Friday, March 30, 2012

Let the Games begin

The Hunger Games
My rating:

Sigh... I wished I'd gotten to reading the books before this movie came out. Suzanne Collins' The Hunger Games, and its sequels Catching Fire and Mockingjay, have been touted as the latest YA literary sensation after Harry Potter and Twilight, and after the latter, it couldn't have happened to a better title - if for no other reason than that its teenage heroine is a far more admirable character than Bella Friggin' Swan, and its anti-authoritarian and social justice themes are far more relevant than how important it is to have a really really hot boyfriend. But what it really takes to become a "YA literary sensation" is, of course, a Hollywood movie adaptation - and in this case, a wildly successful one, that scored the third best U.S. opening weekend box-office of all time. So of course I wanted to read the novels for the hipster cred so I could discuss the movie better in terms of how faithful it is as an adaptation.

I'll probably read 'em anyway. But I thought the movie was pretty good, if not quite great.

In a future America now known as Panem, ruled by a central Capitol and divided into twelve Districts, Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) is a teenage girl living in poverty-stricken District 12. As punishment for a failed rebellion 74 years earlier, each District is forced to offer Tributes of one male and one female, 12-18 years old, to compete in the Hunger Games - a gladiatorial deathmatch in which only one winner can emerge alive, nationally televised to the wealthy and callous Capitol denizens. Katniss volunteers to save her younger sister Primrose (Willow Shields) from the "Reaping", and she is taken to the Capitol along with fellow Tribute Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson). There she receives training from former Games champion Haymitch Abernathy (Woody Harrelson), grooming from stylist Cinna (Lenny Kravitz) - because survival in the Games may depend on her popularity with "sponsors" - and moral support from the ever upbeat Effie Trinket (Elizabeth Banks). But when it comes to the deadly reality of the Hunger Games, overseen - and often rigged - by the Gamemaker Seneca (Wes Bentley) and coldly observed by the tyrannical President of Panem himself, Coriolanus Snow (Donald Sutherland), she can only count on her strength, courage, survival knowledge, and skill with a bow.

The easiest thing to compare this movie to is Battle Royale, the 2000 Japanese film about a highschool class kidnapped and forced to fight to the death. On the one hand, the comparison is inapt, especially when it's made by weeaboos who whine that it's a ripoff of Battle Royale. (Seriously, it's not. It merely takes inspiration from the same cultural material, which is what all creative works do. Also, the tonality of both are entirely different; Battle Royale is practically horror, whereas The Hunger Games is more a rousing action-adventure.) On the other hand, the comparison can be useful in illuminating this movie. For all its strengths - and yes, Battle Royale is a great film, and admittedly better than this one - its premise has always been a little hard to swallow; what kind of society, no matter how dystopian, would inflict such a callously inhuman practice on itself? Makes more sense if its inflicted by one inhuman society on another, defeated and conquered one, as punishment.

Its depiction of such an inhuman society is one of The Hunger Games' strengths, in its first half. District 12 looks like Depression-era America right down to its inhabitants' clothes, a visual choice you can bet was deliberate. The people face their Reaping in sullen, defeated silence - and Katniss reacts to her frail little sister's selection with sheer horrified panic. All this jarringly contrasted with Effie Trinket's perverse perkiness, a contrast repeatedly underlined when Katniss and Peeta are treated to the vulgar opulence and luxury of the Capitol. Add to all this the ludicrously garish Capitol fashions, the callously inane TV interviews and commentary with host Caesar Flickerman (Stanley Tucci with shockingly white teeth), and the seemingly-patriarchal but monstrous President Snow, and you have a truly bleak dystopian regime that'll have you rooting for the one heroine who fights it.

