Tuesday, May 31, 2011

...right over my head

Let the Bullets Fly
My rating:

It's been a while since I reviewed a Chinese-language film (aside from two local productions). There just hasn't been anything from Hong Kong recently that caught my eye; on top of that, my favourite source for Hong Kong and other Pan-Asian film reviews has slowed down a lot recently, depriving me of information on Asian films worth looking out for. But Let the Bullets Fly was one that got a glowing review from LoveHKFilm. And it's finally here on Malaysian shores, but only through the GSC International Screens program, and showing only in three cinemas. I'm quite worried that it's on a limited run and will disappear from our screens before long, hence my decision to bump it up on my already-backlogged reviewing schedule. (Nur Kasih: The Movie and Kung Fu Panda 2 will just have to wait.)

And it is so very much worth it. But I have to admit, I almost gave up on writing this review.

In 1920s China, in the remote Sichuanese countryside, a bandit leader (Jiang Wen) robs a train carrying Ma Bangde (Ge You) and his wife (Carina Lau), on their way to the backwater Goose Town to take up the governor post. But Ma is actually a conman who buys gubernatorial posts to bilk the locals out of tax money - and he poses as his own (dead) counselor Tang to save his own skin from the bandits. The bandit leader meanwhile, decides to pose as Ma and play the con himself, and they all ride into Goose Town - which is controlled by local gangster Huang Silang (Chow Yun-Fat). Ma/Tang knows the game is to kowtow to the gangs and walk away with the money, but the bandit leader/Ma kneels to nobody, certainly not a murderous tyrant like Huang. And thus the stage is set for a battle of wits, wordplay, and whether or not the bandit leader/Ma is actually the fearsome "Pocky" Zhang whom even Huang fears... or does he?

Wow. This film is dazzling. Its title may lead you to expect a John Woo-style balls-out action movie, but it's actually... um, to be honest, it's hard to peg it into any particular genre. It's very funny, but its humour is of the pitch-black variety, in which blood gets spilled and spattered and it's meant to make us laugh (albeit uncomfortably). Zhang/Ma and Huang - with Ma/Tang possibly double-crossing and triple-crossing them both - do battle through cunning and trickery more than with guns, although when the bullets do fly, the action is fast and frenetic (and Zhang/Ma's bandit cohorts are totally badass). There are clear homages to Westerns, with its premise of a man riding into town and cleaning it up, but possibly befouling it a little bit more first. But whatever genre fields it plays in, it is always and ineluctably its own singular and terrifically unique creation - one that takes you for a ride through places you've never been.

Half of which whizzed by me so fast that I could barely keep up. Which brings me to why I almost made this my second ever non-review; it's an extremely dense and complicated plot, involving people lying to each other, knowing that they're lying, and knowing that they know that they're lying. It's also an extremely fast-moving plot, in which everything can turn on a single line of rapid-fire dialogue. And the dialogue is rich in Mandarin wordplay and Chinese cultural references, almost all of which flew over this shameful Chinese banana's head. (The English subtitles do a valiant job, but more than one instance the largely-Chinese audience laughed at something that sounded perfectly innocuous in English.) And there's supposedly a fair bit of pointed satire in this movie, which I again missed because I am somewhat behind on my grasp of the current political scene in China.

Which means this is going to be a pretty lame review. If I'm going to review a film well, it is imperative that I actually understand it; my mantra as a film critic is to engage a movie on its own terms, and judge it by how well it accomplishes what it aims for. Watching Let the Bullets Fly often made me feel like a bystander listening in on a conversation between an extremely intelligent and witty speaker and several enraptured listeners content to laugh at all his jokes. Another reason why I'm finding it hard to review this film is that it's also extremely unpredictable; as is the nature of black comedies, it's hard to pick a side to root for at first, since none of the three main characters are particularly admirable folks. I said at first, since eventually a clear protagonist (who is not above doing some pretty reprehensible things) and antagonist (who still adheres to his own code of honour) emerges.

But it was fun. Unpredictability at the movies is such a rare and precious thing; seriously, when was the last time you watched a film in which you honestly could not tell what was going to happen next, or how it would all end? A lot of the comedy was broad enough that it did translate well, or at least well enough to earn a laugh from me; one especially LOLworthy moment was when the bandit leader attempted a little acting, having previously been pegged as a lousy actor. All three main actors are terrific; Jiang Wen was super cool, Ge You was a total weasel yet strangely endearing, and Chow Yun-Fat gets to ham it up as both the gentlemanly gangster and his idiot double. (Yes, Huang has a double, and Chow is clearly having a ball playing him.) There's also solid support from Carina Lau as an unrepentant gold-digger, the band of young hunks who play the rest of the bandit gang, and Zhou Yun as the sweetly innocent prostitute who tames these men's hearts.

However, the real star of the show is Jiang - his direction, to be precise. Here is a director in absolute and consummate control of his film, right down to the occasionally fake-looking CGI which wouldn't surprise me if it was meant to be cheesy. Every stylized shot, every whip-pan, every lightning-quick edit, every line delivery is masterfully precise - and that extends to every plot twist, every Mandarin joke, and every subversive little jab that snuck past China's censors. I may not have gotten all (or even most) of it, but I do know I'll be getting this movie on DVD and taking my time to savour it. I reserve the right to revise my rating upward and giving it a high spot on my year-end list of 2011's best films. Even now, I'm already thinking it deserves 4-½ stars.

NEXT REVIEW: Nur Kasih: The Movie
Expectations: yay Kabir Bhatia!

