Pertolongan Wanita (WAO) dan All Women's Action Society (AWAM) yang bertungkus lumus membantu dan memberi kaunseling kepada wanita mangsa penderaan suami.

Dan si Izzah ni abende? Heroine paling tak guna dalam sejarah perfileman Malaysia. Langsung tidak mengambil apa-apa tindakan aktif mahupun membuat apa-apa keputusan, hanya bereaksi kepada segala yang berlaku dalam cerita ini (dan reaksinya 90% ialah nangis). Tiada personaliti, tiada harga diri, tiada usaha untuk memperbaiki hidupnya dan tiada tanggungjawab keatas kebahagiaan dirinya sendiri. Biar orang lain jaga dia je, dan kalau orang tu kejam terhadap dia, harapkan tangisan je akan buat orang tu kasihankan dia. Macam ni nak jadi heroine? Siapa nak jatuh cinta dengan perempuan macam ni? Hanya lelaki yang egotis dan dominan macam Hariz, yang inginkan hamba bukan isteri. Lelaki yang benar-benar menghormati kaum wanita dan menganggap wanita sebagai sama taraf akan memilih perempuan yang bijak, berkemampuan dan berpendirian. Yang macam Izzah ni, memang tak layak nak hidup bahagia dalam dunia ini.

Sigh... sekali lagi sebuah filem yang buat aku berang masa mula-mula, makin lama makin buat aku hilang rasa marah itu. Sebab fantasi yang dihidangkan oleh arahan Osman Ali, serta skrip yang ditulisnya bersama Armantono (diadaptasikan dari novel Fauziah Ashari), dimasak dengan cukup sedap. Ini sebuah melodrama yang tak tahu malu ingin memeras airmata dari penonton, dan saya rasa ia digarap dengan baik. Sinematografinya efektif dalam menangkap alam sekitar pantai, sawah padi dan ladang teh yang indah dan romantis. Plotnya tak cincai dan bangang macam Lagenda Budak Setan (yang juga diskripkan oleh Armantono dan diarah oleh Sharad Sharan yang kini menjadi penerbit Ombak Rindu). Paling nyata ialah perubahan watak Hariz dari pendera yang keji kepada hero romantik penuh berperasaan yang mampu menggoyangkan lutut penonton wanita, dilakonkan dengan mantap oleh Aaron Aziz. Rupanya yang kendu gilababi sudah tentu membantu, tetapi beliau juga ada kemahiran disebalik kehensemannya. (Tak seperti Farid Kamil.)

Cerita melodrama mesti ada watak jahat, dan filem ini ada dua. Yang paling menyerlah ialah ibu Hariz yang dipersembahkan dengan penuh over-the-top oleh Azizah Mahzan. Seringkali saya dapati Osman sangat teruja menunjukkan betapa eeeevilnya watak Dato' Sufiah ini, sehingga mekap dan pencahayaan pun berganding dengan lakonan Azizah bagi menjayakan kejahatan yang amat menghiburkan. Watak jahat kedua ialah Mila tunang Hariz yang saya tak sangka sebenarnya bukan jahat sangat. Lakonan Lisa Surihani menggambarkan seorang gadis yang dimanja teruk, sehingga bila Hariz ingin putuskan tunangan, dia buat perangai macam budak kecil yang tak dapat mainan yang dia mahu. (Ramai yang kata lakonannya terlalu over, tapi saya rasa inilah sebenarnya watak yang paling sesuai dengan bakat Lisa.) Tetapi kemudian kita lihat Mila ini juga ada dalamnya, ada perasaan yang tidak diduga dan mampu menimbulkan rasa simpati. Malah, saya sanggup kata dialah watak yang pada akhirnya paling mulia dan berani dalam cerita ini.

Heroinenya pula bagaimana? Tetap tak guna. Saya juga kurang terkesan dengan lakonan Maya Karin; beliau seperti tidak tahu apa nak buat dengan watak yang begitu lemah dan pasif. Penonton pula, nak buat apa dengan heroine ini dan cerita ini? Saya berdoa agar mereka takkan jadikannya sebagai pedoman, atau jadikan Izzah sebagai contoh wanita solehah, sebab ya Allah tidak. Hakikatnya filem ini adalah sebuah fantasi yang memaniskan sesuatu yang amat pahit bagi beribu-ribu wanita dalam realiti. Inilah dilema yang TMBF hadapi bagi menulis rebiu ini; dari segi pembikinan ia cukup baik sebagai filem melodrama yang kuat melo-nya, tapi dari segi mesej dan pendirian ia amat durjana dan celaka. Jadi saya beri 2-½ bintang, rating yang berada ditengah-tengah skala ukuran. Saya dengar penerbit filem ini nak hantarnya ke Cannes Film Festival yang akan datang, dan saya tak sabar hendak membaca ulasan media asing yang pasti akan menghentamnya habis-habis. Sebab orang barat jauh lebih peka terhadap isu jantina dan feminisme dari orang Malaysia, yang jahil menganggap cerita ini sebuah "kisah cinta agung."

NEXT REVIEW: The Muppets
Expectations: do they have a lot of fans here?

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A movie that'll make you proud to be Chinese - and Malaysian

Petaling Street Warriors
My rating:

I respect the hell out of James Lee. Not just because he makes good movies, but also for his unwavering work ethic; his last film came out just five months ago, and his latest one is a period kungfu comedy, which certainly isn't a simple production. The guy just never stops working, even when his films are box-office disappointments - or even when they're banned by our quintessential Censorship Board. But if he's at all discouraged by all this, he shows no sign of it; in fact, he has another film in the works, another martial arts action film called The Collector. But first, Petaling Street Warriors - a local Chinese-language movie that's clearly after the same Malaysian Chinese audience that flocked to Nasi Lemak 2.0 and Great Day.

