Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Lady deserves better

The Lady
My rating:

As my regular readers may well know, TMBF is quite the socio-political rabble-rouser. I have subscribed to the Facebook feeds of a few Bersih and Bersih-related fanpages, and one or two of them recommended this film as relevant - even inspiring. Indeed, several scenes reminded me of both the demonstrations I attended as well as the civil rights struggles we are currently undergoing (that we are all currently undergoing, even the poor fools who still think everything's fine the way it is). In fact, the exact phrase "free and fair elections" was uttered in the dialogue at one point - the exact thing Bersih is fighting for. A thing that I personally feel very strongly about.

So why don't I like this movie much?

Aung San Suu Kyi (Michelle Yeoh) was only two years old when her father, General Aung San was assassinated in 1947 in his efforts to achieve democracy for Burma (now Myanmar). Thirty-nine years later, Suu Kyi is a simple housewife in Oxford, England, wife of lecturer Michael Aris (David Thewlis) and mother to two teenage boys, Alex (Jonathan Woodhouse) and Kim (Jonathan Raggett). When she returns to Burma to visit her dying mother, she witnesses first-hand the oppressive violence of the ruling military junta - and as the daughter of a still-beloved political martyr, she is asked by civil activists to lead a movement for democracy. What started as a short visit becomes a very long absence as Suu Kyi commits herself to her fledgling political party that quickly wins massive support and popularity from the people. But the tyrannical General Ne Win (Htun Lin) will stop at nothing to wear her down, up to and including placing her under a years-long house arrest, and denying visas to her family - even after Michael is diagnosed with terminal cancer.

I confess to not knowing much about Aung San Suu Kyi, the leader of the civil rights movement in Myanmar - other than that, what with having been placed under house arrest for over a decade, her struggle has been long, lonely and of little success. And after watching this movie, I still don't know much about her. It chooses to focus on the domestic side of Suu Kyi's plight - the enforced separation from her husband and children, rather than what she and the National League for Democracy (her political party) went through in trying to bring democracy to her country. So instead of a political drama, what we have here is a tearjerker - and a soppy, sloppy one at that.

The whole point of a biopic is to turn a distant real-life figure into a relatable human character, but the Suu Kyi of this movie simply isn't. She was 43 when she returned to her home country for the first time in decades; she had a long and established life as a wife, mother and academic. So what made her put it all behind to become a political leader? Witnessing first-hand the brutalities of the military junta - which, granted, would be a life-changing experience for many - and then some guys asked her to lead them. To which she said yes, which... is that all she did? Where did she find her strength and courage? Director Luc Besson and screenwriter Rebecca Frayn simply gloss over these questions, and give us nothing more than a beat-by-beat account of her early political career. The history of Suu Kyi and the NLD are treated as nothing more than motions to be gone through.

And then there's Frayn's terribly dull and on-the-nose dialogue. This is a film in which, when Suu Kyi and her colleagues are planning a nationwide tour and some of them balk at traveling to the more remote tribal villages, she says, "Democracy must include everyone if it is to work," and they all nod sagely. In fact, those colleagues of hers are never even named - only ever referred to as "my colleagues". Which does a grave disservice to the brave members of the NLD who supported Suu Kyi and perhaps suffered even more than she did. Who are they? What did they contribute? What trials did they face in their long struggle? We don't know, and this film isn't interested in telling us, except in extremely broad strokes (e.g. some of them were imprisoned and beaten). In its depiction of the 1990 general election, we are told the NLD won 392 Parliamentary seats. Where did it find 392 Parliamentary candidates, when it seems like the entire party consists of one person?

So instead of that, The Lady chooses instead to delve into the relationship between Suu Kyi and her husband Michael Aris. Now, I've said before that a film critic needs to judge a film based on what it is, and not what the critic prefers it to be. But I really think to put Aris front and center in a film about Aung San Suu Kyi is annoyingly myopic; in fact, I'm ready to accuse Besson and Frayn of being racist, because we clearly can't have a movie about brown people without a white guy as the hero. And it's not like the Aris storyline here is particularly compelling either, as indicated by how her sons Alex and Kim are as complete non-entities as Suu Kyi's unnamed NLD colleagues. Aris and Suu Kyi are shown in the most blandly glowing light - and on the flip side, General Ne Win of the military junta is so cartoonishly evil that he even, I shit you not, kills one of his own subordinates. Y'know, like brown people do.

