Monday, April 30, 2012

Say TMBF, did you go to the Bersih 3.0 rally?

Of course I did.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

A cartoon turned live-action, but still pretty flat

Mirror Mirror
My rating:

Due to my inexcusably long delay in writing my last review, I almost skipped this one; nowadays it seems like all I ever do is scramble to catch up with the newest releases. But seeing as there's another Snow White movie opening later this summer, I suppose it behooves me to catch the first of 2012's two competing modern takes on the classic fairytale, so I can compare them. (Hollywood parallel development always seems to happen in twos, e.g. two volcano movies, two big-space-rock disaster movies, two animated insect movies, etc.) Also because I'd missed out on Tarsem Singh's previous movie from earlier this year, The Immortals - and only because, again, I take so damn long to write these reviews. It was pretty damn tempting to just forego Mirror Mirror and pick Battleship, however.

But it would've been nice if the movie gave me a better reward for my choice.

Snow White (Lily Collins), the princess of her kingdom, lives with her stepmother the Queen (Julia Roberts), a cruel, petty and vain tyrant who has ruled the land since Snow White's father the King disappeared years ago. On Snow White's 18th birthday, she ventures for the first time in years outside the palace walls, and witnesses the suffering of her people - but this transgression turns the Queen's barely-tolerated irritation with her into outright enmity. The Queen orders her manservant Brighton (Nathan Lane) to take her into the forest and kill her, but she is found by a group of seven dwarf bandits - Grimm (Danny Woodburn), Butcher (Martin Klebba), Wolf (Sebastian Saraceno), Napoleon (Jordan Prentice), Half Pint (Mark Povinelli), Grub (Joe Gnoffo) and Chuckles (Ronald Lee Clark). Meanwhile, the visiting Prince Alcott (Armie Hammer) from a neighbouring kingdom has already met and fallen for Snow White - and has also met the bandits, under much less genial circumstances - but the Queen has her sights set on marrying him as the solution to her financial problems.

The only Tarsem film I've seen to date is The Cell, of which I remember little other than some spectacularly fantastical visual imagery that also has a pretty big streak of macabre. Mirror Mirror is also very pretty to look at, but Tarsem has also made a much more light-hearted and kid-friendly movie this time round. In fact, the shortest and sweetest description of it would be that it's a live-action cartoon - specifically, a DreamWorks-ish animated film in the vein of the Shrek series. The broad comic sensibility is there, as is the willful disregard of realism (this kingdom apparently consists of a palace and one village) and the snarky modern sensibility to a classic fairy tale. But frankly, to compare it to a DreamWorks production is both damning it with faint praise as well as overrating it.

Let's get into the specifics. The movie is almost entirely driven by its performances (certainly not by its plot, which is kinda messy), and there are two standouts. Julia Roberts always struck me as a curious choice to play fairy tale villain; the closest she came was arguably Charlie Wilson's War, which I enjoyed, but thought Roberts was terrible in it. She fares somewhat better here, in that she's clearly having fun in the role, a prerequisite for any actor playing a broadly comic scenery-chewing villain. Still, chewing scenery has never been her forte (and if I were to be honest in what I think of her, I'd say acting isn't her forte). I'd say pretty much any other female actor of her generation could've had just as much fun playing it and done a better job to boot. (When I said "standout", I didn't necessarily mean they were good; just that they made the biggest impression in the movie.)

The other is Armie Hammer, playing Prince Charming Alcott. There are hints of a role-reversal here, with Snow White coming to his rescue a couple of times and him being somewhat beleaguered throughout the movie (the bandits get the jump on him twice, leading to him showing up at the Queen's palace sans shirt - twice), but it never really commits to a girl-power interpretation of the tale; it doesn't help that in their one swordfight scene together, Alcott toys with the clearly ineffectual Snow White like a big bully. And then there's the part where he succumbs to a Love Puppy potion, which has him panting and licking other people and boo-hoo-hooing when he's away from his "master" like a literal puppy. What marks these two standout performances is that both performers really commit to them; Hammer certainly does in his puppy scenes. He's clearly enjoying himself, but turning him into a laughingstock is a curious - and dubious - choice.

And then there's Lily Collins, who was apparently chosen just because she looks the part. Snow White is dull, both due to Collins' performance as well as the writing. She has zero chemistry with Hammer, and their romance never stirs the heart. The seven dwarfs are fun to watch, but they're still a collection of caricatures rather than characters in their own right. There's also a late-third-act cameo by Sean Bean, and it'd be a spoiler to reveal who he plays (although it's also pretty predictable) - but the man looks positively embarrassed, tasked with injecting some gravitas into a movie that just spent 90 minutes having none. After all, this is a movie in which Nathan Lane is turned into a cockroach, then laments the fact that he had his modesty outraged by a grasshopper.