Thursday, May 26, 2011

On well-trodden ground

Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
My rating:

You know what annoys me? Reviews that condemn a film as "unnecessary". What kind of a criteria is "necessity" anyway? In 1977, was there a "need" for a quirky little low-budget sci-fi film from an upstart young indie director? No, but the world got Star Wars anyway. I know the word gets tossed around only in regards to sequels, and sure, a great many sequels are announced to which the only sane response is bewilderment that there exists a demand for them. But that's only if you haven't watched them. Once you have watched them - which is kinda necessary if you're writing a review - you are obliged to judge them on their merits. So yeah, I am plenty annoyed at the reviews for the fourth and latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie that disparage it for being "unnecessary". What you're supposed to tell your readers is, is it good? Do you even know what makes these movies good?

I reckon I do. And I gotta say, it's on par with Dead Man's Chest - the weakest of the first three.

Captain Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp) turns up in London to rescue his ex-first mate Gibbs (Kevin McNally) from the gallows, but then finds himself embroiled in the search for the fabled Fountain of Youth, which everyone seems to think he knows how to find. Three parties are in a race to reach it first: a Spanish expedition; a British one led by Barbossa (Geoffrey Rush), now a privateer in His Majesty's Navy; and Edward "Blackbeard" Teach (Ian McShane), the pirate whom all other pirates fear, who captains a crew of zombies aboard the feared ship Queen Anne's Revenge. Jack is shanghaied onto the Revenge by Angelica (Penélope Cruz), an old flame who turns out to be Blackbeard's daughter, and who knows the Fountain's ritual. They must recover two silver chalices from the shipwreck of Ponce de León, as well as a single tear of a mermaid. In the course of their voyage - on which a naive young missionary named Philip (Sam Claflin) is another less-than-willing participant - they manage to capture a mermaid whom Philip names Syrena (Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey) and whom he also falls in love with.

It's pretty clear that this latest installment in the series is going for a back-to-basics approach. No more massive threats to the entire pirating world, no more convoluted betrayals and shifting allegiances, just a simple quest storyline - but with the trademark POTC complex plotting. Which, as I said in my Retro Review, is one of its strengths, although overdoing it is also its main weakness. So if On Stranger Tides is aiming more to emulate Curse of the Black Pearl rather than the other two, that can only be a good thing. And it is a good thing. Sadly, it just doesn't pull it off as well. The elements are there, but the whole package just doesn't come alive as well as Black Pearl did.

First of all, Penélope Cruz is miscast. She really is. She acted alongside Johnny Depp in a 2001 film called Blow, where presumably she had good chemistry with Depp, but it ain't showing here. She simply lacks the light touch needed to be in a POTC movie, that combination of comic, dramatic, and plain badasseric acting that, say, Keira Knightley pulled off so well. And her character Angelica may have been a major misstep as well, supposedly being the lost love of Jack Sparrow's life. I'm not sure Jack is the kind of character that should have a One True Love. (If he does, it's clearly himself.) Even if she's not meant to be that, whatever their love-hate relationship is supposed to be didn't work for me. There were parts where her life was threatened to force Jack into doing something dangerous (or that he just doesn't want to do), and I just didn't buy it.

Second of all, Ian McShane is miscast. And this is a sore disappointment, because Ian McShane as Blackbeard should've been dream casting. I don't know what went wrong. He was far too subdued when he should've been chewing up all the scenery in sight. And though the script laboured mightily to make him the most irredeemable villain in the series to date (and halfway succeeded), he remains the third Evil Pirate Captain that we've seen after Barbossa and Davy Jones. Worst of all is whatever was supposed to be going on between him and Angelica. She says she truly loved him and wanted the waters of the Fountain of Youth for him, but that never really came across - nor did his supposedly conflicted fatherly affection for her. This is another key character relationship that simply didn't work.

There's also the romance between Philip and Syrena, which is so underwritten it was practically irrelevant. (He falls in love with a murderous inhuman creature of the depths just because she's pretty.) And speaking of irrelevant, the Barbossa subplot was exactly that in the first half; it did not escape my notice that the film only cuts back to him to remind us he's there. (I have more things to say about him that are spoilerrific, so I'll discuss them in the comments.) Elements such as the zombie crew, or Blackbeard's supernatural control over his ship's rigging, also never amount to anything consequential - and in the case of the zombie crew, feels like a retread of Black Pearl's undead pirates and Davy Jones' mutant crew. One retread was enough, thanks. And there's a voodoo doll of Jack that is even more inconsequential, to the point where someone tosses it into a river and no one seems to care.

No, the plot wasn't complicated, but it was busy, in that getting from Point A to Point B always has to slog through Points A.1 to A.9 first. It occasionally feels like a slog, in a way Black Pearl never did. I don't know if Rob Marshall, taking over the franchise's reins from Gore Verbinski, is to blame for that. It certainly doesn't feel as breezy and light on its feet as the first film did, and is noticeably lacking in cool action setpieces to boot. And although Dariusz Wolski returns as cinematographer, the film looks distinctly different from its predecessors - duller colours, and occasionally lit too dark, especially during the swordfight near the beginning (that also feels like a retread of the Jack-Will duel in Black Pearl). No, I did not watch it in 3D, even if it was filmed using 3D cameras, and if it looks this dull and dark because of those cameras, then I say feh. And feh to Marshall too. I don't know why making a couple musicals and friggin' Memoirs of a Geisha qualifies him to direct an action movie.