Although in fact, Katniss doesn't so much fight it as play within its rules to survive. Another of its most interesting threads is that she has to fake a romance with Peeta - who has genuine romantic feelings for her - just to make them popular with viewers, as that will make sponsors send them care packages of crucial supplies during the Games. Early on, Peeta expresses a wish to remain true to himself even as the system grinds him down and possibly kills him, and it gradually becomes clear that personal integrity is exactly what Katniss has to sacrifice in order to stay alive. Not only is this an inversion of the typical YA-lit love triangle trope - she has a friend, Gale (Liam Hemsworth), back in District 12 who is also in love with her - it's also a unique and affecting moral dilemma for our heroine. As can be expected by anyone who saw her in Winter's Bone, Jennifer Lawrence is terrific; she never misses a beat in portraying Katniss' determination, defiance, terror, grief, and finally despair, when she realizes what the Games has cost her.

The movie is not without its flaws, however, and they're most likely due to its nature as an adaptation. Even without having read the novel, I could tell that there were character and expositional beats that were skipped - which had the effect of making it seem like Katniss has it a little too easy at times. I could buy Haymitch being a drunken sluggard who was won over by Katniss' moxie (and it was a nice touch when he essentially gave up on training Peeta in favour of the more likely winner), but Cinna was a little too wise, kindly and helpful to be part of the tyrannical Games establishment. (And it was real lucky for Katniss and Peeta that he seems to be the best stylist in the business, designing the "fire suits" that win them their first surge of popularity.) Its biggest shortcut is in Katniss' relationship with Rue (Amandla Stenberg), a 12-year-old Tribute from District 12 with whom she forms an alliance that scores a major victory in the competition. It's not at all clear why they would so easily trust each other, and this undercuts the effectiveness of what should be the movie's most heartbreaking scene.

I suspect all of this is elaborated on and explained in Collins' novel, which sticks to a tight 1st-person narrative of Katniss' thoughts. But as a cinematic adaptation, it delivers the goods, particularly when the Games begin and takes up almost the entire second half. Director Gary Ross' (and/or 2nd-unit director Steven Soderbergh - yes, that one) shaky-cam is initially annoying, but serves its purpose in generating terrific dread and suspense when the life-or-death struggles begin - although it still renders the action and fight sequences incomprehensible. It runs 22 minutes over 2 hours, but it doesn't feel long at all; the time is well-invested into worldbuilding and Katniss' emotions. And it passes the franchise-starter test of making me want to watch the next installment handily. I should probably remember to get on the books before Catching Fire comes out though. (Or maybe they're gonna call it The Hunger Games Saga: Catching Fire. You never know.)

NEXT REVIEW: Jangan Pandang-Pandang
Expectations: siiiiigh

Monday, March 26, 2012

Not worth seeing

My rating:

I know, I know, I've been greatly remiss on reviews recently, in particular reviews of local films. Which is why I wanted to catch this one, if only for its significance - despite the fact that The Hunger Games opened this week and I'm itching to watch it. Seefood is made by Silver Ant, a local animation studio that mostly does commercial and TV work, and this is its first full-length theatrical feature film produced in conjunction with Al-Jazeera Children's Channel. It's not Malaysia's first animated, or even CG-animated, movie by any means; I believe that'd be the Upin & Ipin movies, of which I think there are at least two. But since I missed those, I figure I'd better catch this one. Gotta check out what homegrown talent can do in the field of animation, hey?

And now that I have seen it, I can firmly tell you that you don't need to.

Pup (Diong Chae Lian) is a young bamboo shark living on a reef, and his best friend is a whitetip shark named Julius (Gavin Yap) who has a band of "assistants" - pilot fish Larry (Jason Daud Cottam), Moe (Andrew Susay) and Curly (who doesn't speak) - helping him stick to a no-fish diet. And there's also Mertle the turtle (Christina Orow), Octo the octopus (Kennie Dowle) and inventor, and Spin the stingray (Jay Sheldon) who resents Julius for trying to eat him. When two human boys from a nearby seaside village steal the eggs, Pup ventures onto land to try and save them - and promptly discovers that he can in fact breathe out of water. But when Julius and his retinue attempt to rescue Pup, they need Octo's invention - an exoskeletal suit for aquatic creatures. They'll encounter a band of none-too-friendly chickens, a restaurant owner who wants to serve Julius up as shark fin soup, and a somewhat friendlier coconut crab. But in the meantime, a nasty moray eel named Murray intends to lead an army of crabs in an invasion of the reef, riding a wave of sludge from the nearby industrial waste-spewing factory.

