Wednesday, February 23, 2011

The power of Christ fails to compel

The Rite
My rating:

There's as many ways to write a film review as there are to skin a cat. One is to judge the film on its own merits, evaluating it on how successful it is at what it attempts to do - which is really the approach I prefer. Another is to talk about the issues it raises in the broader context of the world around us - as filtered through my own perspectives - which I tend to do when I run out of things about the movie itself to write about. (Hey, these reviews are hard, okay?) I'm gonna take the latter approach with The Rite, since it's a film that deals with religious faith, specifically of the Catholic Christian variety.

Because I might've liked it better if I believed in those things.

Michael Kovak (Colin O'Donoghue) is about to graduate from seminary school, but doesn't intend to enter the priesthood; he enrolled only for the scholarship and as a means to escape his father (Rutger Hauer) and the family undertaking business. But his superior Father Matthew (Toby Jones) believes he has a calling, and invites him to travel to Rome to take a course in exorcism led by Father Xavier (Ciaran Hinds). Still a skeptic, Kovak believes that so-called demonic possession can be explained by mental illness, and befriends a journalist named Angelina (Alice Braga) who wants to learn the truth behind Church-sanctioned exorcists. Father Xavier then sends him to meet Father Lucas Trevant (Anthony Hopkins), an experienced exorcist with decidedly unorthodox methods. As they investigate a pregnant teenage girl (Marta Gastini) who claims to be possessed, Kovak will very soon find all his doubts and beliefs shaken to the core.

As I have previously mentioned, I am a decidedly un-religious fellow. And I suppose I am especially un-Catholic, since I'm pretty cynical about superstition disguised as dogma and Catholicism is one of the more dogmatic of the religions. I'm like Michael Kovak in this sense; I don't believe there's such a thing as demonic possession, only mentally ill people (not to mention suggestible people whipped into hysteria by the religious/superstitious milieu in which they live). Of course, this being a horror movie, you can bet it isn't going to take the "nope, nothing supernatural going on here after all" route. Which is fine by me, really, since I may be a skeptic but I also like horror.

Which is one of the main problems with this movie: it's not sure whether it wants to be a serious meditation on faith, or a horror movie. It tries to straddle the fence, and ends up not being particularly successful at either. There are a few jump scares (including a really cheesy one with a cat), the soundtrack goes all ominous and pounding during the exorcism scenes, there's some creepy whispering, there's a manifestation of a demonic mule... yes, a demonic mule. But the climax, which is supposed to be full-on terrifying, is dull. It's way too slow-paced for a supposedly titanic struggle between good and evil, and ain't gonna satisfy horror fans.

And it doesn't work as a serious meditation on faith either. I could say that the horror elements undercut the gravity that it's trying to maintain, but the truth is, I, personally, don't buy it. I don't buy its bottom line that to believe in the Devil - with a capital "D" - is to believe in God. I don't know why a Devil, who according to Catholicism's own beliefs is trying to corrupt humans into evil, spends his time possessing people. Especially when said possession results in nothing more than other people getting freaked out, feeling sympathy for the sweet innocent possessee, and ironically driving them towards religion. I don't buy a Devil who can't see such an obvious flaw in his plan. Anyone with any awareness of their own natures and the world around them knows that evil - the prosaic, small "e" variety - is so much more insidious than that.

Oh, but another thing this movie wants to be is a vehicle for Anthony Hopkins to be Anthony Freakin' Hopkins. His is a supporting role, but he owns the screen in every scene he's in. It's fun to watch, but come the climax, he goes into gonzo scenery-chewing mode, and I got the impression that the whole film is simply indulging him. Hopkins is undoubtedly a masterful actor, but only in a project that's worthy of his talents. In one such as this, he's just gonna do his own thing and pick up a paycheck, and all the while the director and crew are fawning all over him. It just goes to show that a movie starring an actor of Hopkins' stature does not automatically mean it's good. (You could call it the Ben Kingsley Syndrome.)

I'll say this about it though, its depiction of religious faith as armour against the forces of evil is a lot more effective than most Malay horror movies - mainly because it shows that faith is not easy to obtain, and even the most devout can lose it. (Yeah, and it'll be a snowy day in Hulu Kelang before we see an ustaz doubting his faith in a local film.) It's a competently made film, well-directed and well-acted, so that gets it 3 stars from me; it just left me completely unconvinced about everything it's trying to say. You might like it better if you're Catholic - but honestly, you're better off watching The Exorcist again. That's a film that's all about scaring the pants off you, and its meditations on faith were just background. The Rite reverses the two, which is where it goes wrong.

Expectations: yay Westerns!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Let another Best Picture reign, please

The King's Speech
My rating:

So it's Academy Awards season again, and I am no more interested in them than I was last year. But apparently this is also the time of the year when our cinema distributors bring in the major Oscar-nominated movies, which they also did last year. So kudos to them; lord knows I've been hard enough on them before. Anyway, The King's Speech is being touted as the front-runner to win Best Picture, ahead of other nominees such as Inception, The Social Network and True Grit.

It is undoubtedly a very good movie. But if it wins, it'll prove for the umpteenth time that the Oscars are just bloody irrelevant.

It is the 1930s, and Prince Albert (Colin Firth) is the Duke of York, second in line to the throne of England after his brother Edward (Guy Pearce). He also has a terrible, debilitating stammer. After many unsuccessful attempts at treatment, his wife Elizabeth (Helena Bonham Carter) arranges for him to see Lionel Logue (Geoffrey Rush), an Australian speech therapist and some-time (and not very successful) actor. Logue's unconventional methods and insistence on calling him "Bertie" rubs Albert the wrong way, but in time they become friends and Albert's speech improves. However, circumstances conspire to throw Albert into the limelight he fears: his father George V (Michael Gambon) dies and Edward becomes king, but the scandal regarding his mistress Wallis Simpson (Eve Best) leads to his abdication. Albert ascends to the throne as King George VI, and must immediately unite his people against the specter of oncoming war with Nazi Germany.

Ah, the British. There's a certain type of film they make extremely well, and this is exactly one of them. The recreation of the period is impeccable. The acting is flawless. David Seidler's screenplay - inspired by his own experiences in overcoming his stammering - is loads of fun, full of terrifically witty dialogue. It takes a formulaic inspiring story and makes it seem fresh by investing it with a wealth of detail unique to its period and its milieu. It is quality cinema all the way, and never less than utterly compelling.