But honestly, I still enjoyed it. No really, I did. (I also have a habit of writing 3-½-star reviews that focus more on the movie's faults than its strengths.) Jack Sparrow - sorry, Captain Jack Sparrow is as much fun as ever, and I'm not seeing any sign that Depp is getting tired of playing him. And the comedy still works well; Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott penned some great dialogue, witty enough to recall much of Black Pearl. Like Dead Man's Chest, it's still a fun swashbuckling adventure that boasts an intelligence to challenge the notion that summer blockbusters need to be dumb. It very much demands that you not leave your brain at the door, and that's rare enough to give credit for. It only suffers in comparison to the first and best installment in the series, which is starting to look like a fluke - or at least, a serendipitous confluence of all the right elements that On Stranger Tides lacks some of. But not all. Only some of.

NEXT REVIEW: Let the Bullets Fly
Expectations: ooh, I've been looking forward to this one

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Yo ho, yo ho, a pirate trilogy for me

I believe I have previously mentioned Wordplayer.com, the website run by big-shot Hollywood screenwriters Terry Rossio and Ted Elliott. If you can get through to it (it's a little paranoid about Malaysian IP addresses), it's an invaluable resource, hosting a terrific series of columns on screenwriting as well as an active forum community of very smart folks. Well, when I first found it their shots weren't that big; they'd had credits on a few modestly successful films, but they were mostly struggling through the trenches like any other working screenwriter. And then we heard that their new movie was coming out, based on a Disneyland ride, which both Rossio and Elliott claimed was the best experience they'd ever had working on a film. For the first time in their careers, the final film accurately represented the script and story that they'd painstakingly crafted (a rare occurrence in Hollywood), and thus they were prouder of it than anything they'd ever done. This, above all, was what had me looking forward to the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie - and from then on, film history was made.

Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)
My rating:

I watched this twice in cinemas, but my recent DVD rewatch of it was my first viewing since it first came out. I remember loving it, and I agree when most people say it's the best of the three. But I think I'm only now realizing how great it is. This movie is packed to the gills with entertainment; every third line of dialogue is either a joke, plot-related exposition, a plot-related setup for a later payoff, or an allusion to something that won't be made clear until a second viewing. (Or third, or fourth, et cetera.) Often it's two or three of these at once. And it's also a deliciously twisty plot, in which every character is thinking a step ahead of everyone else, trying to exploit the way the central MacGuffin of the Aztec coins work for every angle and loophole they can think of. And it's an action-packed, swashbuckling revival of a genre that hasn't been seen in ages. It's a brilliantly clever film that doesn't require smarts to enjoy - but if you're willing to pay close attention, the rewards are awesome.

And speaking of brilliant, there is of course Captain Jack Sparrow. Johnny Depp's swishy, swaggering, guylinered, seemingly-perpetually drunk, inept-and-ingenious-in-equal-measure pirate has to be one of the most inspired performances of the decade and possibly of all time. But as fun as he was, I enjoyed watching Geoffrey Rush every bit as much; if Sparrow is a postmodern take of pirate-as-rockstar (or rockstar-as-pirate), then Rush's Barbossa is classic movie pirate all the way right down to the "Arr!" (Yes, he actually says "Arr!") Depp and Rush chew so much scenery between them that it's a wonder we have any attention left to pay to anyone else, but there's also Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom to play the requisite straight man (and girl); Knightley fares better than Bloom, who's a little out of his depth. Still, Will Turner the noble romantic hero and his lady love Elizabeth belong in a movie that's as much an homage to classic pirate tropes as it is a modern update of them.

But there's smart writing, terrific performances, and also great action scenes, orchestrated in all their old-fashioned swashbuckling glory by Gore Verbinski. His previous movie was the remake of The Ring, the only good Hollywood remake of Asian horror; here he proves equally adept at light-hearted action-adventure. Critics were quick to rave about how Depp's performance "single-handedly" elevated the film, but honestly, they're fulla shit. There's just so much more it has to offer: the awesome undead-pirate effects, the genuine affection for the old-fashioned pirate movie genre, the pitch-perfect blend of action and comedy, and most of all Rossio's and Elliott's terrific screenplay. It proves beyond a shadow of a doubt that a summer blockbuster need not be dumb and hollow, and that it can in fact be a genuinely great film if it's not. Even if it's based on a theme park ride.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (2006)
My rating:

After enjoying The Curse of the Black Pearl so much, I was of course hugely anticipating its sequel. And I pretty much agree with everyone that it's not as good as its predecessor, and that its plot got too confusing. Complex plotting was one of Black Pearl's great strengths, but Rossio and Elliott go overboard with it here, giving every character their own agenda and having them work at cross-purposes with everyone else in pursuit of not one, but three Macguffins (the key to Davy Jones' chest, the chest itself, and the Letters of Marque). I remember the exact moment the plot lost me: when Elizabeth, whose arrest and death sentence drove Will's quest to enlist Jack's help in freeing her, escaped on her own - no, not escaped, but persuaded Beckett to let her go. I don't know what threat Beckett posed anymore after that. I don't know why she and Will couldn't just skedaddle off into the Blue, happily ever after.