It will likely be argued, by fans and supporters of this movie, that comparing it with Pixar and DreamWorks productions - especially Finding Nemo - is unfair. To which I say: fair is for losers, sucka. Said argument might fly if this were North Korea or some other country with a trade embargo on foreign films. But this is Malaysia, where every CG-animated movie gets a wide release during school holidays (and where cinema distributors are canny enough to only release them during school holidays). You're targeting the same kids and parents and audiences who already watched The Adventures of Tintin, Cars 2 and Kung Fu Panda 2 last year, and it's not like you're charging a lower ticket price than those films did. There's no avoiding the fact that your movie will be held up to the same standards - and by those standards, Seefood sucks.

I knew the movie was in trouble by the opening scenes. There's no proper establishing of key story points: what exactly is Pup's and Julius' relationship, and why is Julius protective of the former? Why is Pup concerned about the batch of eggs? Why does Julius have an entourage of three sycophants following him around all the time? If Julius is on a "vegetarian" diet, then why is he offering up a bunch of other - live, and terrified - reef denizens to Pup as snacks? (And in lieu of fish, Julius has been eating tyres?) And then we're asked to swallow Pup being able to breathe on land - which is actually true, bamboo sharks have been known to survive up to 12 hours out of water, though I highly doubt they can run and jump and push trolleys while they're at it. It's just that the information isn't presented in a way that makes it halfway plausible.

There's a weird thing going on with Jeffrey Chiang's screenplay here. The movie contains long stretches without any dialogue, and it's like director Goh Aun Hoe cut out a lot of Chiang's lines because he thinks his "visual storytelling" can do the job better. This would seem like a wise decision, because Chiang's dialogue is terrible. There isn't a single funny, witty or clever line, just cliché after cliché; Chiang is literally writing at a kindergarten level of English literacy here. None of the characters are interesting or fleshed-out - in particular the one-dimensionally nasty human villains - and its attempts at an ocean conservation message are trite and perfunctory. Its one clever idea, the fish mech suit, shows up only a good halfway through the movie, and even then neither Chiang nor Goh do anything clever with it. Even for a CGI cartoon movie for kids, its lack of respect for its audience's intelligence is evident. Just look at the character names: Chiang names an octopus Octo. Bet it took him weeks to come up with that one.

I said it would seem like a wise decision, because frankly, Goh's visual storytelling skills are equally awful. I swear to God, he never wastes a single opportunity to ruin the comic timing of a visual gag. What passes for action scenes during its climax are also mind-numbingly lethargic. It's dull; the pace is interminable, making its 92-minute running time feel like 2-½ hours, and Chiang's screenplay probably takes up all of 50 pages. Also, the movements of the human characters are ugly and unnatural (the fish and chicken characters fare better, because anthropomorphic characters are at less risk of falling into the uncanny valley). It's embarrassing that this movie was made by one of Malaysia's top animation studios and this is the best they can come up with. Its only saving grace is the visual design of what looks like an idyllic Malaysian seaside village - but even this is undercut by the villagers speaking in perfect American accents.

There's no getting around it: Seefood is not funny, not thrilling, not heartwarming, not engaging, not imaginative, and just plain not good. And now that I have so brutally trashed it, you may be more sympathetic to the position that comparing it with Hollywood CG-animated films is unfair. To which I say, again, no. How is it unfair? The only really unfair advantage they have over Silver Ant is their multi-hundred-million-US-dollar budgets - which isn't something that Goh and his animators can't overcome, since Seefood looks perfectly decent from a technical standpoint. Where it fails is in character design, animation direction, storytelling, and basic imagination. If you're going to claim a mulligan for all these - if you think you deserve a pass because you're just not as good in these areas as Pixar or DreamWorks - then why the hell did you even make this movie??