The film does have some saving graces. It looks good, with parts of Thailand making an effective substitute for the streets of Rangoon. Michelle Yeoh gives it her all and proves without a doubt that she is capable of far more than action heroine roles; she is certainly capable of making a far better movie about Aung San Suu Kyi than this one. (On the other hand, David Thewlis seems to recognise that he's working off a lousy script and doesn't try too hard.) And some of the tearjerking melodrama can be effective, in a blatantly manipulative way. But the greatest saving grace I can think of is that Malaysians will watch this and think about its parallels to our own political situation - because the parallels are there. Peaceful demonstrations being violently suppressed, and democratic elections being subverted; oh yes, the parallels are there. Maybe there, it'll do some good after all - but certainly not by its own merits as a film.

Expectations: asalkan ia memberi keseronokan yang berkeju, cukup

Monday, May 21, 2012

Street of broken dreams

Chow Kit
My rating:

Oh em gee, I am seriously behind on my local film reviews; so much for my vow to consistently watch and review Made in Malaysia productions. But this one looked like one to catch. Full disclosure, I was actually contacted by one of the directors who invited me to a preview, which I had to turn down. So I paid a full price ticket to watch this, and I was happy to. It's pretty clear this movie isn't going to make much money at the local box-office, simply because it's neither a rempit movie nor horror movie (nor a rempit horror movie) and doesn't star Shaheizy Sam or Zizan Razak. But it's partly for this same reason that I thought it worthy of a watch, and why I chose to support it with my ringgit.

And it is... I guess. But more for its intentions than its actual merits as a film.

Two loosely-connected stories feature the denizens of Chow Kit, perhaps the roughest and grittiest slum area of Kuala Lumpur. The first concerns a group of street kids and close friends, Ajik (Muhammad Izzam Syafiq), Achat (Muhammad Izzam Izzudin), Reda (Muzhaffar Shah Shahrul Asran) and Tika (Nur Nadzirah Rosi). Tika and Ajik are children of prostitutes (Lana Noordin and Airis Yasmin), whereas brothers Achat and Reda live in a cardboard shack with their father (Namron). For them, life is either running about the streets, begging for change, or doing odd jobs for a kindly shopkeeper (Yasmin Hani) - but tragedy strikes when one of Tika's mother's "friends" (Saiful Ghaz) takes an unhealthy interest in the little girl. The second story is about Ah Kuan (Mers Sia), a petty criminal who has just returned to KL and his partner-in-crime Mojo (Beto Qusyairy), who get caught in between a war between gang bosses David (Brandon Yuen) and Che Wan (Mohd Razib Salimin). Meanwhile, the innocent Ai Leen's (Janelle Chin) mother has been forced to sell her virginity to a pimp named Chong (Chen Puie Heng), whom Ai Leen's friend and neighbour Salina (Dira Abu Zahar) also once worked for.

Both this film's directors, Rosihan Zain @ Dhojee and Brando Lee who each helmed one of its two segments, have stated their intentions to shine a light on the real-life stories of Chow Kit residents - the homeless, the destitute, the victimised and the desperate. As the "Berdasarkan kisah benar" title at the movie's beginning implies, these stories were culled from the experiences of charities who work in Chow Kit (in particular, the Rumah Nur Salam children's shelter), which lends a poignant verisimilitude to what we see. But to fully bring out that verisimilitude, to tell a heartbreaking story that's also true and to make us believe in its truth, requires a great deal of filmmaking skill. Sadly, neither Dhojee nor Lee are fully successful at it.