But it is still a formulaic story. You got your sympathetic protagonist overcoming adversity, you got your eccentric mentor with whom initial dislike turns into friendship. There's a scene in which the tables between the two are momentarily turned, in which Albert helps Logue overcome a debilitating fear of his own. And there's a somewhat facile bit in which shouting four simple words represents a major breakthrough for Albert. None of this is necessarily bad, y'see - it's just expected. Even if this is the first time a movie's been made about King George VI's stammer before, this is a story that has been told many, many times before.

If there's any Oscar it deserves to win, it should be in the acting categories. Colin Firth is as good as you've heard; there's a world of pain and wounded pride in every tortured expression. Firth's performance is yet another example of how to freshen a seen-it-all-before story with sheer skill and craft. Geoffrey Rush is good, though I don't know why everyone's throwing awards at him; I thought Helena Bonham Carter gave the much better supporting performance, playing a whip-smart yet immensely warm and loving woman that Albert was incredibly lucky to have married. Guy Pearce was also great; Edward VIII's abdication was once seen as a grand love story, but this movie - perhaps rightly - portrays him as a foolish and selfish asshole. Oh, and I feel guilty about the fact that every time I saw Timothy Spall playing Winston Churchill, all I could see was Peter "Wormtail" Pettigrew.

Those Oscars, man. I'm gonna digress a bit from the movie and repeat what I said before, which is that the Academy Awards have lost all credibility. Any awards show is only worth the quality of its judging, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has proven time and again that it has certain irrevocable biases that it can never get past. The King's Speech is a period drama, it's about a man overcoming his physical disability, and it's oh so veddy British; it's exactly the kind of movie they cream themselves over, never mind that there were smarter, more innovative, and more staggeringly ambitious films released this year.

Now, they haven't given 'em out yet, so maybe they'll end up giving Best Picture to something more worthy. And really, none of this should take away from the merits of the film itself. It's still very good; go watch it, if only to cleanse your palate of the usual dumb action-movie blockbuster-wannabees that usually fill up our cineplex screens. (Oh, in case you were wondering, it is completely uncensored, including the scene that earned it an R-rating in the States.) And by all means, watch it to let our cinema distributors know there's actually a market for quality films here in Malaysia. But come on - best movie of the year? Nuh-uh.

Expectations: it was either this, The Mechanic or Sanctum

Thursday, February 17, 2011

No heartstrings pulled

No Strings Attached
My rating:

I have missed quite a number of Hollywood romantic comedies in the past year, and seeing as how I plan my movie-watching itinerary quite carefully, they were all conscious decisions to do so. I would've caught more of them if I had more time (or if someone paid me to review movies HINT HINT). As I have previously mentioned, I actually like the genre - but my liking it means I am actually able to discern the good ones from the bad. And there are just so very few good ones lately that I take my cue from other critics; I only catch the ones that have gotten the very rare decent reviews.

This one isn't one of them. Buuuuutt I guess I kinda enjoyed it.

Adam (Ashton Kutcher) and Emma (Natalie Portman) have crossed paths a few times over the years, but never acted on their mutual attraction. Until they bump into each other again as adults; Adam now an assistant on a TV show, Emma a resident doctor. After learning that his aging-former-sitcom-star father (Kevin Kline) is now dating his ex-girlfriend (Ophelia Lovibond), Adam gets depressed and drunk, ends up calling Emma - and they end up having sex. Emma proposes a casual, no-strings-attached relationship, and they hook up several times for hot sexy sex - but Adam is clearly smitten, whereas Emma remains leery of emotional attachment.

I watched this the day after Valentine's Day, which also happened to be a public holiday. Naturally the cinema was full of couples in the mood for luurrrve - and also in the mood to enjoy a romantic comedy. There's nothing like watching a movie in a packed cinema hall with a receptive audience, and they sure helped me enjoy it. It's quite funny, and I'm happy to report that the humour comes from genuinely witty dialogue - courtesy of screenwriter Elizabeth Meriwether - rather than contrived wackiness. In fact, I don't even recall any big comic setpieces, which is a rarity in modern American comedies. All the characters are reasonably well-drawn (if, of course, snarkier than real-life), and no one is a broad caricature made "quirky" just to draw the yuks. Which makes it an improvement over the last rom-com I reviewed.

Where it does not improve on Going the Distance is in the central romantic relationship. Adam and Emma fall for each other jump into bed for barely any reason than Just Because. (It is impossible to have hot sexy sex while hungover. I speak from personal experience.) They do have some reasonably engaging chemistry together, but a good rom-com needs to develop that before their relationship actually begins. This is why the Meet Cute exists; it may be a cliché, but it's there to establish that the guy and girl are attracted to each other from the very beginning. The cuteness of Adam's and Emma's meets are limited to giving each other flirty looks - or maybe they were looking at the signs above their heads that say "Your Designated Love Interest Here".

I wonder then if the problem is in the casting. Natalie Portman is, of course, hawt as hell one of the finest young actresses working today, and playing a rom-com lead should be a walk in the park for her. And, well, it is - but maybe not this rom-com. You see, Emma is a pretty emotionally messed-up person - as is anyone who dictates the ground rules in a relationship, breaks them, and tortures both herself and the other person in the process. But Portman plays her as too nice, lacking the edge that such a character - and such a story - deserves. I don't really get why Ashton Kutcher is so disliked (I liked him in The Butterfly Effect), but here I found him really kinda bland. Adam may be smart enough not to be a complete doormat to Emma, but Kutcher just never brings to life his heartsick longing for her.

The rest of the casting works just fine however. I haven't mentioned the presence of that other great rom-com staple, the guy's and girl's respective friends/family/support group. Adam has his buddies (Jake M. Johnson, Chris "Ludacris" Bridges), Emma has her fellow doctor housemates (Greta Gerwig, Mindy Kaling, Guy Branum). There's also Adam's aforementioned father and ex, while Emma also has a sister (Olivia Thirlby) whose impending wedding figures into the plot. Oh, and they both also have other competing paramours (Lake Bell, Ben Lawson). That is a pretty packed supporting cast, and to the film's credit it never feels overstuffed; Meriwether's script utilizes each of them well.