Which I very much hope it managed to capture, because it thoroughly deserves to.

Shi Duyao (Mark Lee) and Zhung Lichun (Yeo Yann Yann) are a married couple selling Hokkien mee at their stall in Petaling Street, circa 1908. Along with their fellow traders Liu Kun (Namewee) and Weisheng (Sunny Pang), they have occasional run-ins with the local gang bosses (John Cheng and Brandon Yuen) - and Duyao can't help tagging after his good-for-nothing friends Yong Kok (Alvin Wong) and Rajoo (Ramasundran Rengan) - but on the whole, he and Lichun are happy together. But in fact, Duyao is the descendant of the last Chinese emperor of the Ming Dynasty, who fled to Southeast Asia 500 years ago after being overthrown by the Qing - and brought with him the vast treasures of his kingdom. That treasure is now being sought by several parties: a mysterious femme fatale named Xiaoju (Chris Tong), an eunuch of the Qing government (Frederick Lee), and the local British constabulary captain (Nick Dorian). All of whom converge on Petaling Street and Duyao, who - unbeknownst to him all this while - is under the sworn protection of this own wife, Liu Kun and Weisheng.

So this movie has been earning raves from a bunch of Hong Kong filmmaking figures, most of which amounts to saying it's on par with the quality of Hong Kong films. Which struck me as pure PR fluff the first time I heard it, that is until I watched the movie. They're right; Petaling Street Warriors is a period kungfu comedy in the classic Stephen Chow mou lei tao mould, and it's pretty damn good by the standards of that genre. It's funny as hell, and maintains a dizzying comic momentum in which, even when a joke falls flat, there's always another one right on its heels. The cast collectively possess a ramshackle charm that will win no acting awards, but are supremely likable and fun to watch. And despite first impressions, the storyline is not dumb or shallow; it shows a sly intelligence in many parts, and cannily presses all the right "Chinese pride" buttons. (As opposed to something like Ip Man 2, which presses all the wrong ones.)

Yeah, you heard me - Petaling Street Warriors is a smart film, something its detractors clearly fail to recognise. The plot tends to ramble off on funny-but-weird tangents - e.g. an interlude involving Duyao, Yong Kok and Rajoo taking lessons from a bogus kungfu master (Chua Bee Seong) - but it wraps up all its plot threads satisfyingly and makes good use of every member of its large cast. A lot of it is reminiscent of Chow Sing Chi's Kung Fu Hustle - the secret kung fu badasses masquerading as ordinary working-class joes, the unlikely doofus who only needs to "unblock his chi" to become an unbeatable kung fu master - but the parts of its plot that are original unfold in clever and surprising ways. And Lee (with his co-director Sampson Yuen) is clearly taking a page out of Namewee's book, with several deliciously satirical in-jokes that poke fun at contemporary issues; I was particularly thrilled by one bit where the British captain arrests Duyao and Liu Kun "for their own protection."

The only parts of this movie that don't quite work are the martial arts action scenes. It boasts Hong Kong stunt director Ma Yuk-sing on kungfu choreography, but the fight scenes are filmed in that typical blend of tight close-ups and quick-cutting designed to hide its performers' lack of skill. Which, frankly, I'm willing to forgive. Mark Lee, Namewee, Yeo Yann Yann, Chris Tong et al are clearly not trained martial artists and aren't at all convincing as such, but neither do they embarrasss themselves and the movie they're in either. (For an example of the latter, see Misteri Jalan Lama.) But aside from that, its production values are solid, with Ipoh subbing in for turn-of-the-century Petaling Street; the period details aren't as flawlessly recreated as the average modern Hong Kong-China production, but it doesn't break suspension of disbelief either. (Except when it wants to get anachronistic, that is.)

Above all, it's funny. It ends on outtakes over the end credits, and it's exactly the kind of movie that ought to - one that's so charming and enjoyable you just want to spend every last second in its company. And a movie that achieves this effect usually has its cast to thank for it, but as I mentioned, their performances aren't exactly masterpieces of comic acting. Yeo Yann Yann seems to be playing a little above the film's broad comedic tone; conversely, Mark Lee mugs a little too much, when his role sometimes calls for more subtlety. Chris Tong is eye candy and little more; Alvin Wong and Ramasundram are bumbling sidekicks and little more; Namewee has nothing to work with other than a (albeit hilarious) speech impediment; Nick Dorian can get a little annoying. But other than Lee and Yeo, none of these characters take up enough screentime to overpower the film. There's always a new scene, a new gag, a new comic setpiece to divert your attention. There are bits with Ho Yuhang and Chew Kin Wah as wannabe gangsters, Henry Thia as a loan shark, and a cross-dressing Jack Neo. And there's even a talking parrot.

And as silly and irreverent as it all is, it never forgets the heart of its story and where to place it. Duyao and Li Chun's love for each other, Duyao coming to terms with his secret heritage, the struggles of the Chinese immigrant community in British-controlled Malaya - they all get enough prominence to end the movie on a greater high than if it were just a load of dumb fun. And yes, there's Chinese pride all over it - a pride in its ancient history, yet also a resolve to seek a new future free of the dictates of that history. After all, this is a film that posits that the last scion of the Ming imperial family is right here in Kuala Lumpur - a good, humble man, who loves his wife, earns an honest living and is grateful for the opportunity. Maybe his grandchildren and great-grandchildren are still with us today. And maybe they're still making a mean plate of Hokkien mee.