The first segment is the more affecting, simply because street kids are more compelling than adult protagonists. But the plot suffers from an aimless quality; it spends more time on how miserable and impoverished these kids' lives are rather than telling a story with a proper beginning, middle and end. Yasmin Hani's character is entirely superfluous, as are scenes with Hairie Othman as - I think - a director of a children's welfare organisation (and who doesn't seem to provide any help at all). The portrayal of these children is also far too precious, which feels emotionally manipulative and not very honest. These are the sweetest and most angelic bunch of crime-ridden-slum-area kids you've ever seen - and they're supposed to be the kind of kids who extract their own brand of rough mob justice on those who have wronged them.

That being a pedophile who raped one of their own. Yes, there is child rape in this film, and in its depiction, it faces the same problem that marred Zhang Yimou's The Flowers of War. How do you depict a stomach-churningly ugly act with the best of intentions and not end up making something (even unintentionally) exploitative? What you need is an exceedingly skillful touch - and in this particular case, spectacularly talented child actors, which Chow Kit does not have. Don't get me wrong; they all give quite impressive, naturalistic performances, and with greater experience and guidance they - especially Muhammad Izzam Syafiq and Nur Nadzirah Rosi - could be very good some day. But in this film, that delves into such disturbingly adult territory, far too much is asked of them. You'd need an Elle Fanning or a Chloë Grace Moretz to play these roles right.

The second segment suffers from the same problems to a somewhat smaller degree; smaller, because its subject matter isn't as sensitive. Unfortunately, it also recycles a lot of old Hong Kong gangster movie clichés that does no favours to its attempts at depicting the "real" Chow Kit. Kuan is your typical tarnished-but-noble hero, sporting a facial scar (and a flashback that explains how he got it) for extra cool points. His relationship with Ai Leen - and yes, they do have a connection - plays out like something ripped off of A Moment of Romance, that semi-seminal 1990 Andy Lau gangland weepie melodrama. Dira Abu Zahar gets prominent placing on the poster, but her character is minor, not to mention disconnected from the main plot. And there's a fair bit of gory bloodshed - plus a Reservoir Dogs-style Mexican standoff - that indicate that Lee would've much rather made his own Hong Kong-style crime thriller movie. (Albeit a compromised one, since it ends with that good ol' FINAS-approved PDRM-shows-up-and-arrests-everyone ending.)

Acting problems abound as well; Merz Sia has the look of a male runway model and the acting talents to match. Janelle Chin looks to be in her early 20s but plays Ai Leen as an airheaded 16-year-old. But Chen Puie Heng as Chong the pimp is the one that's emblematic of Lee's approach here. At first, we are told that Chong is one of the "good" ones, who takes good care of the prostitutes who work for him; Salina sure seems pretty friendly with him. Later he turns out to not be a very nice person at all, and this isn't a spoiler because Chen's performance blatantly telegraphs it from his first scene. Just like Dhojee making the street kids as innocent and blameless as possible, Lee makes his villains as one-dimensionally villainous as possible. The pedophile rapist from the first segment also shows up here as a psychotically vicious gangster, because of course he is.

But for this film at least, I chalk it down to an earnest-to-a-fault attempt at depicting the tragedies and miseries of Chow Kit. Its earnestness comes across in little ways, from Dira Abu Zahar's performance - the one truly affecting one in the movie - to the song that plays over the end credits, Butterfingers' "Mati Hidup Kembali". That is one beautifully, heartbreakingly lovely song, and even if it wasn't composed for the movie (it was released in 2009), I can't help but become more kindly disposed toward Chow Kit after hearing it. I believe in this film's intentions; I believe Dhojee's and Lee's hearts were in the right place in making it; I believe they were genuinely stirred by the real-life stories they heard, because that emotion does manage to shine through. That it managed to shine through some poor filmmaking choices is no mean feat.

Expectations: none too high - it is Luc Besson, after all

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Assembled at last

Marvel's The Avengers
My rating:

Sigh... yes, it is indeed released as Marvel's The Avengers, as if we would not know by now that the superheroes in this movie are from Marvel. (And it's not a foreign-markets-only thing either, that's what it's called in the States.) It would appear that they are taking no chances with how familiar the general (read: non-comicbook-reading) audience are with their intellectual property; even after successful movies starring Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and Captain America, they still think the Avengers brand name needs a little extra push to achieve equal recognition. That's indicative of how carefully Marvel has been developing their shared universe - something that's never been tried before in cinema, after all. And given that every film they've made so far has been box-office successes - and more importantly, good movies - their efforts have certainly been paying off.