Okay, yes, it's entertaining. Yes, it's charming. Yes, its good-naturedly frothy fun is hard to resist. But it's all quite shallow; it's only funny enough to raise a chuckle but not hearty laughs, and only sweet enough to raise a genial smile but not genuine emotions. I couldn't shake the feeling that if this had been an animated film, it would've been better. It would've had more gags, prettier visuals, even better acting; it always seems as if it's being held back by the limitations of live-action productions. But even if it were animated, it would only prove that Shrek (at least the first one) did it better, and also had enough imagination to take on more than just one fairy tale. And even the Shrek series has been overshadowed recently by Disney, the grand master of modern animated fairy tale adaptations - with an assist from the Pixar brain trust. That's what I meant by damning with faint praise; it's reminiscent of DreamWorks, but not Pixar.

NEXT REVIEW: The Flowers of War
Expectations: White Hero saves Poor Pitiful Asians!

Friday, April 13, 2012

Ray Harryhausen would be disappointed (perhaps, even wrathful?)

Wrath of the Titans
My rating:

I do believe this is a rarity; a sequel to a remake of an older film that never had a sequel. Which is somewhat trickier to pull off than rebooting an older series of movies, e.g. horror franchise reboots such as 2003's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre or the Hollywood version of The Grudge. Of course, every major studio release these days hopes to be a franchise-starter, including remakes, but the only successful one in recent memory is Steven Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven. (Is anyone still waiting for a sequel to the 2003 version of The Italian Job that's supposed to be titled The Brazilian Job?) So Wrath of the Titans joins that rarefied company, and in so doing presents an intriguing prospect - it's as if it were a sequel to the original 1981 Clash of the Titans, as well as its own 2010 predecessor.

Too bad it's not one that could do justice to either.

Ten years after defeating the Kraken, Perseus (Sam Worthington) is now a simple fisherman and widowed father to his son Helius (John Bell). The Greek gods, ruled by his father Zeus (Liam Neeson), have grown weaker due to fewer mortals worshiping them - and this in turn has weakened the walls of Tartarus, the underground prison where the Titan Kronos has been held for centuries. When Zeus' brother Hades (Ralph Fiennes), god of the underworld, and his son Ares (Édgar Ramírez), god of war, betray him to drain his power and free Kronos, Perseus is compelled to undertake the quest to save his father and prevent Kronos from destroying the world. He is aided by Andromeda (Rosamund Pike) the princess-turned-queen whom he once rescued, as well as Agenor (Toby Kebbell), another half-god-half-mortal son of Poseidon (Danny Huston). And he must seek the help of the "Fallen One" - Hephaestus (Bill Nighy), a former god himself and the divine craftsman who forged the weapons of the gods.

My 3-½ star review of Clash of the Titans 2010 is probably not one of my more popular opinions; the movie scored 29% on RottenTomatoes, and even the usual gang of idiots on were disappointed. I know I liked it because I wrote so, and what I wrote was that it satisfied my sword-and-sorcery jones like no other movie in recent years. But two years later, I find that I can barely remember a thing about it. (Which should be just about right for a 3-½ star rating, i.e. good but not particularly memorably so.) Wrath of the Titans is disappointing enough that it reflects badly on its predecessor. Now I know there's a completely new director and team of screenwriters behind it, and if Louis Leterrier had come back for the sequel, we might've gotten a better movie. Still, after coming out of this one, I can't help thinking I had overrated the previous one.

I am unfamiliar with the works of screenwriters Dan Mazeau and David Leslie Johnson, but the screenplay that's credited to them here features some of the most howlingly on-the-nose dialogue I'll probably hear all year. F'rinstance, Zeus, Hades and Ares pay a visit to Tartarus, the prison for Titans that they built to house Kronos, and when they arrive one of them says something like, "Tartarus, the great prison where the Titan Kronos is imprisoned." Wow, wasn't that helpful? I say this on a blog, short for "web log", which is published on the internet, the great information superhighway that everyone can access. The movie is full of dialogue like this, and it's never not funny each time. And by "funny" I mean embarrassingly bad.