NEXT REVIEW: The Hunger Games
Expectations: pretty excited, yo

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Tharks and Jeddaks and Zodangas, oh my!

John Carter
My rating:

There's been a fair bit of angsting over this movie on the geek websites I frequent (io9 and ToplessRobot mostly), regarding its marketing campaign and title. I don't really have an opinion on the former; the trailers looked okay to me, although I admit the posters - especially the one above - are somewhat dull. But the title. The title, man. It was originally John Carter of Mars, and now it's just some dude's name? Just because Mars Needs Moms bombed, Disney's marketing team thinks any movie with the word "Mars" in it is box-office poison; never mind that it's based on a series of pulp novels that have been a seminal influence on sci-fi and fantasy for 100 years? All that aside, I was hoping the movie itself would silence the naysayers; it's Andrew Stanton's first live-action film, he of Pixar's A Bug's Life, Finding Nemo and Wall-E fame. TMBF is, of course, a dyed-in-the-wool Pixar fanboy, and the last time one of their directors made a live-action movie, the results were spectacular.

Unfortunately, Stanton's turn at the bat results in much less than a home run.

In 1881, Edgar Rice Burroughs (Daryl Sabara) is informed of the death of his uncle John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), who has made him the sole heir of his estate. Reading through Carter's journal, Burroughs learns of a fantastic adventure that starts with Carter prospecting for gold in the Arizona Territories, discovering a mysterious cave, and being transported to an alien world that turns out to be Mars - or as its inhabitants call it, Barsoom. He falls in with a tribe of Tharks - giant, green-skinned, four-armed creatures led by Tars Tarkas (Willem Dafoe), and befriends a female named Sola (Samantha Morton). But his adventure truly begins when he meets Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins), a princess of the city of Helium that is at war with the rival city Zodanga and its warlord Sab Than (Dominic West). Because of Barsoom's lower gravity, he possesses superhuman strength and the ability to leap amazing heights, and Dejah pleads with the reluctant Carter to join her side in the war - a war that Helium is losing, due to Sab Than's use of a "Ninth Ray" weapon of immense destructive power. But Than is himself a mere pawn of the Therns, a group of immortal beings led by Matai Shang (Mark Strong) who has evil designs on Barsoom - and possibly Earth as well.

I'm going to coin the following rule of screenwriting, if it hasn't been coined already: if you're writing a movie about an ordinary person who is suddenly transported into an alien fantasy world, do not start your movie in that world. John Carter does, and it is an unwise decision. Right from the beginning, we are treated to Barsoom's fantastic vistas, the spectacular cities of Helium and Zodanga, and those gorgeous winged airships - but we also get a whole bunch of exposition about unfamiliar places and wars and people with weird-ass names, with no reason to care about any of it. And everything this scene tells us, we learn through the course of the plot later on anyway. It's an infuriatingly confusing way to start a movie, and it's a lot less than I expected from Stanton and his co-screenwriters Mark Andrews (another Pixar luminary) and Michael Chabon.

But after this prologue, things get much better as it settles down to actually telling its story. The first act unfolds in a pleasantly unhurried way as we are introduced to the framing story with Edgar Rice Burroughs (who in real life is, of course, the author of the John Carter novels, as well as creator of the much more cinematically famous Tarzan of the Apes), then Carter's adventures as a former Confederate cavalry officer with a tragic past, on to his instantaneous teleportation to Mars/Barsoom. And throughout his initial struggles with the lower gravity, and his first encounter with the Tharks, there's an effective and enjoyable sense of gradual discovery and wonder, that really befits the old-fashioned adventure vibe the film is going for. It also helps that there's a funny sight gag about Carter's constant attempts at escaping the U.S. army officer trying to recruit him, that feels like exactly what an animation director like Stanton would bring to a live-action film.