But this, this is the payoff. And it is every bit as good.

Loki (Tom Hiddleston), the Asgardian god of mischief, has returned - and his mischief has become far deadlier. He steals the Tesseract, a source of massive unlimited power and a portal to other worlds, from a SHIELD facility, and brainwashes Erik Selvig (Stellan Skarsgård) and Clint Barton a.k.a. Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner) into his loyal servants. A desperate Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson) calls for help from Steve Rogers a.k.a. Captain America (Chris Evans), Tony Stark a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey, Jr.) and Dr. Bruce Banner a.k.a. the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), summoned by Natasha Romanoff a.k.a. Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) from his hiding place in India. They are later joined by Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the Asgardian god of thunder, who has come to stop his brother Loki and bring him home. All the heroes are brought to SHIELD's massive helicarrier, where Fury and agents Coulson (Clark Gregg) and Maria Hill (Cobie Smulders) are waiting to brief them on their mission. But this is the first time that such disparate personalities are forced to work together - and while they bicker and fight, Loki's army of alien Chitauri are on their way to invade the earth.

It's already being hailed as the greatest comicbook superhero movie ever, but it's not; not really. The need to juggle so many larger-than-life characters renders it unwieldy at times, particularly in the first half. It's a little slow - not in the sense of "too much talking, not enough fighting", a comment that never fails to annoy me - but in the sense that it spends too much time on our heroes not dealing with the world-shaking threat that has been introduced. It's become a comicbook cliché that when two or more superheroes meet in a crossover, they will invariably fight each other before teaming up against the real villain, a cliché that this movie adheres to. But the clashing personalities is a little contrived, especially since the only two who really can't stop bickering are Steve Rogers and Tony Stark; Cap and Iron Man seem to have gotten a maturity downgrade since their respective movies. And the plot involving Loki's invasion plan is rather simple - perhaps by necessity.

Aaand that's about it as far as flaws go, 'cos the rest is aaall good. Turns out Joss Whedon's flair for character-based drama and humour-laced action fits perfectly within the Marvel cinematic universe; every movie in it has aimed for the exact same blend of thrills and fun anchored by strong lead characters. And in maintaining continuity with the three previously-established superhero franchises (well, one franchise and two franchise-to-bes), it also serves as a semi-sequel to all three - possibly even a fourth, although the connection to the two previous Hulk movies is clearly weaker. Cap, Tony and Thor are recognisably where we left them at the end of their respective last movies; Cap alienated from a time no longer his own, Tony starting a new relationship with Pepper Potts, and Thor still pining for Jane Foster. (Although that only gets dealt with in a quick throwaway scene.)

And then it allows every member of its huge ensemble plenty of moments to shine. This is a remarkable trick to pull off in a movie, and Marvel's The Avengers does it with flair to spare. I was initially worried that Tony, who leads the most successful of the Marvel movies to date, would overshadow the others; the trailers certainly made it seem like everyone else is going to be the butt of his non-stop quips. But no, he didn't at all. Everyone else gets plenty of chances to endear themselves to the audience - from Thor conflicted over his enmity with his brother, to Cap emerging as the true leader of the team, to Tony momentarily losing his snark when a tragic event leaves him unexpectedly shaken. Even Black Widow, pruriently played by Scarlett Johansson in Iron Man 2 but making no greater impression than eye candy, gets some much-needed characterisation here - and Johansson finally proves herself worthy of playing an action heroine and comicbook character.