So I think the real problem is that director Ivan Reitman - who has never returned to the heights of the one great movie he made - decided to make a perfectly safe and inoffensive movie, one that offers a few decent laughs and maybe an "awww" or two. And I guess it delivers on those fronts. But y'see, as a discerning fan of the romantic comedy genre, I'd like my "awww"s to be a bit more genuine. I'd like real, relatable characters with whom I can connect. I'd like to really feel what they're going through, every glorious high and heartbreaking low of their romance. No Strings Attached just goes through the motions.

NEXT REVIEW: The King's Speech
Expectations: looking forward to it

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Sini ada filem yang best

Sini Ada Hantu
My rating:

Industri filem tempatan kita dah makin rancak, kan? Buktinya ada didalam kutipan filem Ngangkung (RM8.18 juta) dan Khurafat (baru cecah RM8 juta) serta filem bahasa Cina Great Day (cecah RM5 juta). Tapi bukti yang lebih menyerlah ialah, blog TMBF kian meningkat hits-nya wei! Selalunya post saya yang paling popular ialah rebiu filem Melayu, terutamanya yang saya tulis dalam bahasa Melayu. Kalau saya tulis dalam bahasa Inggeris, tak banyak sangat hits - tapi kangkadang saya tulis jugak ulasan filem Melayu dalam BI, bagi menarik perhatian pembaca yang biasanya tak pergi tengok filem tempatan.

Tapi untuk rebiu Sini Ada Hantu, saya tulis dalam BM. Sebab saya nak sumorang yang layan Ngangkung dan Khurafat untuk pecahpanggungkan filem ini jugak.

Ah Meng (Alvin Wong) dan Bakri (Baki Zainal) adalah dua pemandu yang diberi tugasan saat terakhir oleh penyelia mereka (Ramasundram) untuk membawa van ke sebuah pekan terpencil. Bagi mengisi masa, mereka bertukar-tukar cerita seram, bermula dengan Bakri: Hantu Pokok Pisang mengisahkan seorang pemuda kampung bernama Zam (Sufian Mohamed) yang menaruh hati pada Noraini (Eira Syazira), walaupun Noraini adalah kekasih Farid (Beto Kushairy) - dan untuk memenangi hati Noraini, Zam sanggup menggunakan kuasa ghaib. Ah Meng kemudian membalas dengan cerita Hantu Nombor Ekor, mengenai John (Pete Teo) yang berhutang keliling pinggang serta ketiga-tiga kawannya (Chen Puie Heng, Chen Puie Kong, Wong Chee Hong) memuja roh untuk meminta nombor ekor, ikutan petua yang diberikan oleh seorang pakcik tua (Patrick Teoh). Cerita ketiga ialah Hantu Asrama, mengisahkan seorang pelajar bernama Yakob (Mohd Qhaud Abd Rashid) yang baru bertukar ke sebuah sekolah berasrama penuh, dimana rakan-rakannya (Taiyuddin Bakar, Chomatt Samad, Amerul Affendi) semua takutkan hantu tentera Jepun yang pernah berkawat disana semasa Perang Dunia Kedua. Dan oleh kerana muatan van mereka ialah sebuah keranda, perjalanan Ah Meng dan Bakri juga pasti akan ditimpa peristiwa.

Ya, ini filem antologi, yang mana strukturnya sering terasa tak berhubungan dan susah hendak dinilai secara menyeluruh. Ya, ini filem komedi seram, sebuah genre yang dah basi sampai macam takde cerita lain untuk difilemkan. Namun filem Sini Ada Hantu tampak membuktikan tiga perkara: 1) Genre yang basi pun boleh disegarkan dengan garapan dan olahan yang elok, kerana inilah faktor yang paling penting malah lebih penting daripada idea, premis atau tema, 2) Artis yang baru dan tak berapa dikenali seringkali jauh lebih berbakat dari muka dan nama yang kononnya fofular sesangat (*batukAhmadIdhamFaridKamilbatuk*), 3) Penonton filem tempatan - yakni orang tempatan yang menonton filem mahupun penonton yang gemar filem tempatan - sudah sedia menerima filem yang memaparkan masyarakat Malaysia yang berbilang kaum, berbilang budaya dan berbilang bahasa.

Ini sebuah filem yang berani. Berani dari banyak segi, tapi yang paling berani ialah membikin salah satu segmennya dengan watak Cina yang berbahasa Cina sepenuhnya. Sungguh tak sangka saya akan melihat benda sebegini dalam filem yang pada luarannya filem Melayu, dan saya rasa para penonton dalam panggung saya - yang hampir semuanya orang Melayu - pun tak sangka. Namun saya rasa eksperimen ini cukup berjaya; penonton-penonton dapat mengikut cerita ini walaupun kena baca sarikata BM. Kejayaan ini dibantu oleh dua perkara, pertamanya ialah segmen pertama merupakan cerita hantu Melayu yang biasa dilihat, se-genre dengan Ngangkung, Khurafat dan lain-lain. Keduanya ialah watak Ah Meng lakonan Alvin Wong, watak yang kelakar dan mudah disukai membuat kita ingin dengar apa yang dia nak ceritakan.

Sebab ini juga sebuah filem yang kelakar. Dalam Ngangkung dan Hantu Kak Limah Balik Rumah, walaupun saya suka kedua-duanya tapi saya paling lebih tersenyum je dengan lawaknya. Dalam filem ini, saya LOL terbahak-bahak ketika adegan klimaktiknya. Wong dan Baki Zainal adalah dua pelakon comedian yang cukup hebat bakat mereka. Komedinya terhasil daripada perbandingan antara budaya dan kepercayaan kaum Melayu dan Cina, yang dilihatkan dalam debat Ah Meng dan Bakri mengenai beza antara hantu Melayu dan hantu Cina. Kesimpulannya? Hantu Melayu boleh pegang, hantu Cina tak boleh. Kan sedap ada filem macam ni? Dimana beza antara kaum di negara kita boleh diutarakan dengan cara yang menggembirakan kita semua?

Segmen ketiga pula mengetengahkan hantu "antarabangsa", dan jika pengarah dan penulis skrip James Lee bertujuan melanjutkan poinnya tentang bangsa dan budaya dengan cerita ini, saya tak berapa faham lah. Saya hanya tahu segmen ini juga mencuit hati, dengan dialognya yang bersahaja dengan remaja pelajar sekolah asrama. Cuma ceritanya agak nipis berbanding dengan segmen-segmen lain, dimana watak-wataknya tidak berhubungkait dengan hantu yang mengancam mereka. Jika hendak mengatakan kelemahan filem ini yang lain, unsur humornya juga tak berapa konsisten; segmen pertama dan kedua bernada serius, dan mungkin ini akan menguji kesabaran penonton yang jelas lebih seronok mengikut perjalanan Ah Meng dan Bakri.