NEXT REVIEW: Ombak Rindu
Expectations: so, citer nie pasal gadis kena rogol, pastu kawin perogol dia, pastu happily ever after?

Thursday, December 15, 2011

This movie is broken

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn part 1
My rating:

I gotta say, lately I've been feeling inclined to defend the Twilight movies. Partly because hating on Stephenie Meyer's teen supernatural soap opera is getting old, even if I don't disagree with any of the harshest criticisms against it (e.g. unhealthy central relationship, blatantly self-indulgent storyline, anti-feminist and chauvinist values, really bad writing). But mostly because it's the movies we're talking about here, which are made by wholly different people besides Meyer - and much more talented people to boot. I think these people have been trying their damnedest to actually make good movies out of these books, and I think they've succeeded to certain degrees. I ain't budging from my opinion that the third one, Eclipse, is a decent fantasy action-thriller. So it was out of a sense of obligation that I decided to watch and review the latest one - more out of obligation than real anticipation, since my enjoyment of the third one didn't really make up for the previous two.

None of that prepared me for how utterly the movie has been ruined by our ever-wise Lembaga Penapisan Filem.

Bella Swan (Kristen Stewart) has finally agreed to marry Edward Cullen (Robert Pattinson), and Edward has finally agreed to turn Bella into a vampire. But first, their first year of marriage will be Bella's last as a human - and when Jacob Black (Taylor Lautner) learns that they plan to consummate their marriage, he becomes angry, fearing for Bella's safety. The newlyweds have their honeymoon on a private island off the coast of Rio de Janeiro, and their first night is... eventful... but Bella seems otherwise unharmed. Then the unthinkable happens - Bella gets pregnant, an unprecedented occurrence in vampire history. They return to Forks, seeking the care of Carlisle (Peter Facinelli) and the rest of the Cullen clan, but Bella's human body is unable to cope with the baby's accelerated growth rate and superhuman strength - and despite everyone's fears for her life, Bella insists on having the child. Meanwhile, Sam Uley (Chaske Spencer), the leader of the Quileute pack, has deemed the child an "abomination" and a violation of the werewolf-vampire treaty, and prepares to make war on the Cullens - which drives Jacob to leave the pack and reluctantly join the vampires in order to save Bella's life.

Gaahh. IMDB records this movie's running time at 117 minutes, which means almost 20 minutes have been snipped out. This includes the sex scene, which isn't too big a deal; being a PG-13 movie, it's pretty much meant to fade to black then cut back in the morning after anyway. But the cruelest cut is during the birth scene, almost all of which is gone - Bella goes into labour, and then almost immediately we see the newborn baby bouncing on someone's knee. This is the climax of the entire movie! And this means there is absolutely no reason to watch this in Malaysian cinemas; the only option is to download a pirated torrent or get a bootleg DVD. What especially annoys me is that that birth scene was the only thing I was looking forward to in this film, due to how over-the-top gory and sadistic I'd heard it was in the book. I wanted to see how director Bill Condon and long-time series screenwriter Melissa Rosenberg handled it. But I didn't. Gaaaaahhh.

Which means it's gonna be hard for me to review this film - or rather, hard to give an accurate rating. There's still a lot to talk about though. It's about middle-of-the-road as far as Twilight movies go; better than the first and second, but not as good as the third. Better in that a Bella and Edward who have actually decided to get married is better than a Bella and Edward angsting over each other (and Jacob). Not as good in the sense that the plot is somewhat rambling and doesn't build up much in the way of narrative tension. Most of the first half is taken up by the wedding and the honeymoon, which is basically romance porn for chicks (and catnip for Twilight fangirls of the Team Edward persuasion); basically nothing noteworthy happens other than a brief altercation with a suddenly-jealous-all-over-again Jacob, and Bella's attempts to seduce Edward after their first night. The latter of which is more fun, for the couple of brief scenes of Kristen Stewart in skimpy nighties. But on the whole, it's pretty dull, mostly because Stewart and Robert Pattinson still can't muster up any real romantic chemistry. I don't hate them, I think they're both talented performers, but even after four movies, they just can't make these characters work.

And in the second half, the focus suddenly switches from Bella to Jacob. Which is accurate to the novel's structure, but in a movie it just feels weird, like the main character has suddenly gotten sidelined. Also, Taylor Lautner is by far the worst of the three principal actors here - Stewart and Pattinson can at least say they've been good in other movies - and putting him front and center makes for no compelling viewing at all. And here is where the plot finally gets started, which is also problematic; early on, the big bad werewolf leader Sam Uley is all "no, Jacob, don't get your panties in a twist, the vamps are our friends." Then later, he's the one who's all, "OMG vampire baby treaty broken abomination kill kill kiiiiilll!" (And he's in CGI werewolf form when he makes this declaration; if we'd seen an actual human actor say it, we might be a little more convinced.) When the major threat in your plot comes from a bunch of folks we'd spent three previous movies establishing that they're badass-but-basically-nice, the outcome ain't gonna be particularly suspenseful.

See, one of the biggest criticisms against the entire Twilight franchise is how it neuters the concept of vampires and werewolves - more the former, since it ain't werewolves that sparkle in sunlight. Which is why the most successful Twilight movie is the one that reminds us that, hey, did you know that vampires and werewolves are inhuman creatures who eat people? I don't even think it's all that bad a thing to combine that with a teen romance, as long as that sense of menace and danger and, yes, horror, is preserved. Keep that, and even the mushy, angsty, juvenile romance elements can be palatable. And so can most of the other things the franchise has been accused of, which I don't think can fairly be laid on the movies. Such as...