Because another great strength of the Marvel movies is pitch-perfect casting. It's not just the heroes who need it, it's also the villains, as Tom Hiddleston's Loki proves. He runs the gamut from tyrannically arrogant to gleefully devious to ragingly sadistic - he has a positively Hannibal Lecter-ian scene with Black Widow in which he delivers an awesome speech (I really wanna know who came up with "you mewling quim!") - yet still manages to show his hurt and angry side with Thor. Hiddleston is as much an essential part of the ensemble as any of the heroes - but the breakout member is definitely Mark Ruffalo, the third actor to play Bruce Banner/Hulk and the best. Ruffalo plays him as someone not only always trying to control his anger, but also saddened by that fact; as if he knows his greatest curse is not any gamma-ray mutation but his own character weakness. That combination of underlying uncontrollable rage and sadness is something neither Eric Bana nor Edward Norton figured out during their turns at the bat, and it's amazing that the character finally came alive in a movie that's not even his own. It helps that when the Hulk emerges, he provides some of the most awesome action moments.

Which brings us to the action scenes - which are the biggest and most spectacular by far amongst the current crop of superhero movies. I've said before that superpowered action scenes are exactly what people want from comicbook movies, and Whedon gives it to us in spades through an almost hour-long climactic battle against the invading Chitauri in the streets of Manhattan. If there's one quibble, it's that it sometimes seems to take pains to allow each of the Avengers a chance to contribute; Thor, Iron Man and Hulk have all the superpowers, but it just so happens that both Hawkeye's arrows and Black Widow's pea-shooter handguns can take Chitauri down handily. But it's a small nit to pick when you're getting an awesomely massive battle that perfectly translates comicbook action onto the big screen.

And if there's one thing that Marvel's The Avengers proves, it's that everything that's been done in comics translates pretty damn well onto screen. Everything from the over-the-top superheroic action to the goofy world with the colourful costumes and cheesy monikers and fantastical powers borne of hoary sci-fi/fantasy/supernatural clichés. It all works in a movie, as long as it's done with the same amount of care and respect for its source material as Marvel has been doing. Which is practically revolutionary, considering it wasn't too long ago that Hollywood studios still thought of iconic comicbook properties as needing "reinventing" - e.g. a Superman who doesn't fly, and a Batman who lives in a junkyard with a black version of Alfred named Big Al. In particular, what this film proves is that the comicbook concept of a shared universe, where stories and characters criss-cross between franchises, works just fine on film - more than fine, in fact. The fact that Iron Man resides in the same world as Thor or Hulk or Captain America, and that they can appear in each other's movies and maintain continuity with each other's ongoing stories, enriches them all and makes their world an even more appealing one. Why did it take Hollywood so long to figure this out?

And so, four stars - on par with Thor and Captain America: The First Avenger and what I would've given the first Iron Man had I reviewed it here. It fulfilled the promise of all those earlier movies, but did not exceed or transcend them. For as much as I've been raving about it - and as much as I've banged the drum on the need for superhero movies to be faithful - this article (about the Thor movie) makes a damn good point about how superhero movies also need to be innovative, as opposed to being too faithful. Zack Snyder's Watchmen comes to mind, and while Marvel's The Avengers is by no means as slavishly dull as that one, it doesn't do anything that 30-plus years of Marvel comics haven't already done either. Which is still great for anyone who's never opened the pages of a Marvel comic in their lives - which I can possibly count myself amongst their number. So, a very good movie, but by no means the greatest comicbook superhero movie ever. That honour still goes to The Dark Knight.

Expectations: another Songlap?

Friday, May 11, 2012

Between right and wrong, a wide gulf resides

A Separation
My rating:

I don't just sometimes worry about my credibility as a film critic; I also worry about my own tastes as a supposedly discerning and refined film buff. Because I gotta face it, I like the lowbrow stuff. (If I didn't, I wouldn't have rated the previous movie so high.) I knew I was obliged to watch A Separation; it isn't often that Best Foreign Language Oscar-winning films make it to our screens, especially universally-acclaimed films like this one. But I worried that I'm too much in the Hollywood blockbuster mindset to be able to enjoy an Iranian domestic drama, especially with The Avengers playing right now and everyone talking about it and me just itching to go catch it already.

I needn't have worried. I enjoyed it, and appreciated it, more than fine.