And then it cuts to a red-skinned chick in some alien princessy outfit spouting gibberish about "Jeddaks" and "Ninth Rays" and "the fate of our world" in this huge-ass exotic throne room that looks like rejected concept art from Thor. To the rule I coined earlier, there should also be the following corollary: if you're writing a movie about an ordinary person who is suddenly transported into an alien fantasy world, it is best to keep a tight 1st-person POV. Never leave your protagonist. Allow the audience to learn about the world and the story at the same time as he does. I've not read the novel, but I'm pretty sure Burroughs followed this rule, so why didn't the movie? It's not really that the plot is too convoluted, as many reviews have opined; it's that it's not structured well. This leads to an inconsistent pace throughout - sometimes it's nice and slow, sometimes it's slow and boring (e.g. an interminable scene with Carter and Dejah in a cave that's just another long exposition infodump), and sometimes it's head-spinningly fast and frenetic (e.g. the last act with all its action bits).

What I wished it would elaborate more on, instead of who's fighting who where and why with the whatchamacallits, are the character relationships. For instance, Sola is apparently Tars Tarkas' daughter, but he does not recognise her as such, and it's apparently a big deal when he does - why? Is there something going on here with Thark culture that you're not explaining? Even the central romance between Carter and Dejah feels underdeveloped, and it feels jarring when they suddenly get all lovey-dovey. There's also a whole bunch of other characters - and their goofy names - to keep track of, all of whom are just taking up space: Dejah's father Tardos Mors (Ciarán Hinds), some Helium general guy Kantos Kan (James Purefoy), this mean old Thark named Tal Hajus (Thomas Haden Church), some other mean female Thark named Sarkoja (Polly Walker), and you see what I mean about the goofy names?

Look, I don't mean to sound like some ignoramus; this being sci-fi/fantasy (more specifically, a hybrid of both known as "planetary romance" or "sword and planet"), of course there'll be alien-sounding names and fantastic stuff to wrap one's head around. And I'm a fan of both genres. It's just that the way it's all presented here makes it confusing and alienating (pun!), most likely more so for anyone who didn't grow up on a steady diet of sci-fi and fantasy films and literature. Still, there's a lot to like here if you're not the kind of viewer who totally doesn't get sci-fi and fantasy. The visual design of Barsoom is pretty gorgeous - the landscape, the costumes, those airships, and the beautifully ruined cities that bespeak a world that was once much more alive than it is now. And as I said earlier, when it does get its old-fashioned adventure vibe right, it's a lot of fun. Taylor Kitsch plays it a little too straight, but he has just the right screen presence of a cinematic pulp hero. And Lynn Collins lends gravitas to her Martian princess role as well as sexiness where it's needed. You'll have no problems rooting for these two.

This marks the third attempt at starting a sci-fi/fantasy franchise that aims for a deliberately old-fashioned feel, after Prince of Persia and Cowboys and Aliens - and like those two, this one earns the same rating from me. (Although I think I may have slightly overrated Cowboys and Aliens.) And like those two, this one sadly won't succeed; it didn't even beat The Lorax on its opening weekend box-office. Perhaps it was too much to expect Stanton to match Brad Bird at bringing a mastery of animated film to the realm of live-action - or maybe an epic sci-fi adventure is a much larger bite to chew than a purely fun modern-day spy action flick. Still, I would've liked to see John Carter get another shot at the big screen, even with Stanton returning to the helm; I think he can only improve from here. And since he's still a member in good standing of Pixar's brain trust, I don't think this movie's failure will hurt him much. But it would've been really really nice if we'd gotten another Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol.