...y'know what, I can't. I actually want to mount a defense of the Twilight movies, and I know what I want to say about it, but I gotta wonder, what's the point? What's the point in doing it in a review of this movie, which in the form I watched is completely defective? I'm serious - this is the worst censorship of a cinema release in Malaysia I have ever seen, worse than even the last time our treasured Censorship Board severely pissed me off. I was actually ready to give Breaking Dawn part 1 a 3-star rating, until it got to the omitted birth scene and I had to stifle the "What??!" that almost burst out of my mouth. So, faced with the choice of rating it on the movie it's supposed to be versus the movie I actually watched, I'm forced to go with the latter. When Breaking Dawn part 2 gets here, I'll be ready to expound on how Condon and Rosenberg made Meyer's story agreeable, if perhaps still not quite good enough to recommend, and mollified most of what people object to about Twilight - which is exactly what, as professional filmmakers, they're meant to do. And as all the teenage (married!) sex and body horror is over and done with, there shouldn't be as much censorship. There better not be.

NEXT REVIEW: Petaling Street Warriors
Expectations: yay James Lee and Namewee!

Monday, December 12, 2011

This is what Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa wishes it could've been

Misteri Jalan Lama
My rating:

The first Afdlin Shauki movie I saw was Setem, and it was also the first local Malay movie I thoroughly enjoyed. Thing is, he starred in it but didn't direct it. Before I started this blog, he had already made films like Buli, Cuci and Sumolah!; popular and successful comedies that were well-regarded for being genuinely funny and non-stupid, unlike most Malay comedies. I haven't seen them. And the one Afdlin-directed film I have watched was Papadom, which I thought was a good effort but not much more. So I guess I've missed the Afdlin Shauki train, particularly so now that he seems to be taking a break from crowd-pleasing comedies and has gone on to something completely different: a fantasy film. Pretty radical departure for a guy most well known for being a comedian and a comedy director.

And it paid off. Few others may agree, but TMBF says it paid off.

Indra (Hans Isaac) and Ilya (Que Haidar) are two estranged brothers. The elder Indra is a ne'er-do-well who owes a large sum of money to gang boss Botak (Nam Ron), and Ilya is a socially-awkward obsessive-compulsive who works for their father Iskandar (Ahmad Tamimi Siregar) - and neither Ilya nor Iskandar has heard from Indra in years. The brothers are reunited after their father's untimely death, and Indra is bequeathed a request to bring his younger brother back to their kampung to attend the funeral. Ilya, however, inherits a strange locket that seems to have mystical qualities - and the journey takes the brothers along a lonely rural road that seems to be taking them into a mysterious, otherworldly realm. Eventually, Indra and Ilya will discover the secret of their heritage, which involves the folk of that realm known as the Nyian, and a ghostly figure that haunts Ilya's dreams (Vanidah Imran).

Wow. There is a lot in this film that impressed me. How it fooled you early on into thinking it's a typical Malay horror movie with long-haired female ghosts, then gradually shifted in tone until it ends as an action-adventure. The transition from the mundane world of gangsters and poker games and offices in skyscrapers, to the fantastical dunia halus. The surreal, dreamlike tone, that in one scene descends into the nightmarish - e.g. the exceedingly creepy scene of a bunch of faceless pakcik orang kampung watching a gory horror movie at a warung and giggling at it all the way. And finally an original, and pretty damn effective, musical score. All things that I could've sworn no local film or filmmaker was capable of pulling off. Add to that solid central performances by Hans Isaac and Que Haidar - especially the former, as a Humphrey Bogart-esque charming rogue whose hard exterior masks a wounded heart - and you have a very impressive movie indeed.

But what really impressed me was the screenplay, credited to Afdlin and Christina Orow. How it never lost sight of the main characters, namely the two brothers. How it took pains to develop their relationship, filling in their backstory, and ending on a beautifully bittersweet note. Even the world-building - an essential part of any fantasy story - was well thought out, involving a creative interpretation of the bunian myths that is exactly what I was lamenting the lack of two months ago. And its mythology is fleshed out in exactly the right way, via subtle dialogue that rewards attentive viewers. (F'rinstance, the orang halus refer to people from the "real" world as orang kasar, which of course they do.) And the plot is soundly constructed; there is indeed a mystery at the heart of the storyline, and its revelation is in turns unexpected, logical and satisfying. In terms of basic storytelling craft, this is the right stuff, folks. Recognize!

So it's a pity - nay, a crying shame - that such a well-written screenplay is surrounded by so many things that don't work. Its technical quality is suspect; Afdlin was clearly going for a unique colour-treated look for his film, but the picture often looks too dim and washed-out. Dialogue sounds like a mixture of on-location recording and ADR, and unfortunately the quality is bad enough to render certain parts unintelligible. Worst of all is some seriously bad production design seen in the third act, where armour-clad warriors engage in a battle scene with savage Orcish-looking creatures called the Ghaul. I don't mind that they look like refugees from Lord of the Rings, but man, that armour - and a CGI sailing ship that also appears near the end. The armour looks cheap and vaguely Crusades-era European, and the ship looks disconcertingly like a modern yacht. Who designed these things?? Why do they look so Westernised? Why not give them a uniquely Nusantara look, for which you just need to do a little research? I for one would love to see what kind of armour Malay warriors of the 16th-18th century might have worn. Wouldn't you?