Nader (Peyman Moaadi) and Simin (Leila Hatami) are a couple undergoing a divorce; she wants to migrate with their 11-year-old daughter Termeh (Sarina Farhadi), but he can't leave due to his Alzheimer's-ridded father (Ali-Asghar Sharbazi). When Simin leaves the house to stay with her parents, Nader hires a woman named Razieh (Sareh Bayat) to care for his father. But one day, he comes home to find both Razieh and her daughter Somayeh (Kimia Hosseini) absent, and his father fallen unconscious with a hand tied to his bed. When Razieh returns, he fires her and angrily shoves her out of their apartment - only later, she suffers a miscarriage, and he is accused by Razieh's hot-tempered husband Hojjat (Shahab Hosseini) of causing it. Their feud will lead to court hearings, clashes of wills and betrayals of trust, and possibly even tear both families apart.

I've said before that what I enjoy about a good low-key drama is the same as what I enjoy about an action movie or thriller: well-drawn characters engaged in compelling conflicts that can be suspenseful, even gripping. The stakes need not be life and death or the fate of the world; it can be as low as a person's happiness, as long as that person is developed well enough that he or she becomes real, as real as someone we know personally. A Separation does this with no less than four characters: Nader and Simin, and Hojjat and Razieh. And it sets all of them against each other, in bitter disputes that they all have intense personal stakes in - and then it sets us, the audience, as the objective observer in this dispute.

We start off with Nader and Simin, pleading their wish for a divorce before an unsympathetic judge, and straight away the root cause of their conflict is made clear. Nader is a filial son who will not abandon his father; Simin wants to leave Iran and seek a better life elsewhere (as is made clear when the judge asks her "Why do you want to leave?" and she sheepishly does not answer). Both their motivations are understandable and sympathetic, and if Simin's seems less so, there is a scene between her and her father-in-law that shows how much she cares about him, and how much she regrets the circumstances that made her decide to leave. After she moves back in with her parents, we spend most of the time with Nader - which only seems like he's the protagonist of the story.

But once Razieh is introduced, it's not hard to instantly sympathise with her too. Devoutly Muslim, clearly overwhelmed by the job of caring for an Alzheimer's patient (at one point, she has to seek religious advice on whether she is allowed to change an old man's soiled underpants), forced to travel a tiringly long commute to come to work, in dire financial straits, and all this with a baby on the way. Nader however, who has crushing burdens of his own, refuses to believe himself responsible for her miscarriage, and does a little amateur sleuthing to clear his name. But even before he does so, the judge asks if he knows Razieh was pregnant - and Nader, knowing how bad it will make him look if he said yes, lies. That lie turns out to become more than a little white one, when it goes on to involve Termeh's tutor Ms. Qahraei (Merila Zarei) - and Termeh - in abetting it.

Even Hojjat - prone to violent outbursts, and whom, at one point, the film teases us with the possibility that his physical abuse of his wife caused the miscarriage - becomes a fully-realised and sympathetic character rather than the clear antagonist. From his point of view, his child was murdered, and the man who did it is trying to worm his way out of the charge. His angry rants also expose the class differences between the two couples; one comes from humble backgrounds, the other is more worldly and affluent, and this is but one of the many fine threads running through this story. Another is that Razieh initially did not even tell her husband that she is working in the house of another man - perhaps out of fear he would object out of religious reasons, or perhaps simply to protect his wounded pride out of no longer being the family breadwinner. This exposes cracks in their marriage, just as Nader's and Simin's is close to ruin.

And as an objective observer of the entire drama, one can only conclude that there is nothing even close to right and wrong here. Everyone has wronged and been wronged; everyone has done bad things with the best of intentions. Only Termeh, and Razieh's much younger daughter Somayeh, are the only true innocents here, and they are ultimately the ones who suffer the most - especially Termeh, who has to choose which of her divorcing parents she's going to live with. We, as audience members, are free of the obligation to resolve these people's problems. Even when we want to reach into the screen, shake them by their shoulders, and yell at them to do the right thing instead of the prideful one, we know it most likely won't make a difference. But Termeh has to act on what has happened, and decide the best (or more likely, the least worst) course for the future of the people she loves. It is a terrible decision, and it makes for the perfect ending to the film.