Tapi segala-gala dibikin dengan penceritaan yang elok dan teliti. Fikiran rambang: segmen Hantu Pokok Pisang cukup berlapis, dimana watak yang simpatetik memilih jalan hitam dan watak antagonis pula menjadi mangsa. Lakonan Pete Teo juga menjadi, memainkan watak yang langsung tiada rasa sesal atas perbuatannya walau betapa keji. Korang perasan tak setiap segmen menunjukkan hantunya dengan paparan yang berbeza? Hantu Pokok Pisang hantu mekap hodoh, Hantu Nombor Ekor hantu ngeri, dan Hantu Asrama hantu efek khas separuh jelma. Akhir sekali, adake sekolah yang tak pernah dikhabaranginkan dulu ianya markas tentera Jepun? Atau mana-mana bangunan lama? Ini patut jadi bahan untuk banyak lagi filem seram; jangan biar orang Singapura je yang bikin.

Aku betul-betul nak filem ini berjaya. Aku rasa ianya jauh lebih best dan lebih menghiburkan dari Khurafat mahupun Ngangkung, dan aku rasa ia lebih layak memecah panggung dari kedua-dua filem itu. Aku rasa sifat pluralismenya patut disanjung, patut diikuti setiap filem tempatan, dan patut dilihat oleh semua penonton filem tempatan. Aku nak James Lee bikin banyak lagi filem; aku nak tonton Sini Ada Hantu 2: The Further Adventures of Ah Meng dan Bakri. Aku tak tahu setakat mana jauhnya pengaruh blog TMBF ni; filem yang aku suka pun terflop jugak. Namun aku nak seru semua pembaca aku supaya menonton filem ini. Tonton berkali-kali. Tonton bersama keluarga dan kengkawan. Kalau filem ni tak dapat sekurang-kurangnya RM7 juta, aku akan salahkan kamu semua.

NEXT REVIEW: No Strings Attached
Expectations: meh Natalie Portman?... naah, still meh

Friday, February 11, 2011

The sting of the superhero parody

The Green Hornet
My rating:

This is not a movie that anyone was anticipating highly. Bad enough that it's based on an almost-forgotten pulp hero from the prehistoric days of radio serials, and is now mostly known for a '60s TV show that starred Bruce Lee. It also underwent a famously troubled production history, in which Stephen Chow Sing Chi was once tapped to both direct and play Bruce Lee's character, but dropped out due to "creative differences." Then avant-garde filmmaker Michel Gondry replaced Chow as director, and Seth Rogen took on the lead role, neither of whom inspired much confidence that they could make a superhero action movie. (And then Jay Chou signed up, which probably turned off yet another certain bunch of people.)

So the fact that it eventually garnered a few positive reviews for being a decently fun movie is probably all it could expect. And here's another one.

Britt Reid (Seth Rogen), son of wealthy newspaper publisher James Reid (Tom Wilkinson) is an inveterate slacker, partier, and all-round male version of Paris Hilton - as well as a disappointment to his father. But after the elder Reid dies, Britt is moved to reassess his life. He befriends his father's mechanic (and coffee-maker) Kato (Jay Chou), and after they pull a prank to deface his father's statue that results in them beating up a bunch of bad guys, Britt hits upon the idea of becoming crime-fighters - who pose as criminals. Calling himself the Green Hornet, he begins a two-man war against the Los Angeles underground, even though he barely knows what he's doing and has to rely on Kato's martial arts skill, their gadget-laden car the Black Beauty, and his new secretary Lenore Case's (Cameron Diaz) criminology experience in (unwittingly) planning their exploits. Their nemesis is L.A. crime boss Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz), who worries he's not scary enough.

The original Green Hornet and Kato may have been cool in their heyday, but they make for pretty boring superheroes today, being nothing more than two dudes in masks and a car. So credit to Rogen, who co-wrote the screenplay with Evan Goldberg, for trying to do something different with the genre. Do not, under any circumstances, go into this movie expecting a straight action movie with a superhero that's actually heroic. This is a comedy, in which the titular character is a moron and an asshole and never really stops being either. I feel the need to emphasize this, because I've seen quite a few comments about how annoying Rogen is, which is really missing the point of this movie. He's supposed to be.

Y'see, pulp heroes like the Green Hornet reflected the racism and misogyny of their eras, in which the ethnic sidekick was ever deferential to the awesome white hero who scored with a different chick every episode. This movie satirises all of that; Britt thinks he is all of the above when he is exactly none. This is why he's such an asshole to Kato (who is clearly much smarter and more capable than him), such a lout with Lenore (who isn't in the least bit attracted to him), and such a useless twat in the action scenes. Yes, he is all of these things, but he is also funny in them, and honestly even likable. There's a difference between a character that annoys all the other characters and one that annoys the audience; Britt stayed on the right side of that line for me.

Rogen plays Britt like an average comicbook fan (inasmuch as a billionaire playboy could be called "average") getting to play crimefighter, and his childish excitement helps sell his character. If it weren't for trademark licensing fees, you just know Britt would be referencing Batman. Jay Chou is an utter block of wood - but honestly, I'm not sure if that's not the exact right approach to balance Rogen's manic energy. Suffice it to say I could buy them as an action movie buddy duo. Cameron Diaz's role is pretty limited, but her comedy chops fits the tone of the film just right. Christoph Waltz, however, is disappointingly bland - and seeing as he was the best thing in Inglourious Basterds, I'll put the blame on the character as written rather than the actor. Oh, and Edward James Olmos is in this, and he was probably signed up at a time when the movie was meant to be more serious.

Gondry's famously surreal visuals are on display in only three scenes, which were fun - and in one of them, a single shot that breaks up into a dozen split-screens, technically dazzling - but largely inconsequential. The rest of the film feels like a 2nd-unit director did most of the work, especially during the action scenes that are competent but are in no way particularly Gondry-ish. (In fact, their typical blurry fast-cutting made me feel sorry for those who watched it in 3D.) Its main weakness is that it never really feels entirely cohesive; Rogen is doing his slacker schtick, Gondry is trying to make a Michel Gondry film, the stunt team is trying to make an action movie, Olmos is trying to maintain his dignity, and it all doesn't always hang together.