Expectations: few - but curiosity, plenty

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

A village called murder

My rating:

To be honest, I've always been skeptical about local films that supposedly "make it big" at film festivals in foreign shores. As the excellent Bill Martell puts it, film festivals are mostly scams, aimed primarily at making money for their organisers; showcasing cinematic excellence from around the world is only a secondary objective. So while I'm certainly happy for James Lee, Ho Yuhang, Woo Ming Jin and other homegrown indie filmmakers who got to exhibit their works overseas and earn the accolades (or even just attention) that they'd never get from local audiences, whatever they achieved there seems fleeting and small; who still remembers their films, years after? Which is why Bunohan looks like it might finally make a real impact - if only because it was selected for the Toronto International Film Festival. Now that's a persada dunia with real prestige, second only to the Cannes Film Festival. And with reviews in Variety and Hollywood Reporter fueling the good ol' Malaysia Boleh! spirit, no surprise it's become the most highly-anticipated local film in a long while.

And damn, it certainly lives up to it. But damn - this is the kind of film in which saying "it's good" doesn't begin to describe it.

Ilham (Faizal Hussein), Bakar (Pekin Ibrahim) and Adil (Zahiril Adzim) are three estranged half-brothers, sons of the old wayang kulit puppetmaster Pok Eng (Wan Hanafi Su). Ilham is a hitman for a Thai crime syndicate, charged by his keeper Deng (Bront Palarae) with finding a tomoi kickboxer who fled his fight and doesn't necessarily have to bring him back alive. Adil is that kickboxer, reluctantly rescued by his friend Muski (Amerul Affendi) and brought back to his old mentor Pok Wah (Namron). Bakar is scheming to obtain his father's ancestral lands in order to sell it to developers, and has his henchman Jolok (Hushairy Hussein) bribing and threatening anyone who stands in his way. The fractured family converge on their home village of Bunohan, Kelantan, where the spectre of Ilham's mother Mek Yah (Tengku Azura) still haunts the swamps and beaches. Their tale will be one of corruption, betrayal, despair, violence - and yes, murder.

Oh wow. Where do I start with this one? I actually watched this weeks ago, during its gala premiere. And then I waited a week till it opened in cinemas so I could watch it again. Because I just didn't get it. But I did already know, after my first viewing, that I'd just seen something amazing. Bunohan has elements of family drama, crime thriller, fight flick, gothic noir and tragedy, and it weaves all these threads in a highly assured and terrifically compelling manner. But there's also a deeper layer of magical realism, dream-like mysticism and supernatural surreality, and these are the parts that left me scratching my head. In a good way. (I'm just glad I wasn't fooled by the trailers into thinking it would be a kickboxing action movie. Even with its kickboxing scenes and its dizzying mix of genres, this is the one it's furthest from.)

Let me talk about the parts that I did understand first, the mundane layers. ("Mundane" not meaning "boring.") The fractured family of father and three sons recalls King Lear, if there were two Cordelias and only one of Goneril and Regan. Bakar is the unequivocal villain of the story, smoothly doling out wads of cash to those he wants indebted to him, and just as smoothly following up on his threats to those who fail to do what he says. One of his victims is Awang Sonar (Soffi Jikan, in an uncharacteristically subdued role), owner of a tomoi club that Bakar wants to take over, who also runs a fish farm; Bakar's use of poison on Awang's fish is symbolically apt. It's galling how Jolok goes around the village selling his reputation as "banyak tolong orang" - and in addition, the smarmy, slimy Jolok is one of the most hateable characters I've ever seen in a local film. In a cast with not a single disappointing performance, Hushairy Hussein is the standout for me.

And of the two Cordelias, one is an assassin sent to kill the other. Here's a guy who wields a wickedly curved kerambit and kills brutally, shockingly and in an utterly matter-of-fact manner; taking human lives is just something he does and does well. But once Ilham arrives in Bunohan and hides out with his old friend Jing (Jimmy Lor), he becomes more interested in the fact that Jolok's goons have been digging up old graves from his family's lands and haphazardly burying them elsewhere, including his own mother's. Which incurs his murderous wrath, but also distracts him from his mission - and you know it ain't good news when Deng shows up to find out what's taking him so long to do his job. (More so given the fact that Deng and Ilham are close friends.) Compared to his brothers, Adil is the least complicated, but also the easiest to root for. He is the one son with whom Pok Eng wishes to reconcile, being his father's intended heir of their ancestral land on which a greater conflict between man and nature is taking place.