The sad fact of the matter is, this is a movie whose ambition far outstripped its ability. The climactic battle scene is poorly-staged, and being a fantasy battle, it has folks flying around on wires that frankly looks laughable. The aforementioned armour is clunky and ill-fitting, and the actor who has to wear the thing and try to portray a war leader (whose identity it would be a spoiler to reveal) can't help but look embarrassed about it all. This film is clearly crying out for a bigger budget that could've gone to more elaborate sets and costumes, more CGI shots, better fight choreography, and armour that doesn't look like a cheap Halloween costume. Not to mention an overall longer production schedule, long enough for Afdlin to fully achieve the creepy, mystical and surreal tone he was trying for in the first half of the film.

In other words, it could've used some of that RM8 million that was spent on Hikayat Merong Mahawangsa. And yes, I stand by what I wrote up there; this is a far better film than that wannabe historical epic. It's better in the ways that really matter: story, plot, characterisation, emotional depth, world-building, creativity, originality, and ambition. And if Afdlin had had even half of the moolah that KRU Studios forked out, he would've made far better use of it. I stand by the 4-star rating I'm giving, but I feel compelled to make a big caveat: you'll need to be in the right mindset to enjoy this. You'll need to be able to ignore dodgy sets, dodgy costumes, dodgy special effects, dodgy fight scenes and dodgy production design. Tall order, I know - but I'm tellinya, under all that is a damn fine movie. A damn fine movie.

NEXT REVIEW: The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn part 1
Expectations: a celebration of the wonders of childbirth heh heh heh

Monday, December 5, 2011

You never forget the first apple of your eye

You Are the Apple of My Eye
My rating:

I wasn't sure if I wanted to watch this, or having watched it, review it. Owing to my slow reviewing rate, I've had to miss out on a lot of movies lately (Immortals, Happy Feet 2, Puss in Boots), and I still have a ways to go before I can catch up to the latest releases. And Chinese-language films are a low priority for me - but three things kept nagging me to watch You Are the Apple of my Eye: LoveHKFilm's review, glowing comments from the crowd, and the fact that tickets are still selling out almost a month after its release. (Oh, and also because that similarly-named Stevie Wonder song keeps getting stuck in my head.)

I'm glad I did. But while local Chinese teenagers may think this the best movie of the year, my response is a little more muted.

It is 1994, and Ko Ching-Teng (Ko Chen-Tung) is 16 and a senior in high school. All his best friends - Boner (Yen Sheng-Yu), Ah Ho (Hao Shao-Wen), Cock (Ao-Chuan) and Groin (Tsai Chang-Hsien) - have a crush on the class top student Shen Chia-Yi (Michelle Chen), but Ko-Teng has little interest in pursuing girls. Until one day he is caught in an, um, indiscretion, and the principal assigns Chia-Yi to "keep an eye on him". She decides to help him with his studies, and thus begins a friendship amongst her, the boys, and her best friend Hu Chia-Wei (Wan Wan) that lasts through high school, college and adulthood. And through the years, Ko-Teng and Chia-Yi dance around their feelings for each other, that change as they both mature.

I'm not a big anime fan, but one anime series I unreservedly love is Azumanga Daioh. It's about the everyday lives of a group of highschool girls (and lemme tellya, it ain't easy for a grown man to admit to liking a show about that), and aside from being side-splittingly hilarious, it's also a gorgeously nostalgic look at the simple and so much more innocent days of school. I mention this because You Are the Apple of My Eye evokes the same nostalgia, when studying, exam results, classroom pranks, hanging out after school, and teenage crushes were all you had to worry about. It's also frequently very funny, and its humour of a particularly crude nature owing to the fact that these are a bunch of horny teenage boys. The indiscretion Ko-Teng is caught for is a synchronized masturbation act with Boner in the middle of class, which now that I think of it, is a stunt that one or two reprobates from my own school might well have pulled off. (Heh heh, pun totally intended.)

But that's just the first half of the movie. The second follows Ko-Teng after the group splits up to different universities and he and Chia-Yi keep up a long-distance never-quite-romantic relationship, and this part tends to drag. For one thing, it spends more time on Ko-Teng's quirky uni roommates (that aren't as likable as his highschool buddies) than on how the central romance progresses. For another, the progression of the central romance isn't very interesting. It isn't very clear how they both mature and drift apart, and the interlude about Ko-Teng organising an underground fight tournament feels like a totally different movie. Also, it glosses over the other boys' equally heartfelt feelings for Chia-Yi. For all that it's adept at creating individually touching moments - e.g. the phone conversation between Ko-Teng and Chia-Yi on the night of the 921 earthquake, gorgeously lit by moonlight - its insights are really kinda shallow.

Which is a characteristic of how Asian movies and TV dramas handle romance as a whole. I've often mentioned how the biggest difference between Asian and western film is that the former is never afraid to go for shameless melodrama, and I've also mentioned how this works on me just fine - when done well. You Are the Apple of My Eye does it pretty damn good, and it helps a lot that it aims for bittersweetness rather than overblown cornball. But it isn't immune to the weakness of substituting sentimentality for real depth. It also portrays a very Asian approach to love and romance, in which the male is expected to "confess" his feelings for the girl and "pursue" her until she "accepts" him - and let's face it, that's an annoyingly juvenile way to go about it. Part of the reason why the second half drags is that you'd expect Ko-Teng to man up and just tell Chia-Yi how he feels about her, but he still can't bring himself to even admit that spending a day together is a "date".