But there's enough fun to be had to make it a worthwhile 119 minutes at the movies (a little long for this kind of film, but it sails by breezily). Still, I can't see this franchise having much legs, due to its lack of a clear creative vision. Britt could learn from Kato and Lenore and be less of a cocky idiot, but that would eliminate a lot of what made this movie funny. And fans of the original Green Hornet are probably frothing at the mouth over how Rogen and Gondry turned the property into a virtual parody of itself - and honestly, as a geek with a few sacred cows of my own, I sympathise. Galaxy Quest is an unimpeachably awesome sci-fi/comedy classic, but it would've been awful as an actual Star Trek movie.

NEXT REVIEW: Sini Ada Hantu
Expectations: yay to more local indie directors making mainstream movies - so long as they're good

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

A very un-Buddhist movie

My rating:

Is it just me, or is this film being pretty damn ballsy calling itself Shaolin? As if it aims to be the definitive movie about Shaolin monks, their temple's storied history, their Buddhist philosophies as well as their martial arts. Which is a huge thing to tackle, more so than even, say, the definitive ninja movie. It's certainly got the budget and the prestige, being the biggest Hong Kong release this CNY (that isn't a star-studded comedy that I don't intend to watch because it'll have dozens of in-jokes about HK life and movies that I also didn't watch).

And yes, it's also got the ambition - but a very misguided one.

It is the Warlord era of pre-Republican China, when the common people suffered under the endless wars between the power-hungry, and only the compassionate Shaolin monks offered succour. One of these warlords is the arrogant Hou Jie (Andy Lau), who has conquered the city of Dengfeng and murdered its former commander at the very steps of the Shaolin temple. But the tables are turned when his own second-in-command Tsao Man (Nicolas Tse) betrays him and attempts to murder him and his family. They find themselves seeking refuge at the same Shaolin temple - but his daughter dies, and his wife (Fan Bingbing) abandons him. Now a broken and humbled man, Hou Jie stays at the temple and becomes an initiate, apprenticed to cook Wudao (Jackie Chan), studying Shaolin kungfu under its senior brother (Wu Jing) and Buddhist philosophy under its abbott (Yu Hai). But Tsao Man's depredations upon Dengfeng grow worse - and it isn't long before he learns where Hou Jie is hiding.

I'm basically pretty much non-religious, but my parents are Buddhist, and I sat through many a dinner table discourse on its tenets while young. So I knows me a thing or three about Buddhism. If there is one word that best describes the entire religion, it would be moderation; hence the reason why Buddha's teachings are often called "the middle path". I mention this because Shaolin, the film named after the most cinematically famous disciples of said religion, is a very immoderate film. It is cheesy. It is shamelessly manipulative. It is waaaayy over-the-top melodramatic and heavy-handed. And it looks like it cost an extravagant bucketload of yuan.

This is a graceless, artless, 200-pound anvil of a movie in which nothing that happens isn't immediately predictable within the first 20 minutes. When Hou Jie says to his protegé, "strike when you have the upper hand, or it will be you who will end up dead," you know Tsao Man will ironically echo the same words to him later. When Hou Jie defaces the temple's signboard in the beginning, you know he will shamefully wash it off later. When he rejects a British officer's proposal to build a railroad through his territory, you know the filthy traitor Tsao Man will take that same offer and sell out his country's interests. (And then run a side trade peddling historical treasures to the same officer, 'cos hey, why not?)

There is absolutely no string this movie won't pull in persuading you that 1) Hou Jie was an ass, 2) but then he totally found enlightenment and became good, 3) Tsao Man is an ass, 4) the Chinese peasantry are totally innocent and totally suffering, 5) white people are evil, 6) the Shaolin temple is a totally awesome place and Shaolin monks are totally awesome dudes. Not that there's anything wrong with any of this - but again, it's done with so little grace or subtlety that it becomes tiresome. It is ridiculously cheesy, which is also how I described another Hong Kong period action flick from last year. But 14 Blades aimed to be nothing more than an ass-kicking kungfu movie, whereas this one has pretensions of being all deep and shit.

At least there's some ass-kicking. It's what saves this movie from being a total failure; just when you start getting a migraine from all the eye-rolling, there's a decent action scene to break up the tedium. Cory Yuen's fight choreography is possibly the only thing that lives up to a movie titled Shaolin. Wu Jing and Xing Yu (in a minor role as one of the monks) are bona fide kungfu stars, as is veteran Hung Yan-yan (in a minor role as a villainous henchman, 'cos hey, why not have one of those?). Andy Lau and Nicolas Tse too acquit themselves well in their fight scenes. On the other hand, the all-out action climax isn't satisfied with mere martial arts - and so there's a veritable orgy of pyrotechnics, faceless extras getting slaughtered, and heroic sacrifices galore. And it just goes on and on.

It also features Buddhist monks straight-up killing dudes. Which, yeah, they're bad guys, but this isn't exactly what Buddha taught. How this movie tackles Shaolin philosophy is for various monks to say "Buddha be praised" every three sentences or so, and to spout pithy aphorisms and entreaties to put aside your anger, man, even to people who are at that very moment trying to kill them. Which makes them look like morons (not to mention really boring folks to hang out with) rather than wise and enlightened holy men. Until they start slashing people to ribbons with swords, that is, which may be more fun to watch - unless you're Buddhist, in which case having fun watching it is just wrong.

But such is this movie, so excessive and self-indulgent in telling its story that it ends up irreparably damaging the very things it's trying to say. I've often mentioned that what makes Asian films unique is that their default mode is to go broad; this is the downside of that. It's as if director Benny Chan's approach to making an Epic for the Ages is to toss an entire assortment of Epic into a stew pot and turn the oven on to max. The result is a movie with the occasional hint of Epic, but on the whole, is just overheated swill. Buddha is disappointed in you, Mr. Chan.