And it is this subplot in which most of the mystical elements appear - including talking birds, a half-woman-half-crocodile, and a little boy who occasionally speaks in Pok Eng's voice and may be either a figment of his imagination (yet Bakar can see him too!) or a supernatural creature. Yes, they sound silly, but Dain succeeds at creating a delicate, half-surreal tone in which they become significant - that the earthly struggles of the villagers are but one aspect of the clash between materialism and mysticism, greed and spirituality, the old and the new. Yet the dunia halus of the swamps and beaches isn't exactly sunshine and rainbows either, if its effects on Ilham and Adil - both touched by the otherworldly, both men of violence, both lost and tortured souls - demonstrate. It may be threatened, and dying, and plaintively pleading for its own survival, but it's also wholly alien and dangerous in its own way.

The more I write about this film (and yes, I know how long it's taken me to finish this review), the more I realize it isn't meant to be fully understood. Who was that little boy? What's with those talking birds? Whose were the sounds of lovemaking that Ilham heard when he snuck under his father's house to retrieve mementoes of his mother - or was that his father's house? Did Mek Yah really transform into a crocodile? And what was the significance of Ilham's dream, which involved slaughtered crocodiles and his mother standing in front of Egyptian pyramids? You're welcome to debate these questions and think of your own interpretations - but if you were puzzled and infuriated by them, you're meant to be. You're also meant to be immersed completely in its twisty storyline, clever dialogue, flawless acting, breathtaking cinematography, and fascinating world of a rural Kelantanese village that is probably as unfamiliar to the average KL-dweller as is the supernatural world it borders.

So yes, Bunohan deserves my highest rating to date for a local film. I have never seen one that's as ambitious, and that succeeds so well at its ambitions; even Songlap, for all that it's a terrific crime drama in its own right, doesn't match this one in its aims. And if Songlap flopped at the local box-office, I can only shudder to imagine how well this one will do. But in a film industry that struggles to even be competent at such lowbrow fare as broad comedies, cheap horror movies and trashy action flicks, Bunohan hits stellar heights. It is so far above the typical Ahmad Idham/Razak Mohaideen/Syamsul Yusof fare that their usual audiences are likely simply unable to even comprehend its startling and singularly unique vision. (I doubt even those three fellas can.) For the rest of us though - we should count ourselves lucky to have it.

NEXT REVIEW: John Carter
Expectations: of Andrew Stanton, pretty high

Saturday, March 3, 2012

A ride that goes nowhere

Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance
My rating:

So right after watching this, I went out and got the original 2007 Ghost Rider movie on DVD and popped it into my player. Yes, I hadn't watched it before, mainly because I'd read the reviews and didn't think I'd be missing much. I was right; it was cheesy in all the wrong ways, and whatever Mark Steven Johnson did to get another chance to write and direct a Marvel comicbook adaptation after he botched Daredevil, I highly doubt it'll work again after this one. Anyway, you might be forgiven for thinking that the sequel might be really good, if it made me go watch the first one immediately after.

But you'd be wrong. It's because Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance is so dull, I needed something else to talk about just to fill out this review.

Johnny Blaze (Nicolas Cage), the current earthly host of the Ghost Rider, is hiding out in Eastern Europe in an attempt to escape the curse that transforms him into a motorcycle-riding, flaming-skull-headed demon that collects the souls of the wicked for the Devil. Then a monk named Moreau (Idris Elba), member of an ancient order, charges him to find and help a 12-year-old boy named Danny (Fergus Riordan). He and his mother Nadya (Violante Placido) are fleeing a group of mercenaries led by Carrigan (Johnny Whitworth) who are working for Roarke (Ciarán Hinds) - the Devil himself in human form. Danny is in fact the Devil's son, born out of a deal Nadya made with Roarke - the same kind of deal that turned Johnny into the Ghost Rider. In return, Moreau promises Johnny the means with which to lift his demonic curse.