But hey, I suppose that's how it's really like for lovestruck Taiwanese teenagers. And I suppose that's how it really happened for Giddens, the blogger-turned-novelist-turned-first-time-director who is adapting his own autobiographical novel. Giddens is a pop culture phenomenon in Taiwan - as is Wan Wan, a popular webcomic artist who plays a fictionalised teenage version of herself here - and both may account for the movie's record-breaking box office over there. But he's really quite good for a fledgling director, employing flashy CGI visual gags with panache yet proving equally capable at the quiet emotional moments. And he found the perfect two actors to play both his cinematic self and his teenage first love. The coincidentally-named Ko Chen-Tung has terrific screen presence, and Michelle Chen is luminous in just that exact girl-next-door high-school-first-love kind of way. Boys and girls alike will fall head over heels for one or the other of them in droves.

While the broad strokes of the storyline succeeds at tugging the heartstrings, it's a pity that a movie that spans a 10-year unrequited romance doesn't quite have as mature a viewpoint as you'd expect it to. But I'll be honest here: teenage TMBF was as much a besotted fool over one girl or another as Giddens/Ko-Teng, and You Are the Apple of My Eye did a marvelous job of taking me back to those days. In fact, I considered giving it 4 stars, if only because it gave me that rare feeling of being so charming and enjoyable that I didn't want the movie to end. Which, yes, is rare. (By the way, you might want to watch this on DVD instead of in cinemas. The Censorship Board has been at work here, snipping off some of the more off-colour jokes as well as the bits where Ko-Teng walks around his house stark naked. Fortunately, one hilarious bit involving the English F-word is intact, and is guaranteed to bring the house down.)

NEXT REVIEW: Misteri Jalan Lama
Expectations: yay Afdlin Shauki doing... fantasy?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

50% comedy, 50% drama, all good

My rating:

I once had someone ask me if it's true that you need to have suffered a lot in life to become a good writer. My answer to her was no, but I wasn't at all convincing, mainly because I hadn't given the matter much thought. Now, I can't claim any great authority on the subject - then or now - but I have been thinking quite a bit about what she said; it was obviously not so much a question as it was a (mis)conception. A quote attributed to Flannery O'Connor goes: "If you've survived adolescence, you have enough to write about for the rest of your life." A good writer doesn't need to have suffered any more than the average person, but they do need to be willing to examine that suffering - which is something the average person isn't willing to do. Take, for instance, mortality. Ask someone who's lost a loved one (which, eventually and one way or another, will be all of us) what it felt like, and they'd probably frantically avoid the subject. Everyone has experienced suffering, but most people are so afraid of it that they'd do anything not to even remember the difficult times they've been through.

And that's why great writing, great stories, and great art always comes from those who aren't afraid.

Adam Lerner (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is 27, has a girlfriend in Rachael (Bryce Dallas Howard), a best friend in Kyle (Seth Rogen), and an overbearing mother (Anjelica Huston) who is caring for his Alzheimer's-ridden father (Serge Houde). And then one day, he discovers he has cancer - and he has only a 50% chance of survival. He visits a young, inexperienced psychologist named Dr. Katherine McKay (Anna Kendrick), and during his chemotherapy sessions he befriends fellow cancer patients Alan (Philip Baker Hall) and Mitch (Matt Frewer). But he has no idea how to cope with the awful truth of his condition - and neither do some of the people around him.

I gotta say, I was somewhat disappointed with this movie for much of its first half. It was funny, and not stupid-funny but true-to-life-funny; nothing to really dislike, to be honest. It just all felt a little facile. Which is still forgivable, given that the film's stated approach is to deal with a Drama Minggu Ini-ish premise with humour rather than clichéd sentimentality. Slightly less forgivable is its portrayal of Rachael, who (SPOILER ALERT) does not prove up to the challenge of caring for a boyfriend with a life-threatening illness. I wish Will Reiser's screenplay hadn't made her such a two-dimensional bitch; not only callous and insensitive, but also needy and manipulative. Every other character is treated warmly and with generous empathy, except for her. I put up that spoiler alert because it's probably better if you don't already know how her subplot will turn out, but really, she's just pretty dislikable from the beginning.

But it got much better later on. Before, Adam was mostly baffled and nonplussed at living with his cancer, and the various humourous indignities it subjects him to. When he gradually comes to the realization that he might really die, it becomes incredibly poignant. This film is an almost-autobiographical account of Reiser's real-life battle with cancer, which accounts for its raw sincerity and honesty - and he has a great director in Jonathan Levine, who achieves that delicate balance of comedy and drama. The former being superbly effective, and effectively honed, at achieving the emotional depths of the latter; those tears welling in your eyes during the second half wouldn't have been there if you hadn't been laughing during the first. And make no mistake, this movie is a tear-jerker - especially if you've known someone who had cancer. The good news is, those tears are well-earned.

What made the biggest impression on me was Adam's struggles to cope with his illness - which is simply impossible. How do you go on like that? How do you live under the sword of a disease that leaves you with a 50% chance of survival, that threatens to cut your life short at the age of 27? You can't - not without suffering a harrowing emotional ordeal, and at least one nervous breakdown like Adam does, in an amazingly well-acted and well-directed scene. You see, Adam has a largely very good life: beautiful girlfriend, faithful best friend, a job he's passionate about, a loving mother, and the few issues he has (said mother being overly-concerned, being somewhat neurotic) are the mundane quirks of a normal, well-adjusted person. All of which is turned upside down; the more he sinks into depression, the more he lashes out, cruelly, at those closest to him and those who are only trying to help.