NEXT REVIEW: The Green Hornet
Expectations: I'm guessing 3-½ stars at best

Saturday, February 5, 2011

Langsung tak inkredibel Haq

My rating:

Seperti yang pernah saya sebut, saya pernah bercita-cita hendak menjadi penulis skrip filem. Banyak sumber pengetahuan tentang seni dan teknik penulisan skrip yang boleh didapati di internet, dan banyak yang saya telaahi dengan tekun. Sebab itulah, dalam karier hobi saya sebagai pengkritik filem, kaedah yang paling saya tekankan ialah penulisan dan penceritaan. Dan pada pendapat saya, ciri itulah yang paling kekurangan dalam industri filem tempatan kita. Kita ada pelakon yang berbakat. Kita ada pengarah yang berbakat. Tapi penulis yang mampu mengarang sebuah cerita yang berakal - mahupun yang masuk akal - amatlah jarang.

Contohnya filem ini, yang dihasilkan dari skrip yang bebal gila babi.

Haq (Zul Huzaimy) dan Bad (Ady Putra) adalah dua adik-beradik rakan karib budak yang telah dibesarkan bersama oleh Mak Lang (Fatimah Abu Bakar) dan Tuan Haji Ibrahim (Zulkifli Ismail). Dari kecil lagi, Haq dan Bad menunjukkan kuasa ajaib, seperti boleh menggerakkan daun dan mangkuk dengan daya pemikiran, serta mengeluarkan cahaya CGI dari hujung jari. Tetapi Bad mula membenci keluarga angkatnya, terutama Haq; apabila dewasa, dia sudah menjadi pengedar dadah yang sering berpakaian segak. Dia mula menganiaya Tuan Haji Ibrahim dan Mak Lang serta anak perempuannya Aina (Raja Farah) yang ada hati terhadap Haq. Namun sugar mummy teman wanitanya Zahra (Nanu Baharudin) makin kecewa dengan kejahatan Bad dan mula jatuh hati dengan Haq, sementara Haq dan Bad menuju ke konfrontasi terakhir yang akan mencabar kebolehan krew efek khas filem ini.

Tidak seperti filem tempatan lain, cerita ini tidak dikarang oleh kedua co-pengarahnya, Jumaatun Azmi dan CL Hor. Skrip ini dikreditkan kepada sebuah entiti yang digelar KasehDia Scriptworks. Abende KasehDia Scriptworks ni?? Halamak, muncullah sebuah raksaksa kembar kepada Panel Skrip MIG. Wahai tokoh-tokoh perfileman yang terhormat, menulis skrip filem bukanlah sesuatu yang patut dikerjakan secara berjawatankuasa! Hasilnya ialah sebuah filem yang umpama peribahasa "tangan kiri tak tau apa yang tangan kanan buat." Cuma dalam misalan ini, ada berpuluh tangan, bukan hanya dua. Kali ni, rebiu saya akan lari sedikit dari format biasa; biar saya huraikan sedikit sebanyak contoh kebangangan and kebebalan filem ini secara bersenarai:

- Si Bad ni, dia benci Haq kenapa? Apa salah Haq terhadap dia? Dia ni tak ubah macam budak kecik yang cemburukan adiknya sendiri tanpa sebab, sampai bila dia nak menggoda Aina pun kena tanya siapa lagi hensem, Haq atau dia. Inike watak antagonis yang menggerunkan?

- Apa sebenarnya hubungan diantara kesemua watak ni? Ibu Haq mati, jadi siapa bapa dia? Bapa Bad mati, jadi siapa ibu dia? Haq jadi anak angkat Tuan Haji Ibrahim, tapi Bad tak? Aina anak Mak Lang suka Haq tapi diromen oleh Bad - tak incest ke?

- Adegan panas antara Nanu Baharudin dan Ady Putra yang diuar-uarkan tu, rupanya tiada kena-mengena langsung dengan jalan cerita. Kita taulah Bad dan Zahra bercinta; yang lebih relevan ialah, Zahra tu siapa sebenarnya? Hidup mewah tapi tak kerja? Ataupun dia bersubahat dengan Bad dalam kegiatan jenayahnya? Atau tidak? Kenapa cetek sangat watak ni? (Jawapannya: sebab semua watak dalam filem ini samalah cetek.)

- Oh Maigod, lakonan Ady. Lakonan yang tersangat-sangat menonjolkan ciri-ciri keju. (Baca: cheesy.) Ini bukan mutu lakonan yang sesuai buat filem yang ingin diambil serius. Ini gaya lakonan Space Cop Gaban.

- Nanu cukup hawt jugak dari segi ke-MILF-an, tapi jelas dia lebih tua dari Adi mahupun Zul Huzaimy. Babak romantis diantara Zahra dan Haq, dimana Haq terkenang ibunya semasa menari dengan Zahra, mendatangkan siratan Oedipus complex yang membimbangkan. Patutlah Haq tak layan Aina. Kau nak kekasih ke nak ibu pengganti? Fatimah Abu Bakar tak cukup lawa untuk kau?

- Zul pulak tu, kayu gilebabi. Hepi ke, sedih ke, marah ke, gelisah ke, muka tetap maintain je. Kalau keju yang dijana oleh Ady dibahagi samarata antara mereka berdua, barulah ngam.

- Bad sering bermimpi dimana dia merenung dirinya yang separuh bogel didalam cermin, sambil melafazkan kebenciannya terhadap Haq dalam suara yang dibubuh filter elektronik. Apa maksud ini? Apakah Bad hanya merupakan barua yang diperalatkan oleh kuasa luar? Soalan ini timbul tapi tak dijawab.

- Dan tiga biji guli yang berisi CGI tu abende?? Toksahlah bagi alasan bahawa sekuel akan menjelaskannya, sedangkan kehadirannya dalam filem ini hanya menimbulkan perasaan WTF.

- Konon je filem aksi. Babak orang jahat datang nak culik Aina, merupakan adegan aksi yang pertama dalam cerita ini. Baru kita teruja nak tengok Haq tunjuk hebat - tetiba dah over. Kemudian ada babak lawan antara Bad dengan sekumpulan goons yang datang entah dari mana. Diorang tu siapa? Nak pukul Bad kenapa? Saja je?

- Pertarungan klimaktik antara Haq dan Bad pun macam terbantut tiba-tiba. Babak lawan yang disebut diatas pun lagi panjang. Malah garapan aksinya semua gagal besar. Suntingan dan syot yang mengelirukan. Gile boring citer ni.

- Memang gile boring citer ni. Setiap kali orang bercakap, kena pause lama-lama diantara setiap ayat. Jelas bahawa jalan ceritanya sebenarnya tak cukup panjang untuk memenuhi masa. Durasi 90 minit rasa macam 3 jam.