I think I've done it again: spent this entire review talking about the movie, rather than properly reviewing it. It was pretty hard, I gotta say, and I most likely find it easier to review a formulaic genre film than a quiet human drama like this. But as quiet human dramas go, A Separation is terrific. I may not have found it as much of a masterpiece as AV Club's A rating, or Roger Ebert's four stars, or its 99% RottenTomatoes score might imply - I would've liked it more if the tone wasn't so low-key - but I still found it highly sophisticated in its complexity, yet riveting in the unfolding of its story. It's the perfect palate-cleanser in the midst of the Hollywood summer blockbuster season; there's no reason why you can't enjoy it and appreciate it just like you did, say, The Avengers.

NEXT REVIEW: The Avengers
Expectations: finally!

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Locked out of space

My rating:

Is there anything that cannot be made better by adding the words "IN SPACE"? No, no there isn't. Alien is a monster movie IN SPACE; its sequel Aliens is a Vietnam War movie IN SPACE. Star Trek has been described as "Wagon Train IN SPACE to the stars", but several of the TOS-era movies (Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in particular) have successfully interpreted them as Horatio Hornblower IN SPACE. And perhaps the granddaddy of them all, the Star Wars trilogy has in turns been a Western IN SPACE, World War 2 IN SPACE, Samurais and Shaolin monks IN SPACE, and Campbellian Hero's Journey IN SPACE. Clearly, adding IN SPACE makes any movie better (and also makes a paragraph hard to read) - and now we have a one that looks like Escape from New York IN SPACE (okay I'll stop now) and is well aware of how much mindless, cheesy, shut-up-and-eat-your-awesome fun that premise is.

Which it is. It's just that there's also this pesky thing called execution.

Snow (Guy Pearce) is a secret agent who has been framed for murder and espionage in a mission gone bad. Secret Service director Scott Langral (Peter Stormare) intends to lock him away in M.S. One - a maximum security prison in low Earth orbit - but as it so happens, the U.S President's daughter Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace) is on a humanitarian mission to the very same M.S. One when a viciously insane inmate named Hydell (Joseph Gilgun) sparks a massive breakout. Langral and fellow agent Harry Shaw (Lennie James) devise a plan for Snow to infiltrate the prison and rescue Emilie under the nose of hundreds of violent criminals, who are now led by Alex (Vincent Regan), Hydell's brother. But Snow has his own reasons for accepting the mission: one of the inmates is his partner Mace (Tim Plester), who has information that could clear his name.

Okay, first of all, it's as much Die Hard in space as it is Escape from New York in space. The premise may be about one man - the only man who can! - sent into a prison to rescue the president's daughter (which, um, was Escape from L.A. rather than New York, but same diff), but both Snow and Emilie spend most of their time crawling through ducts and sneaking through corridors past bad guys. And instead of the indubitably badass Snake Plissken, Snow is more of a smart-assed, wise-cracking, making-it-up-as-he-goes-along kind of hero in the vein of Han Solo and Indiana Jones. All of which are prime ingredients for awesome - and indeed, the mere presence of such ingredients make it worthy of interest already. If you're the kind of person for whom "IN SPACE" inspires delight and not derision - like me - then you're pretty much guaranteed to enjoy this... somewhat.

Because since I didn't quite enjoy it as much as I'd hoped, that pretty much guarantees that everyone else ought to stay away. This is another in a long line of Luc Besson-produced Eurotrash action movies, and "trash" is an appropriate appellation. For one thing, the movie is shot through a sickly green filter that makes everything look grimy and scummy. For another, its on-screen violence - despite being PG-13 - is positively reckless in its disregard for subtlety or humanity, as best exemplified by the insanely over-the-top Hydell and the amount of faceless extras he kills. And for last, there's a distinct cheapness to the production, as exemplified during the first big chase sequence between Snow and some cops (all of whom fire live ammunition at civilians like it ain't no thing). This is set in The Future, so there's a futuristic bike and helicopter gunship and cars, but the CGI is incredibly blurry and fake-looking. Even video games look better than this.