Who have no idea how to deal with it either. What this film makes clear is how difficult it is to deal with cancer, both for the sufferer as well those around him. The laddish, party-dude Kyle tries to take Adam's mind off it, only to be accused of being insensitive (which he isn't, as revealed in a beautiful moment). Adam's mother offers him all the care and concern she can give, only for him to see her as a nuisance. Katherine tries to give him professional treatment while maintaining a professional detachment, only for him to deride her efforts. (Rachael simply can't handle it; she keeps up a charade of love and affection only to assuage her own guilt.) And how could you blame Adam for all this, when he is the one facing death? But in the pivotal moment when his survival is about to be decided, he reaches out - he acknowledges each of his loved ones, and he offers a gesture of love to his long-neglected father. It does not make his ordeal any easier; it is simply an act of selfless kindness, an act that he thinks may be the last thing he'll ever do.

With a cast led by Joseph Gordon-Levitt and that includes Anna Kendrick, Anjelica Huston and Philip Baker Hall, it almost goes without saying that the acting is terrific. But two things need to be said: one, Gordon-Levitt really is fantastic, and him being in it is reason enough to watch this movie. Two, Seth Rogen is very good as well, providing most of the laughs but also being much more than just the comic relief. He's Reiser's close friend in real life and really did help him through his cancer, so he's playing himself in more ways than one. And seeing as Reiser survived to write this screenplay, it isn't exactly unpredictable how it ends. But there's a lovely, almost ambiguous note to it (the last line of dialogue is "Now what?") that reflects Reiser's eschewal of the neat, Hollywood-style happy ending. And the entire film reflects his willingness to delve honestly into the most harrowing time of his life, and find both the humour and the pathos in it. No, you don't need to have had cancer to write a story like this - you just need to explore your pain, relive it, drag it out into the light and onto the page or the screen. And that takes courage.


Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Memang dia tomboy, tapi apa salahnya?

Aku Bukan Tomboy
My rating:

Ya betul, TMBF sokong teh ghey. Saya sokong golongan LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual dan transgender), dan saya rasa mereka berhak bersuara dan menegakkan hak mereka. Saya berpendapat jika anda benar-benar bermuhasabah - dan bukan hanya menurut kata orang yang kononnya alim sangat - anda akan sedar bahawa cara hidup ini tidak berdosa dan tidak menyakiti siapa-siapa. Saya rasa jika anda benar-benar matang dan mempunyai belas kasihan, anda perlu mempertahankan golongan yang cara hidupnya berlainan dari anda - bukan hanya perjuangkan kepentingan diri sendiri. Ini pendirian saya, tetapi pasti anda tertanya-tanya: mengapa TMBF tetiba selitkan unsur-unsur politik, sosial dan agama dalam blog rebiu filem?

Sebab pendirian saya ini mempengaruhi pendapat saya tentang filem Aku Bukan Tomboy ini.

Farisha (Scha Al-Yahya) seorang gadis tomboy yang berpewatakan kasar dan agresif, serta berambut pendek yang kiut. Dia bekerja sebagai penghantar pizza dan tinggal bersama ayahnya (Harun Salim Bachik). Kawan karibnya Harry (Shaheizy Sam) yang sudah mengenalnya sejak zaman sekolah, tetapi baru-baru ini saja mula sedar bahawa Farisha sebenarnya perempuan, dan mula jatuh hati dengannya. Seorang lagi yang jatuh cinta dengan Farisha ialah Burn (Syamsul Yusof), seorang eksekutif dari keluarga berada yang lurus bendul sehingga dibuli oleh PAnya Sally (Eira Syazira) yang menganggap dirinya kekasih Burn. Tambahan pula, Farisha sering dijadikan bahan rebutan oleh gadis pengkid lesbian, terutamanya Sam (Salina Saibi) dan Bell (Sheera Iskandar). Burn mesti memberanikan diri, Harry mesti menyuarakan perasaanya terhadap Farisha, dan Farisha mesti memilih jejaka manakah yang akan diberi hatinya.

Sebenarnya banyak persamaan antara filem ini dengan filem Bini-Biniku Gangster. Pertama, dua-dua ada Shaheizy Sam. Kedua, dua-dua tajuknya ada tiga perkataan. Ketiga, dua-dua menyerlahkan bakat dan karisma pelakon wanita utamanya yang amat cemerlang. Scha Al-Yahya berjaya mencipta seorang heroine yang mudah disukai dan sedap ditonton, serta kiut nak mampus. Malah selain komedi, beliau juga berjaya melakonkan babak dramatik dengan berkesan dan menyentuh hati. Memandangkan dua filemnya sebelum ini, jelas beliau amat selesa dengan watak-watak sebegini. Saya takkan memanggilnya watak tomboy sebab "tomboy" itu hanya sebuah label. Saya suka melihat watak perempuan yang berkemampuan seperti lelaki dan diberi peranan utama yang menarik, mencabar dan bertigadimensi. Dengan filem ini, Scha telah membuktikan kebolehannya menerajui sebuah filem, dan saya sedia menanti-nantikan filem berikutnya.