- Nak cipta watak hero Melayu yang boleh disanjung dan diikuti anak-anak muda? Korang tak reti ke, sifat seorang adiwira yang paling penting ialah menggunakan kuasanya untuk menentang kejahatan dan menegakkan keadilan. Itulah yang menjadi pedoman Superman, Spider-Man, Batman dan lain-lain. Sepanjang hidupnya, Haq buat apa dengan kuasanya? Jadi bisnesman. Fuh, sungguh heroik. Boleh jadi Datuk kot.

- Apa yang hebat sangat kalau nak tunjuk orang Melayu yang kaya-raya? Sedangkan kau tak tunjuk pun apa kerja dan usaha yang membawa kekayaan itu - malah nilai-nilai murni yang sebenarnya patut disanjung pun tak nampak. Mana kebaikan hati Tuan Haji Ibrahim, keberanian Haq, keimanan mereka berdua? Cakap je tapi tak tunjuk. Yang kau tunjuk ialah diorang tinggal rumah besar, naik helikopter dan bawa kereta BMW. Inike "Islam yang moden dan maju"?

Okey, sekarang saya nak sebut pasal apa yang baik tentang filem ni. Lakonan Nanu sebenarnya cukup meyakinkan, begitu juga Fatimah Abu Bakar. Ada satu adegan aksi kereta golek dan meletup yang digarap dengan elok, menunjukkan mutu teknikal yang jarang dilihat dalam filem tempatan. Arahan Jumaatun dan Hor ada gaya visual tersendiri, dan ini juga sesuatu yang lain daripada pengarah-pengarah lain; sekurang-kurangnya mereka berusaha hendak membikin sebuah filem yang sedap dilihat. Malangnya, filem ini ada bentuk tapi tak ada bahan*.

Saya tak tahu apa sumbangan Jumaatun, tapi Hor pernah mengarah filem Kinta 1881 yang juga kurang berjaya; malah ia dihentam kaw-kaw apabila ditukar judul dan dipasarkan ke luar negara. (Sakit hati baca link tu wei!) Mungkin Hor seorang pembikin filem yang tekun dan bersemangat, tapi dia langsung tak tahu-menahu tentang penceritaan dan arahan aksi. Saya tak nak bagi filem ini rating bintang yang rendah sangat, sebab saya mahu Hor dan Jumaatun terus membikin filem, memperbaiki kelemahan mereka (cadangan pertama: hapuskan KasehDia Scriptworks tu), dan menyerlahkan kelebihan dan kelainan mereka dari filem-filem tempatan biasa. Namun beginilah hakikatnya dengan industri filem kita - setiap langkah kehadapan diikuti dengan dua langkah kebelakang.

Expectations: hoping it'll be as epic as it looks

* Eh, okey ke terjemahan "all style, no substance" ni? Aku pun tak pasti.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Reunion dinner is important, FYI

My rating:

I was somewhat begrudging about catching this movie, and I don't really have a good reason why. Maybe I'm just biased against Singaporeans Singaporean films; maybe because this one featured Jack Neo in drag, which is not a thing I'm dying to watch. Or maybe because I am firmly in the corner of Chiu Keng Guan and his locally-produced CNY movie, even if it wasn't as good as I hoped. But Homecoming has Aniu and Afdlin Shauki and a couple other Malaysian-born (if Singapore-based) actors, and even a Malaysian director - and thus, I could no longer dismiss it as a movie not under TMBF's purview. But I fully admit I went in biased, and didn't expect it to be better than Great Day.

Well... okay, it is. In certain aspects. But overall, not by much. Yeah yeah, colour me biased.

It is the eve of the Lunar New Year, and every Chinese is preparing for the traditional family reunion dinner. Aunty Karen (Jack Neo) and her son Ah Meng (Aniu) are making the journey from Singapore to KL, where Karen hopes to matchmake her less-than-enthusiastic son with a distant relative. Renowned Western-trained chef Daniel Koh (Mark Lee) is due to prepare a sumptuous dinner for a minister and his family, but his arrogance rubs everyone the wrong way, including his restaurant manager Fei Fei (Jacelyn Tay). Daniel has no time for his daughter Mindy (Koe Yeet), who decides to go to KL on her own to visit her divorced mother - and finds herself traveling with Karen and Ah Meng, who in turn end up reluctantly ferried by taxi driver Zool (Afdlin Shauki). Meanwhile, newlyweds Boon (Huang Wen Hong) and Jamie (Rebecca Lim) are home for the holidays, but struggle with having to tell Boon's parents that they intend to spend the New Year on a holiday in Bali.

Here's the good part: the Karen-Ah Meng segment is wonderful. It has all the movie's funniest scenes, and director Lee Thean-Jeen helms them with perfect comic timing. (In this case, comic timing = throwing a new joke at the audience while they're still laughing at the previous one, which works beautifully.) Ah Meng gets all the snarkiest lines, and his banter with his mother is loads of fun. It also has Afdlin Shauki, who is as effortless as ever in being funny and likable; one of the great things about this CNY Chinese-language movie is how generous with time and affection it is to a Malay character. Not even Great Day or Woohoo! is as 1Malaysia as this (and yes, I am quite loath to say this of a Singaporean co-production). And the storyline is very effectively heartwarming, ending with every character being awesome to each other.

Unfortunately, that's just one-third of the movie. The Chef Daniel story is just annoying, largely due to its portrayal of Chef Daniel. Bad enough he's a pompous, pretentious and mean-tempered jackass, which of course he's meant to be until his inevitable humbling. The problem is that the story itself never treats him as anything more than a joke. He's supposed to be a French-trained master chef? Then why can't he even pronounce the names of his French dishes right? Why does he claim to have studied the culinary arts from Charles de Gaulle and Thierry Henry? And why, when someone speaks to him in actual French, does he not understand a word? Is he a fraud or what? More likely he's just a vehicle for lazy digs at Westernized Chinese, in the laziest-written and dumbest segment of the movie.

The third one isn't much better either. Once again we are invited to shake our heads at the terribly un-Chinese Boon and Jamie and their shocking disrespect for the institution of the New Year reunion dinner. The problem is that the couple seem to be morons who need to have the significance of this and every other Chinese custom explained to them. Which is the problem as a whole with this movie - yes yes, family togetherness and adherence to tradition is important, especially during CNY, like we didn't know that already. The film tells us these things in a heavy-handed and frankly quite patronizing manner. The Karen-Ah Meng story conveys the same thing so much better, by showing its characters demonstrating the importance of family through actions rather than condescending speeches.