Yet as you can probably tell from my rating, I still enjoyed it. The cannibal island sequence is hilarious Looney Tunes-style slapstick (although the whole segment is completely irrelevant to the plot); the Flying Dutchman is awesomely cool (although its fish-mutated crew seem like a knockoff of Black Pearl's skeletal pirates, with less personality); Davy Jones is one of the most seamless CGI characters ever created (although I thought he should've been scarier, instead of another snarky villain-type like Barbossa was); the Kraken was absolutely terrifying (although I don't know why Davy Jones needs it if he can just teleport across the sea, as shown); and I totally loved the three-way swordfight on the giant wheel (unconditionally!). As you can tell, I'm making lots of excuses for this movie's weaknesses. I can't help it. It is relentless at trying to entertain you, and that's an impressive thing.

But it doesn't succeed at it as well as Black Pearl does, with the former film's seemingly-effortless wit, ingenuity and panache. It tries too hard with visual spectacle and constant callbacks to Black Pearl's dialogue that aren't as funny the second time. Clearly, the less-than-ideal circumstances under which it was made are to blame: Dead Man's Chest and At World's End were filmed back-to-back, on a rushed schedule while the scripts were still being written (and re-re-re-written). Verbinski thought up many of the ideas and setpieces and gave Rossio and Elliott the task of somehow weaving them all together into a (somewhat) coherent story. Depp himself "contributed" to the writing, and who's gonna say no to the superstar actor who "single-handedly" made the first movie a success? With so many cooks brewing this broth, it's a wonder the final product still turned out this good - and that's because each of these cooks are damn good filmmakers in their own right.

Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End (2007)
My rating:

I will swear up and down that the third Pirates of the Caribbean film was great, a return to form, and better than the second if still not at the level of the first. But I doubt many people will agree. It's the lowest-rated of the series on RottenTomatoes, and while Dead Man's Chest's reviews were ambivalent, this one's were positively scathing. But they were wrong. ('Cos only my opinion is right and true and 100% objective, it is.) Sure, the over-complicated plot continues here. Sure, Chow Yun-Fat was sadly underused. Sure, the off-screen disposal of the Kraken, one of the coolest parts of the last film, is proof positive that the filmmakers (it's no longer fair just to finger Rossio and Elliott for the storyline) wrote themselves into a corner. Sure, it probably goes on a little too long. But what every film critic missed is that this film's aim is to create a living, breathing mythology. And it is an utterly cool mythology.

These movies do not take place in the real world. Port Royal and Tortuga were real places, and the East India Trading Company a real thing, but that's as far as its nods to reality get. This is a world in which there's a goddess of the sea, and she was wooed and loved by the captain of the Flying Dutchman, the ship charged with ferrying the souls of those who died at sea to the afterlife. But a goddess does not love as a mortal does, and the captain, feeling betrayed, in turn betrayed her to a Brethren of pirates who bound her in human form so that they may possess mastery of the oceans. And thus the captain and her crew abandoned their Charonic duty, and grew monstrous in both form and spirit. The pirates meanwhile, composed of Pirate Lords and a Pirate King, traded those titles amongst each other via treachery and back-stabbing, for such is the nature of pirates; they detest authority, but they like titles. Until somehow, one Captain Jack Sparrow - who, when we first saw him, barely even has a ship to command - became a Pirate Lord, as did one Hector Barbossa - who, when we first saw him, was an undead walking skeleton.

And by the movie's end, a Pirate King has once again been appointed - and she is the wife of the Flying Dutchman's new captain, who has returned its crew to its sacred mission, and who tragically can only meet his beloved for one day every ten years. And the sea goddess is once again free, and what this portends for those who ply the oceans, no one knows - but somewhere in her dark clutches is the soul of the lover who betrayed her, bound to the cruelest punishments a goddess can devise. This. Is. All. Cool. How could anyone not think so? It's worldbuilding and mythmaking at its most captivating, the kind of setting that people would dream of either living and adventuring in, or of creating new stories in - perhaps achieving the former with the latter. This is a rare and precious accomplishment, maybe even unprecedented in film. And it does this while still working its butt off to entertain; Jack Sparrow's personal hell in Davy Jones' Locker, the boat-tipping scene, Keith Richards' cameo, the ship-to-ship duel in the maelstrom, the wedding-in-the-heat-of-battle. It's criminal how all of this went unappreciated. Criminal, I says.


So yeah, I really like this franchise, even the two sequels that no one else likes. The vast majority of opinions, professional and amateur, tend to entirely miss the point about what these movies are going for - especially those who think it's all about Jack Sparrow. I don't expect everyone to like them as much as I do, but lazy reviews are lazy. I'll be the first to admit they're not perfect either, and I certainly won't rush to defend their many flaws. Yet I do think, as I mentioned earlier, that the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise has made its mark on film history. Dead Man's Chest made over $1 billion worldwide and is the 4th highest-grossing movie of all time - but even that aside, I believe there'll come a time when the empty-headed snarks of "typical dumb summer CGI wankfest" will fade into obscurity and a critical re-evaluation will bring their accomplishments to light. And I'm already looking forward to the fourth installment, and getting my knives out for the critics who have already savaged it. I do appreciate Pirates of the Caribbean on a deeper level than them - and yes, that does make me a better person. So there.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Lu sudi, gua tak reti

My rating:

Saya benar-benar tak paham citarasa penonton filem Melayu. Filem yang best tak untung, manakala filem tak best jadi box-office hit. Tetapi satu arah aliran yang jelas ialah blog TMBF langsung tidak berpengaruh Shaheizy Sam sudah menjadi pelakon yang paling panas baru-baru ini. Kedua-dua filem dimana beliau memegang watak utama sudah memecah rekod, maka tak hairanlah bila yang ketiganya berjaya mencapai lebih RM1 juta pada hari pertama tayangan. Tapi ada sebuah teori yang mengatakan jumlah kutipan hari pertama bukanlah ukuran bagi kualiti filem tersebut, tetapi ukuran antisipasinya. Saya akur kepada teori ini, dan sebab itulah saya hairan dengan reaksi audiens dalam panggung semasa saya menontonnya. Diorang suka. Ketawa masa babak lawak. Cukup enjoice ngan citer ni, terutamanya bila Shaheizy keluar.