In my review of Clash, I said I liked it because it was fun. I believe the lack of fun is the main flaw of this one; there's an all-too-sombre tone throughout that's just impossible to take seriously given the terrible dialogue. But frankly, it's not just the dialogue. Jonathan Liebesman's direction is terrible. Nothing that's not an action scene works in this movie - not the characters, not the plot, not the human emotions, not the pacing, and not even the acting. Sam Worthington is no better than before, Liam Neeson and Ralph Fiennes look honestly embarrassed to be here, Toby Kebbell continues his streak of forgettable supporting roles in mediocre fantasy movies, Édgar Ramírez is downright terrible, and even Rosamund Pike - one of the hotter recent Bond girls - is bad in exactly the way a committed actor working under poor direction is bad. There are attempts at a subtext of family drama, what with Zeus and Hades being brothers, Kronos being their father, Ares and Perseus being half-brothers, and the former being jealous of the latter while betraying their father, all of which come across as muddled and laughably convoluted. Almost everything in this movie simply does not work.

The sole exception being the special effects, which earns it its half-star. It won't spoil anything to say that Kronos, when freed, turns out to be a thousand-foot-tall giant lava monster (because that's him in the poster, after all), and he's a pretty damn good-looking thousand-foot-tall giant lava monster. The climactic battle against him is the movie's biggest saving grace; he looks gloriously, spectacularly real, insomuch as a thousand-foot-tall giant lava monster can look "real". Oh, and the underground labyrinth leading to Tartarus, a maze of constantly-shifting giant stone block and walls that our heroes have to traverse, is also a neat bit of production design. On the whole, the SFX team are the only guys on the crew that earn their paychecks; the various CGI creatures look great. It's a pity that, with the exception of the thousand-foot-ta Kronos scene, every other monster fight is lackluster and unthrilling - and yes, unfun.

But what's perhaps most galling is that the original 1981 Clash was a labour of love for Ray Harryhausen, the special-effects pioneer who invented the stop-motion process. It was the last film he worked on, and each of the creatures in that film - from Calibos to the Kraken - bore the mark of a man who truly loved weird critters, designing them and bringing them to life onscreen. And now, this sequel to its remake treats them as obligatory CGI effects with none of the personality and charm of Harryhausen's creations; even if Wrath's visual effects team channeled some of Harryhausen's passion into their work, Liebesman's asinine direction undoes all of it. James Berardinelli had it right; this is what Lord of the Rings would look like if it were directed by Michael Bay. Which probably makes my 2-½-star rating consistent with what I think of Bay, but to be honest, I'm already wondering if I'm giving it too much credit.

NEXT REVIEW: Mirror Mirror
Expectations: round one in the Battle of the Snow Whites

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Zizan Razak Buat Perangai Bodoh: The Movie

Jangan Pandang-Pandang
My rating:

Kembali semula TMBF mengulas filem Melayu tempatan! Dah lama saya tak menonton filem Melayu arus perdana, tidak termasuk Bunohan yang boleh dikatakan filem arthouse tahap antarabangsa, dan juga Cinta Kura-Kura dimana saya diundang ke tayangan perdananya. Sebenarnya saya cukup berasa serba salah, kerana adalah menjadi mission statement TMBF untuk mengulas semua filem tempatan yang ditayang di panggung. Melihat trafik blog ini yang pasti meningkat setiap kali saya terbitkan ulasan filem Melayu, jelas inilah catatan yang paling popular dikalangan pembaca. Ampun maaf diminta kerana banyak filem tempatan yang tak sempat saya tonton.

Jadi diharap anda puas hati dengan ulasan filem Jangan Pandang-Pandang ini. Sebab saya pula langsung tak puas hati ketika menontonnya.

Lima pelajar kolej, iaitu Ajis (Zizan Razak), Yaya (Sara Ali), Ben (Nas-T), Diana (Anith Aqilah) dan Marsha (Miera Liyana), diberi tugasan oleh pensyarah mereka (Jaafar Onn) untuk mengembara ke Gua Bewah dan mencari artifak-artifak bersejarah yang masih ada di situ. Ajis dan Yaya dulu berpasangan, tetapi telah putus hubungan kerana Ajis bodoh nak mampus main kayu tiga; manakala Ben pula jatuh hati dengan Marsha yang penuh misteri. Marsha diterima masuk kedalam kumpulan mereka kerana dia mempunyai sebuah peta lama tinggalan moyangnya yang menunjukkan jalan rahsia kedalam gua tersebut. Lima sekawan itu menyewa bot dari Abang Bob (Azhar Sulaiman) untuk merentasi tasik menuju ke gua itu, tapi gua dan hutan disekelilingnya rupanya berhantu - dan kelima-lima mereka pula rupanya langsung tidak berotak.