So there's little I can say about the cast who aren't Neo, Aniu, Afdlin and Koe Yeet; they're all competent but unremarkable, saddled as they are with storylines that are dull at best, insultingly stupid at worst. (Though there is one funny scene about how calculative Boon's father is with angpows.) The abovementioned four however are terrific. Neo nicely dispelled my fears of watching him in drag; his chemistry with Aniu is great fun to watch, and Aniu in turn proves his versatility by effectively playing a very different role than the one he essayed in his directorial effort. Afdlin is, as mentioned, terrific. And newcomer Koe Yeet is super-cute and has a smile that can melt hearts.

But the rest of the movie simply isn't as good. There are three credited screenwriters here - Philip Lim, Adrian Tan, and the director himself - and I'm almost certain that they each wrote one of the three segments individually. I did say it's slightly better overall than Great Day, and it is, in that it's funnier. And it's got the Chinese New Year spirit all over it, which will probably go down great with folks who want to be reminded of how awesome it is to be Chinese. Me, I could've done without that - and yes, I know I'll probably be accused of being a treacherous banana because of this. But hey, I'm the kind of guy who thinks there's nothing wrong with having French cuisine for reunion dinner.

Expectations: haven't seen a single good review. Then again, when it comes to local films, I trust no-one's views but my own

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Not so fast, bucko

My rating:

I like action movies, 'cos a good one is just loads of fun. But I also like a good serious drama that aims to be more meaningful and thoughtful. And I also also think the two are not mutually exclusive, that it is possible to combine the visceral thrills of one with the gravity of the other. Faster is a movie that clearly aims for just that, so it's a little disappointing to hear that its high-minded aspirations are being unappreciated and unacknowledged. (More so from AV Club, but I expected no more from the peanut gallery over on

It's probably because of that title. And it's likely also because it doesn't entirely succeed at what it's aiming for.

A man known only as Driver (Dwayne Johnson) is released after a 10-year prison sentence, and begins a single-minded pursuit of revenge on the men who put him there and murdered his brother. On his trail is a Cop (Billy Bob Thornton) who's a joke to the rest of his colleagues; battling a drug addiction, separated from his wife (Moon Bloodgood) and son, days away from retirement, and little more than an irritant to his partner Detective Cicero (Carla Gugino). And then there is the Killer (Oliver Jackson-Cohen), a self-made millionaire and assassin-for-hire, who is contemplating marriage to his girlfriend Lily (Maggie Grace), but is compelled to finish his current contract for a mysterious client - to kill the Driver.

No, it's not a thrill-a-minute balls-to-the-wall action movie, as its title might've implied. It is instead a grim, moody action thriller with an emphasis on the characterisation of the three deliberately unnamed men. Driver is not a wronged innocent; he was part of a bank robbery crew that was in turn robbed by another gang that killed his brother and left him for dead. Ten years later, he's practically Terminator-like in hunting down the members of that gang, so filled with anger and hatred that when he crosses the road, traffic stops for him; there are scenes in which director George Tillman, Jr. shoots him as if he were the villain. But as the story progresses, Driver's humanity begins to peek through - especially once he finds that, in the ten years since they committed their crime, some of the names on his hitlist have become very changed men.

In contrast, Cop is portrayed sympathetically from the get-go. He's days away from retirement (aren't they all), but cracking this case could be his last chance to redeem himself from his failed marriage and career. And then there's Killer. Get a load of this guy: he survived a childhood disability to become a dot-com billionaire with the body of a Olympic athlete and an approach to life as if it were an XBox game and he's out to collect all the Achievements. He says he's "beaten yoga" after performing the three most difficult poses, and contract killing is just another thing he does for the thrill of "beating". He's a cross between Mark Zuckerberg, Tyson Beckford and Agent 47. And he loves his girlfriend, who wants him to quit - because she knows full well he's a hitman-for-hire, and even helps him pick out his guns and joins him in some target practice. But first he has to complete one last job. (Don't they always.) Also, he's British.

So I was looking for some thematic link between them, something they had in common that warranted the movie focusing on these three dudes. The closest I could think of was that they were all driven by personal demons that threatened to destroy their chances of happiness - Driver by his vengeance, Killer by his need to be the best at Killing, and Cop by his... drug addiction? That last doesn't really work, since we only ever see him take a hit of heroin once. See, if the only thing connecting these three is an emotional theme, this movie would be as much a character study as it is an action thriller, but Tillman and his screenwriters Joe and Tony Gayton aren't quite that daring. And so it's a plain old plot twist that ties Driver, Cop and Killer together towards the end, and it doesn't satisfactorily pay off any of their backstories. The oddest duck turns out to be Killer, who seems to have dropped in from another movie altogether.

Now let's talk about Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, who has yet to find the right vehicle for his talents since 2003's The Rundown. That movie showcased his one quality that no one seems to realise: his likability. I was briefly a fan of WWE in the early '00s during The Rock's heyday, and while he was as fearsome as any other wrestler, he was also funny. (I will swear to my dying day that the best way to appreciate rasslin' is to see it all as comedy.) While he got to exercise his comic talents in his recent spate of kid-friendly family flicks, it was only in The Rundown that he made full use of both his badassitude and his personal charm. Faster makes poor use of him yet again, casting him as a seething ball of rage with precious little dialogue and who never even cracks a smile.

But credit to him for giving the role a game try. Also to Billy Bob Thornton and Carla Gugino for being great fun to watch, and to Tillman for trying to make a deeper and more thoughtful action film. I haven't read any review yet that mentioned its suitably operatic blues-rock soundtrack - by the great Clint Mansell, no less - that perfectly complements the dusty desert scenery and the bloody retribution that takes place there. So even if its storyline doesn't all hang together, I think it deserves credit for attempting this much and accomplishing at least some of it. It's just a pity that its title may cause viewers to completely overlook them.

(And here's a deleted scene and alternate ending that probably would've made it a much better movie. Curse you, test screening audiences, 'cos it was most likely you guys who made them take it out!)

NEXT REVIEW: Homecoming
Expectations: after Great Day, low