Inilah yang membuatku hairan, kerana filem ini menyedutkan mengesuckskan menyuckskan sucks.

Dunia kongsi gelap KL digegar apabila seorang pembunuh bernama Tumulak (Shaheizy Sam) mula menghapuskan orang kuat geng Melayu, Cina dan India satu demi satu. Ini menyebabkan ketua-ketua geng, iaitu Jimmy (Chew Kin Wah), Victor (S. Veerasingam) dan Maliki (Pak Piee), terasa gerun; manakala Mikail (Azad Jasmin), anak Maliki dan abang long gengnya, cuba memburu Tumulak sebelum dia diburu. Pihak polis pula, diketuai ASP Shariff (Fizo Omar) dan dibantu Inspektor Olla (Yana Samsudin) dan Inspektor Yati (Putri Mardiana), bertungkus lumus hendak mencari dan menangkap Tumulak. Sebenarnya Tumulak bertindak atas arahan Kempedu (Bront Palarae), seorang gangster dari Thailand yang mahu membunuh ketua-ketua kongsi gelap di KL kerana... kerana dia jahatlah. Oh, dan citer yang banyak bunuh-membunuh ni adalah komedi sebenarnya.

Ai kenot brain dis muvi. Ai rasa takde siapa yang boleh. Jalan ceritanya berserabut dan tak tentu hala; sekadar adegan berikut adegan yang tiada kena-mengena antara satu sama lain, lepas tu tamat. Tumulak ni, kononnya nak bunuh orang, tapi kangkadang bila dia dapat peluang nak bunuh, dia tak ambik. Polis ni, kononnya nak siasat, tapi tau buat roadblock je - roadblock yang tidak mendatangkan faedah, sampai dekat ending kira nasib je dapat tangkap orang yang dikehendaki. Mikail ni, kononnya watak penting, tapi subplot dia tak berhubung kait dengan apa-apa. Dan segala babak dengan ketua-ketua geng tu buang masa je. Hanya lawak berbentuk parodi filem triad Hong Kong macam Young and Dangerous dan Election, yang tak relevan kepada cerita - dan tak lawak pulak tu.

Menurut Tuan Pengarah En. Farid Kamil, mulanya skrip filem ini berbentuk cerita aksi yang serius, sehingga ia dikerjakan semula menjadi komedi. No wan der laaa. Filem ni macam tak tau nak serius ke nak kelakar. Tumulak ni tak tau samada dia watak villain yang mengerikan atau bahlol semata-mata. Nadanya tak konsisten langsung. Ada subplot tentang sejarah dan dendam antara Shariff dan Tumulak, kerana mereka pernah berkawan suatu ketika dulu. (Protip kepada Farid: kalau nak tunjuk flashback, tukarlah gaya rambut watak. Baru nampak peredaran masa.) Subplot ni macam datang dari filem yang berlainan sama sekali. Bukannya komedi dan aksi tak boleh bercampur, tapi campurannya mesti jitu. Ini, ibarat nakkan minuman yang masam manis seperti ice lemon tea, tapi dihidang Pepsi campur cuka.

Yang paling menyedihkan ialah, ada kesan yang menandakan bahawa skrip asalnya agak baik. Saya terkejut melihat satu dua adegan yang menunjukkan hormat kepada kepintaran penonton, dimana plot point disampaikan tanpa dijelas bulat-bulat. Satu ialah introduksi watak Inspektor Yati, dan satu lagi ialah babak dimana Tumulak mengekori isteri Shariff. Mungkin skrip itu boleh dijadikan filem action-thriller yang best, tapi Tuan Pengarah Farid telah menokok-tambah jenaka yang bodoh lagi membodohkan. Contohnya part dimana seorang pegawai polis menumbuk seorang ketua geng tanpa sebab. Kau tau tak, polis pukul saspek dalam tahanan itu salah? Mencabul hak asasi kemanusiaan. Kau nak tunjuk Polis DiRaja Malaysia kita ni korup ke? Kau ingat ini hanya adegan lawak ringan, tapi dis is not fanni bro.

Saya tahu, semua orang nak tengok filem ni semata-mata hanya kerana Shaheizy Sam. Tapi dia juga membawa masalah bagi filem ni. Persembahannya tak ubah macam pelakon diva, tapi ini bukan mengatakan tentang perwatakan peribadinya. (I'm sure he's a very nice person in real life.) Dia membawa watak Tumulak macam tak endahkan jalan cerita mahupun nada filem, asyik mengunyah hiasan latar (i.e. chew scenery) dan syok sendiri dengan telatahnya. Ini bukan salah Shaheizy tapi salah pengarah yang sepatutnya mengawal semua aspek perfileman. Saya suka filem ini memberi peluang kepada pelakon wanita beraksi - barulah female empowerment - tapi tak berapa guna kalau Olla dan Yati lawan Tumulak tapi kalah. Satu-satunya pelakon yang saya boleh puji ialah Azad Jasmin yang benar-benar faham bagaimana nak melakonkan filem bergenre aksi komedi. Dialognya juga agak lucu, dan saya tak hairan jika dia yang mengimprovasikannya.