Beliau juga dibantu dengan mantap oleh Shaheizy Sam yang memang berbakat semulajadi dalam bidang komedi, dan Syamsul Yusof yang cukup berani membawa watak yang berlainan sama sekali dari hero macho yang biasa dia lakonkan. Dialog yang diskripkan oleh JV Nadirah dan Rizal Ashreff juga bijak dan lawak, menjadikan interaksi antara Farisah dengan Harry, Farisha dengan bapanya serta Farisha dengan Burn amat menggelikan hati. Saya cukup terkesan dengan bagaimana Harry dan Burn dijadikan seimbang tandingan mereka demi menawan hati Farisha. Bila Farisha bersama Harry, mereka secocok sekali - tapi juga ada adegan romantis antara Farisha dengan Burn yang membina hubungan cinta mereka. Harry kenal rapat dengan Farisha, tetapi harus mengatasi prejudisnya terhadap sifat Farisha yang tomboy; Burn pula sedia menerima Farisha dari saat pertama, tetapi ada masalahnya sendiri yang perlu diselesaikan sebelum dapat menjadi kekasih Farisha.

Malangnya, masalah ini tidak diselesaikan. Sama seperti Bini-Biniku Gangster, cerita yang sedap digagalkan kerana penamatan yang kurang elok. Soalan utama yang dikemukakan oleh cerita ini - iaitu, siapa lelaki yang Farisha akan pilih - langsung tidak terjawab. Filem ini tidak tamat, ia berhenti begitu saja! Malah Farisha mengatakan melalui voiceover bahawa dia "akan jawab nanti" siapa lelaki yang terdekat dihatinya, tetapi jawapannya tak datang-datang. Apakah sepatutnya ada post-credits scene yang tak ditayang oleh panggung dimana saya menontonnya? Atau apakah ini dirancang untuk menjadi umpan sekuel? Bagaimanapun ini amat lemah. (Lagipun jawapannya sudah nyata; lelaki tersayang Farisha adalah bapanya.) Seolah-olah Syamsul sebagai pengarah - atau Yusof Haslam sebagai penjana cerita asal - tidak sedar akan penggerak ceritanya sendiri. Sepanjang filem ini, kerap juga saya rasa ceritanya berlengah-lengah dan tidak menuju ke mana-mana.

Datanglah kini kepada pendekatan filem ini terhadap isu seks dan jantina - yang jelas masih menghakimi dan mencela golongan LGBT. Ia boleh menerima ke-tomboy-an Farisha, tapi watak-watak pengkid lesbian Sam dan Bell dipaparkan sebagai gangster dan bersifat pendera dalam hubungan cinta. Malah ada satu adegan dimana Bell dijadikan bahan ketawa oleh Farisha dan rakan-rakan sekerjanya, hanya kerana lamaran cintanya ditolak. Mengapa? Mengapa gadis lesbian perlu dijadikan watak jahat? Mengapa Farisha tiba-tiba bertukar dari heroine yang mudah disukai kepada seorang buli yang mengaibkan orang lain dengan kejam? Mengapa watak-watak "wanita sejati" seperti Sally dan ibu Burn (lakonan Didie Alias), yang benar-benar berkelakuan keji, tidak "dihukum" sebegini? Saya harapkan mungkin Sam dan Bell boleh menjadi pasangan cinta, ataupun Bell boleh berpasangan dengan kawannya yang juga pengkid (lakonan Zarina Zainoordin), tetapi filem ini langsung tiada belas kasihan terhadap mereka.

Saya rasa ini tidak betul. Saya rasa sifat benci dan bengis ini melemahkan filem ini. Walaupun ia lebih murni dari filem 3, 2, 1 Cinta yang juga bertemakan sifat gadis tomboy tetapi lebih sadis menyiksa watak utamanya, namun Aku Bukan Tomboy sepatutnya lebih sensitif dan progresif. (Ketidaksensitifan juga ada dalam satu adegan dimana Farisha diancam rogol oleh tiga orang mat rempit; wahai Tuan Pengarah Syamsul, rogol itu bukan bahan jenaka.) Jujur kata, saya mendapat tanggapan bahawa skrip asalnya ada babak dimana Sam dan Bell mendapat pengakhiran yang bahagia, tetapi ditolak oleh Pihak-Pihak Tertentu. Apakah besar sangat dosa mereka sebagai pencinta hubungan sejenis? Lebih besar dosanya dari perempuan yang asyik marah-marahkan kekasih lelakinya, memboroskan duitnya, serta memandang hina orang bertaraf rendah? Jangan nak cakap pasal agama dengan saya; dari segi moral, ini saya tak boleh terima.

Komen-komen yang lain: mutu pasca produksinya agak kureng dari segi colour correction, dimana satu adegan boleh ada tiga empat jenis warna pencahayaan. Dan gejala muzik ciplak timbul lagi; jelas kedengaran muzik dari filem Toy Story kena cedok kedalam filem ini. Walau dah biasa amalan ini dalam filem tempatan, tetap saya akan menuding jari dan mengecam pembikin filem yang melakukan kesalahan ini sehingga (insyallah!) mereka tak buat lagi. Namun begitu, saya rasa inilah filem arahan Syamsul yang terbaik pernah saya lihat. Masalah dialog kaku yang menjadi kebiasaan dalam filem-filemnya tidak timbul kali ini, dan garapan komedi dan perwatakannya sedap ditonton. Keinginannya mencuba genre baru juga harus dipuji. Tetapi kelemahannya dari segi penceritaan masih perlu dibaiki - dan sikap homofobiknya sesuatu yang tidak patut dicontohi. Baiklah! TMBF kini sedia menerima cacimakian dan hentaman dari mereka yang anti-gay dan homoseks dan ingin menempatkan golongan ini di neraka. Sila tunjukkan kebencian anda yang suci dan soleh di bebenang komen catatan ini. Bring it on!

Expectations: expecting great things from this one