Apa kejadah dengan filem-filem arahan Ahmad Idham yang bertajuk Jangan Pandang ni? Yang pertama ialah Jangan Pandang Belakang dari tahun 2007, yang setahu saya ia filem seram yang serius. Diikuti pula dengan Jangan Pandang Belakang Congkak pada tahun 2009 serta sekuelnya setahun kemudian, kedua-dua merupakan filem seram komedi. Sekarang keluar pula Jangan Pandang-Pandang yang juga seram tapi lawak. Keempat-empatnya tiada kaitan antara satu sama lain, malah plot filem ini pun tiada kaitan dengan tajuknya. Satu-satunya faktor sepunya ialah kesemua diarah oleh Ahmad Idham. Apakah Ahmad Idham percaya dua patah perkataan itu ada tuah baginya, dan adakah ini kepercayaan syirik?

Kalau filem ini bertuah di pasaran pun bukan bermaksud ia filem yang baik. Ia sebuah lagi kenderaan bintang (star vehicle) bagi Zizan Razak, yang juga membawa kejayaan yang tidak wajar kepada filem Hantu Bonceng tahun lepas. Wataknya kali ini jauh lebih bangang dan menjengkelkan; si Ajis ni adalah moron paling agung dalam barisan watak yang tak kurang ke-moron-annya. Dahlah dungu, bongkak pulak tu, asyik memegahkan dirinya sebagai ketua kumpulan, dan setiap keputusan yang dibuatnya hanya menggagalkan tugasan mereka dan menyesatkan lagi kumpulan itu dalam hutan belantara. Yang paling sukar dipercayai ialah, cerita ini menampilkan watak Ajis sebagai hero.

Jadi yang paling dungu disini ialah, tak lain dan tak bukan Tuan Pengarah Ahmad Idham - oh ya, juga termasuk Tuan Penulis Skrip Meor Shariman (yang buat saya malu kerana memuji hasil kerjanya dalam filem Senjakala). Segala perbuatan watak-watak tidak masuk akal, sebab jalan ceritanya pun tak masuk akal; di pertengahan jalan, kumpulan pelajar ini terus givap nak menyiapkan tugasan mereka tanpa sebab yang munasabah. Kemudian semasa sesat di hutan, datanglah babak demi babak bertembung hantu yang tiada sebab atau makna. Entah mengapa, perasaan marah Yaya terhadap boiprennya yang curang mula reda, walaupun Ajis tak pernah kesal atau taubat kecurangannya. Yang paling membengangkan ialah plot twist di saat-saat akhir, yang sebenarnya dicanggah oleh adegan awal. Rupanya Ahmad Idham atau Meor Shariman sendiri lupa apa yang sudah ditulis/difilemkan.

Namun saya rasa mereka memang tak endah semua itu. Plot yang logik, cerita yang digarap dengan teliti, watak yang dibina dengan bernas dan berpembawaan, semua itu boleh buang asalkan ada cukup masa untuk Zizan membolot skrin. Malah jenaka yang sepatutnya ada dalam sebuah skrip komedi pun tiada, kerana memang ketara Zizan sedang meng-improv-kan segala dialognya. Tak kira dia Raja Lawak ke, Maharaja Lawak ke, bakatnya bukan dalam bidang komedi improv sebenarnya. Dialognya bangang, bukan lucu. Hanya bila beliau diberi skrip yang benar-benar kelakar, baru lakonannya berkesan - contohnya Cinta Kura-Kura. (Atau mungkin juga saudara Zizan ni ibarat Jack Black; kalau hanya suaranya yang kedengaran, boleh tahan, tapi bila mukanya muncul terus mengundang penumbuk.)

Tapi tak baik saya salahkan Zizan atas keburukan filem ini. Saya juga takkan salahkan Sara Ali yang telah membazirkan bakat hebatnya dalam filem buruk ini. (Jujur kata, wajahnya yang kiut gila babi sajalah yang saya suka dalam filem ini. Oh Cik Sara, you tau tak nafsu hati I milik you??) Yang salah memangnya Ahmad Idham dengan Meor Shariman - tetapi memandangkan penonton-penonton lain yang gelak tak henti-henti dengan telatah Zizan, salah perlu dikongsi juga dengan penonton. Sebab inilah TMBF dah malas nak ulas filem tempatan. Bukan hanya kerana hampir semua filem-filemnya teruk - juga kerana kalau tahap citarasa penonton tempatan begitu memalukan, hapuslah segala harapan untuk dunia filem kita maju. Malah filem macam ni yang menciplak muzik tema Indiana Jones pun boleh diterima.

NEXT REVIEW: Wrath of the Titans
Expectations: will it be as good as I like it as much as the first?