Saya juga agak suka dengan beberapa lokasi menarik yang menunjukkan sudut-sudut kotaraya KL yang seedy dan serbah-serbih. Tapi nilai produksi dan mutu teknikal filem ini masih jauh dari kesempurnaan. Masih ada syot yang tak fokus, sama seperti filem arahan Farid yang dulu, dan Farid masih belum memperbaikinya. Seperti kesemua filem MIG, kualiti bunyinya memang fail. Aku tak tau nape diorang suka sangat ngan Brian Ng selaku sound engineer, dia ni konpem teruk. Adegan aksinya pula boleh kata okey, kecuali satu babak kejar kaki dimana Farid tetiba nak tiru filem Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon dengan aksi wayar yang sungguh ketara. Jujur kata, semua babak aksinya membosankan, kerana semuanya tidak berhubungkait dengan plotnya. Siapa kejar siapa, siapa lawan siapa, siapa menang siapa kalah, semuanya tidak bererti.

Tapi audiens masa saya tengok filem ni tak kisah semua tu. Diorang suka. Shaheizy bukak mulut je, sumorang berdekah-dekah. Ai kenot brain dis. Ini bukan filem yang baik, mahupun filem yang layak memecah panggung. Dan ini bukan filem yang menonjolkan bakat Shaheizy dengan sebaik-baiknya. Saya cuma terasa lega apabila banyak rebiu-rebiu lain yang juga mengkritik jalan ceritanya, dan pendapat mereka lebih kurang sama dengan saya. (Cuma saya rasa pengulas lain semuanya mengkritik terlalu lembut. Kasi hentam lagi kaw laa!) Tapi kalau filem ini betul-betul berjaya mencecah kutipan RM10 juta, saya betul-betul akan givap dengan penonton filem tempatan. Filem tahap ini sajalah yang korang berhak dapat.

NEXT REVIEW: Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides
Expectations: reviews haven't been good, but I appreciate the series on a deeper level than you

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Man, hwat a mess

My rating:

I had my approach to reviewing this movie all thought out. I was gonna say of course it's an adaptation of a Korean manhwa, what with its hodge-podge of sci-fi, fantasy and horror tropes. I was gonna rip into Hyung Min-Woo's obscure (well, to me) comic for being the most ridiculously clichéd manga imaginable, yet its sheer ridiculousness is most likely the reason why a dumb gaijin like director Scott Stewart thought it awesome enough to make a movie out of. And then I found out that the movie has almost nothing in common with its supposed source material, so now I have to leave Mr. Hyung's work out of my snark. It may be awesome for all I know.

But not the movie. The movie is just bad.

It is a world that has been ravaged by a millenia-old war between mankind and vampires. But after the Catholic Church developed the ultimate weapon against vampires - the warrior Priests - the war finally ended, with vampires confined to reservations and humans living in giant walled cities ruled by the clergy. And the Priests? Reduced to working menial jobs, their services no longer needed. Then one of them (Paul Bettany) receives word that the vampires are on the rampage again, and have kidnapped his niece Lucy (Lily Collins). He teams up with frontier sheriff Hicks (Cam Gigandet) and sets out to find her, in defiance of his Church superior (Christopher Plummer), who sends out another team of Priests - and one Priestess (Maggie Q) - after him. But soon they will all face the leader of a new vampire army (Karl Urban) - a former Priest himself, now turned into a new breed of vampire.

Gaah. Sense, this movie makes none. Why are the Priests, who we're told single-handedly won the vampire war, now shunned and reviled by the populace? Or even by the Church, who stupidly refuse to believe the vampire threat even exists anymore and would rather waste time and resources to prevent someone from proving it does? I was ready to call the big plot twist that the evil religious fundies are actually in cahoots with the vampires, but it didn't go there - but I'm not about to give it credit for avoiding that cliché either, since it makes these Church folks even dumber. They live in a world where vampires exist, yet they turn their cities into polluted dystopias that doesn't get sunlight? And what's with these "vampires"? They're pale, naked, eyeless, and seem more like super-zombies than the traditional bloodsuckers. They're supposedly able to infect humans and turn them into vampires, but... how?

The only one who looks and acts like an actual vampire is the black-hatted Big Bad, who later reveals that he's this new and improved "human vampire". That's when I facepalmed. Everything about this movie's premise, setting and plot seem completely arbitrary, like Stewart and his writer Cory Goodman are throwing in everything they think is cool with no regard for common sense; also, they have a particularly asinine idea of what constitutes cool. Its kitchen-sink storyline recalls Sucker Punch, only with a far less cohesive creative vision (yes, Sucker Punch had that); if you thought Zack Snyder's movie was pandering geek-porn, wait'll you get a load of Priest. Most damning is, they don't even have Hyung's manhwa to blame this on. They came up with all this stupidity themselves.

And yet Stewart is clearly trying to go for the Snyder-type comicbook-movie look, with his artfully-composed shots of combatants leaping through the air at each other in slow-motion. Which brings us to the action scenes, usually the saving grace for movies like this - but there ain't much grace it can save when the action scenes are dull and unimaginative, when they aren't being just plain silly. It attempts to earn its horror cred with some jump-scares, most of which are either telegraphed or were spoiled in the trailer. The only real thing I enjoyed watching were the occasional cool bits of production design - the Priests' jet-powered motorbikes, Hicks' double-barreled gun, the vampires' train. And yes, the production designers' ideas of what constitutes cool are a lot more cromulent.