A distinction needs to be made between the movies released under the Marvel Cinematic Universe - which comprises the Hulk, Iron Man, Thor and Captain America characters, who will all be united under this year's The Avengers - and those based on properties not including the aforementioned. See, before Marvel Studios became a bona fide movie studio that made its own movies, it optioned out several of their most famous comicbook characters to other studios. So 20th Century Fox still owns X-Men and Fantastic Four, Lionsgate still owns Punisher, New Line Cinema still owns Blade, and Columbia Pictures still owns Spider-Man and Ghost Rider, and they aren't about to let those lucrative movie rights revert back to Marvel anytime soon. Thing is, while Marvel Studios have consistently proven to be really really good at making comicbook superhero movies, so much so that The Avengers is looking like it'll be pretty damn awesome - the same can't be said of those other guys.

This is a sequel to 2007's Ghost Rider in name only, since pretty much everyone both in front and behind the scenes has been replaced bar Nicolas Cage. No Eva Mendes, no returning characters other than the titular. Continuity-wise it's a little iffy; its flashbacks to the Ghost Rider's origin feature Johnny making a deal with Ciarán Hinds instead of Peter Fonda, and instead of "owning" the curse like he declared he would at the end of the last one, here he wants nothing more than to get rid of it. So, sequel cum reboot then; probably to be expected when Johnson has been replaced by the directorial team of Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor, who are known primarily for the two Crank movies starring Jason Statham. Haven't seen them, but the one movie of theirs I did see is one of the worst Hollywood films I have ever reviewed here. My impression of them has not improved with this one.

About the only welcome thing they bring to the franchise is a somewhat morbidly over-the-top humour, as exemplified by that bit in the trailer in which the Ghost Rider literally pisses flame. But the few other instances of such humour are few and far between; more time is spent on giving Cage plenty of chances to do his patented insane freakout brand of acting, which is only fun when viewed on YouTube, not so much in a movie I paid to watch. Nothing else in this movie works - not the action scenes, as exemplified by an early bit in which the Rider does an interminably long Penance Stare on some goon while the rest of his buddies just stand around gawking. Not the characters or their relationships, as exemplified by a lame attempt at some surrogate-father-son bonding between Johnny and Danny. Not the plot, as exemplified by the means with which Moreau lifts Johnny's curse: he walks into a cave, the camera goes all jittery for a minute or two, and voila no more Ghost Rider.

And certainly not the character of the Ghost Rider himself, which is the primary failing of both this movie and the previous one. He just doesn't have any personality; nothing that marks him as a character with 40 years worth of published comicbook stories. Cage's manic-depressive acting certainly doesn't provide any. (There's a hint of something interesting here, in that the Ghost Rider may be as much a danger to innocents as to bad guys - because he seeks out and punishes sinners, which basically means everyone to a certain extent. But this is left frustratingly unexplored.) In fact, Johnny Whitworth's Carrigan is more fun and gets most of the funny lines, but that's about it in terms of acting and characters. Idris Elba is wasted, and Hinds' brand of scenery-chewing is laughable. I'm just thankful that Violante Placido is here to provide eye candy.

So spare some sympathy for Ghost Rider fans; even after two movies, they still couldn't get him right. Perhaps they'll be mollified a bit by the fact that in this movie, he looks better - his skull is blackened and burnt and his jacket has a charred and greasy texture, a definite improvement on the previous film's cartoony CGI look. But in the most important ways, this is yet another failed big screen adaptation of the comicbook. The first one was cheesy in the thinks-it's-awesome-but-isn't kind of way; it went through the motions of a superhero movie in a boringly perfunctory manner. This one is... well, it's also cheesy, but... frankly, there just isn't much to say about it. It's just boring.

Expectations: trying to keep them low