In interviews, Paul Bettany gives the impression that he's buddies with Stewart and enjoys working with him. I certainly hope that's the case, because the alternative is that he makes crappy films like this because his career is in the dumps. In Legion - and my favourable review of that movie may be one of the hardest for me to live down - he effectively lent gravitas to the role of an immortal supernatural being, but the Priest is just a one-dimensional growling, grim-faced badass. (And what's with this annoying affectation of never giving names to any of the Priests anyway??) It's a role that anyone from Steven Seagal to Don "The Dragon" Wilson could've played to equal effect. Cam Gigandet is dull, Karl Urban desperately wants to be a gleefully over-the-top villain in a movie that would rather make him tortured and serious, and Maggie Q... I want to say she looks good, but unfortunately she spends the entire film fully covered.

May I stress that I have nothing against a good genre mash-up; I liked Sucker Punch, f'rinstance. But there's no point trying to make a post-apocalyptic vampire steampunk western featuring kungfu-fighting ecclesiastics if your blend of all these tropes makes no sense. I don't think making sense was high on Stewart's and Goodman's agenda. My impression of them is of two clueless white guys discovering manga and anime for the first time and thinking to transplant its most gratuitous clichés for a Western audience to whom they think this'd all be new and awesome. And I don't think they're familiar with Hyung's comic at all; I think it's just the cheapest property they could purchase and claim to be adapting in an attempt to sucker a few fanboys. I think this is an entirely artless, passionless hackjob, because man, it shows.

Expectations: suka Shaheizy Sam tapi kurang yakin dengan Farid Kamil

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Laugh it up, fanboys

My rating:

I loved Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz. I love movies that can pull off the tricky trifecta of mocking a genre, yet show boundless affection for it, and be a solid entry in that genre in its own right. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost - and their frequent collaborator, Edgar Wright - are acknowledged masters of this, and I'll watch anything they make. (Not so much the ones with just Pegg though.) Paul, their latest, was released 2 months ago in the States and 3 months ago in the UK, and has already earned a reputation of being good, but not at the level of their previous two films. Well, maybe if I watched all three back-to-back, I might agree.

But right now, I can't see it. It's massively entertaining, and the best laughs I've had at the movies in a long time.

Graeme Willy (Simon Pegg) and Clive Gollings (Nick Frost) are two British sci-fi fanboys who have come to America to visit San Diego Comic-Con first, and take an RV road trip tour through the Midwest's most famous UFO sites second. But while on the road, they encounter Paul (voice of Seth Rogen) - rude, uncouth, cigarette-smoking, weed-toking, and also an alien. Paul has just escaped from government custody, and needs Graeme's and Clive's help to make it to a place where his people can take him home. On the way, they also pick up Ruth Buggs (Kristen Wiig), a fundamentalist Christian whose worldview is changed shattered by Paul, but this only makes Ruth's domineering father (John Carroll Lynch) pursue them with a vengeance and a shotgun. Also hot on Paul's tail is the ruthless Agent Zoil (Jason Bateman) - supposedly-aided-but-more-often-hindered by two other bumbling operatives (Bill Hader and Joe Lo Truglio) - whose superior (Sigourney Weaver) doesn't much care if Paul returns dead or alive.

Malaysian audiences are shamefully ignorant. Oh no, it's not because the audience at my viewing didn't enjoy this movie; they did, uproariously. It's because this movie is dense with in-jokes and references to a dozen other classic sci-fi films, and almost every one sailed over their heads. Mac And Me. The song playing in the redneck bar. "Boring conversation anyway." And an absolutely delicious one aimed at Sigourney Weaver which it would be criminal of me to spoil. I was literally the only one laughing at these, but I'm pretty sure there were even more jokes that I missed. Just those ones I mentioned above were awesome enough.

Yes, as befits a movie about two sci-fi geeks made by two sci-fi geeks, Paul is chock-full of sci-fi geekery. And yet it remains accessible and entertaining for non-geeks, because as I said, even the audience I watched it with had a great time. The dialogue is hilariously vulgar, which is possibly still a new thing to Malaysian moviegoers. (If you're still not aware yet, rated 18 now means profanity is completely uncensored.) As writers, Pegg and Frost display a mastery of the running gag that should be the envy of comedy writers everywhere. As actors, they have no problems playing likable characters, and Frost's Clive even gets a little more dimension than the one-note clueless morons he played in Shaun and Fuzz. And just like those two films, this one takes care to tell a real story, not just a string of jokes.

It's probably not the tightest story though, being a road movie after all. Somewhere in its second half, they pick up yet another character, Tara Walton (Blythe Danner), and her subplot is perhaps not as well-developed as it deserves. But it is warm and touching, which is another thing about the movie that I liked. He may be voiced by Seth Rogen, and he may practically be a typical Seth Rogen character, but Paul is more than just another slacker/party animal/asshole/mainstay of many a modern American comedy. He develops a real warmth for his new human friends, has a conscience and a desire to make right his mistakes, and his loutish behaviour never becomes dickish or causes lazy plot complications. As much as you may dislike Rogen or Rogen-ish characters, Paul is always more than that.

That's probably because two Brits wrote it. In many ways, this movie is also an outsider's view of America, as seen by two foreigners and one literal alien. It takes potshots at drunken rednecks and Christian fundies, and I've read a fair bit of huffing about this from butthurt Americans. Suck it up, I'd say to them; Hollywood has done more than its fair share of insulting portrayals of other countries and cultures, it's time to taste some of it yourselves. Though it's amusing to think that Pegg and Frost are doing it in their most Americanised film to date - produced by an American studio (Relativity Media) and directed by an American (Gregg Mottola, who previously made Adventureland). In any case, I thought it was freakin' funny.

I thought the whole damn movie was freakin' funny, and that ought to be as good a recommendation as any. Y'know, thinking about it, perhaps it is the weakest Pegg-Frost movie thus far. I'm remembering how Shaun's and Fuzz's jokes were more sly and sophisticated, whereas this movie tends to cover the same comic ground in a more obvious manner. (Compare the gay jokes, f'rinstance. And yes, for the complainers, there were plenty of gay jokes in the other two movies too.) But like I said, I'd have to watch all three back-to-back to be sure. And I also think it'd be niggardly to pronounce this a lesser film when it is already so terrifically entertaining. Because it is. Even for folks who didn't catch the reference to the Kirk-Gorn fight.

Expectations: three 4-star summer movies so far - clearly it can't last

Sunday, May 15, 2011

The okay-est show on earth

Water for Elephants
My rating:

Yay for counter-programming! The summer movie season is here, with all its ass-kicking stuff-upblowing CGI-filled blockbusters - which makes it such a nice reprieve to watch a smaller, quieter, more human-scale film for a change. (It also helps me keep my film critic cred, for which no good is done by only reviewing movies made for 15-year-olds.) Water for Elephants is based on Sara Gruen's novel of the same name, and the trailer looked intriguing enough for me to make it my next break from typical summer popcorn fare.

Well, as a reprieve from summer blockbusters, it's nice enough. But it's nowhere near the best of its kind.

An elderly man named Jacob Jankowski (Hal Holbrook) arrives at a circus, but too late to catch the show. He starts reminiscing to a circus worker of when he was 23 years old (Robert Pattinson) in 1931, a Cornell student who loses everything when his parents are killed in a car accident. Homeless, penniless and despondent, he stows away on a train which turns out to be the travelling Benzini Bros. circus. There, he befriends Camel (Jim Norton) and Walter (Mark Povinelli) and gets a job as the circus veterinarian from owner and ringmaster August Rosenbluth (Christoph Waltz). He is also instantly smitten by the circus' star performer Marlena (Reese Witherspoon), who happens to be August's wife. When they bond over Rosie, an elephant that August purchased for the circus' menagerie, the attraction between them grows - and grows dangerous, due to August's insane jealousy and violent tendencies.

As I believe I have previously mentioned, I can be quite a sucker for a good romance. And this movie seems all set to be a grand, old-fashioned, soaring romantic melodrama. It certainly has all the potential for one; the Depression-era period, the fascinating little details of circus life, the abused-animal subplot carefully calculated to jerk a few tears, the romance that's all smoldering looks and absolutely no discussions about feelings. But it never quite lives up to it. It tries mightily to soar, but only ever manages a low flyby.

Part of it has to do with the cast. I like Robert Pattinson; he may be an easy target for snarkery for being the face of the Twilight franchise (an even easier target), but I don't think he's that bad an actor, certainly no worse (probably a damn sight better) than many others. (*coughPaulWalkercough*) But here, he just never quite brings Jacob Jankowski to life. Worst of all is that he and Reese Witherspoon simply don't have any chemistry, and that's crucial for this kind of classic-style love-at-practically-first-sight Hollywood romance. Witherspoon looks cute riding the elephant, but she's a lot more believable when she's trying to convince August that she loves him - and Marlena never really seems unhappy or uncomfortable around him.

She should be, of course, since August really is an absolute monster. Often charming, seemingly reasonable when he talks about the difficulties of keeping the circus afloat in the midst of the Depression, even sympathetic at times - but able to switch to violently abusive on a dime. And has no qualms about firing his workers by throwing them off a speeding train. He's a magnetic villain, and an actor of Christoph Waltz's caliber should've absolutely killed it. But I am of the opinion that he wasn't right for the role. There's always something goofy about Waltz's smile, which he parlayed magnificently in the goofy-yet-still-deadly Hans Landa in Inglourious Basterds. The generic villain roles that Hollywood has since put him in never use his talents right.

And there's also Francis Lawrence's directing, and Richard LaGravenese's screenplay. LaGravenese streamlines the plot of Gruen's novel well, but his dialogue is corny and on-the-nose in a lot of places - although I can forgive that as keeping with the old-fashioned vibe, almost as if it were made in 1931 as well as being set then. (Yes, I think that's definitely what this movie is going for.) What bugs me is how easy Jacob often had it; he has one too many strokes of contrivedly good luck. (Example: the train has left him behind, he's despondently following the tracks on foot, all seems lost - and then he finds the train again, because they stopped to clear a conveniently fallen tree off the track.) Lawrence is more known for Constantine and I Am Legend, so this is quite a departure for him, and he proves competent. But again, his direction never really soars to the heights it's aiming for.

"Merely competent" about sums up this movie. Talent of this caliber - Waltz, Witherspoon, LaGravenese, even Pattinson and Lawrence - means it's never bad, but never achieves greatness either. It exemplifies the saying "good is the enemy of great." But honestly, if you feel like watching a romantic melodrama on the big screen - or just feel like something other than a superhero comicbook adaptation or the latest instalment of an action-movie franchise - then I'd recommend Water for Elephants. And if you're an RPattz fangirl, you're gonna love it. If you like this kind of thing, then this is just the kind of thing you'll like.

Expectations: after Shaun of the Dead and Hot Fuzz, pretty high