And this is disappointing to a fan of IN SPACE movies like myself. The climax is a big space battle, and there are very few things I enjoy watching more than big space battles. Space battles, man! Spaceships going Pew Pew and Kaboom! But do you know how to ruin a space battle? With the same blurry CGI graphics and spastic editing that make it impossible to see what's going on. I have never heard of James Mather and Stephen St. Leger, but even two directors can't film a decent CGI action sequence. They're on slightly steadier ground with the screenplay (on which Besson is also credited, and for all I know wrote most of), but even that is not very well-paced. The best parts of this movie is with our snarky anti-hero Snow and his quippy banter with Emilie, but we don't get enough of them; the scenes with Langral and Harry in the, um, Low Orbit Police Department, with the prison revolt leaders, even with the subplot about Snow clearing his name, aren't as much fun and take up too much time.

Still, at least Guy Pearce knows what he's doing. If there's one thing Besson's trashy action flicks are good at, it's casting name actors in action hero roles in which they can have loads of fun looking incredibly cool - cases in point, Taken and From Paris with Love, to name just two I've watched previously. Pearce gets the cynical obnoxiousness of Snow down pat, and he spits out his one-liners with plenty of enjoyably devil-may-care attitude. Maggie Grace, who appears to have found steady employment from Besson as Designated Damsel in Distress, isn't as much fun, but she does get to bounce off Pearce in entertaining ways. The only other performance worth mentioning is Joseph Gilgun, whose psychopathic Hydell has a thick Scottish accent because Scotsmen make the best psychopaths. Everyone else is just kinda dull.

So what this movie boils down to is the variance between premise and execution. Everything about this premise screams an awesomely cheesy good time at the movies - so what does it say about it that I went in expecting just that and didn't quite get it? What it says is that even something like Escape from New York/Die Hard IN SPACE still needs a fair amount of talent and skill to pull off effectively, and that Mather and St. Leger don't quite possess it. Besson will probably go on to produce more cheap and junky action movies through his EuropaCorp production company, but I can't see myself eagerly awaiting the next one - action movie fan though I am. They're just not very good. Even the ones IN SPACE.

NEXT REVIEW: A Separation
Expectations: hope I can get in the right frame of mind to enjoy it

Sunday, May 6, 2012

These woods are lovely, dark and deep

The Cabin in the Woods
My rating:

For a while there, it looked like this movie would never come out. It was originally meant to be released in 2010, then delayed because some genius thought of converting it to 3D (which thankfully never happened), then further delayed when its studio MGM filed for bankruptcy. Which I'm sure was really painful for fans of Joss Whedon, who wrote the screenplay along with director Drew Goddard and was the creative force behind the much-loved TV series Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly. I am none too familiar with the first two, but I loved Firefly and its follow-up movie Serenity; I can understand why he has such an extremely loyal fanbase. (Who tend to be pretty belligerent in defending him, as I have discovered when I criticised the dodgy Mandarin in Firefly.) So when the hype began to build among Whedonites for The Cabin in the Woods, which has finally gotten its theatrical release, I figured it would be worth a watch.

And... whoa.

Five college students - Dana (Kristen Connolly), Curt (Chris Hemsworth), Jules (Anna Hutchinson), Holden (Jesse Williams) and Marty (Fran Kranz) - go up to the mountains to spend the weekend at a deserted cabin by a lake. There, they encounter horrors that kill them off one by one - but little do they know that their every move is being observed and controlled by Sitterson (Richard Jenkins) and Hadley (Bradley Whitford), two dull-looking bureaucrats who are plotting their gruesome murders. And who are part of what looks like an entire secret facility dedicated to killing them according to a plan, right down to the creepy redneck (Tim de Zarn) they encounter on their way to the cabin. And all to what purpose... remains to be seen.

Whoa - this is one devilishly clever movie. It goes places I've never seen a movie go before, except for what I've read in horror novels and short stories. In fact, there's a specific subgenre of horror it delves into whose name I can't even reveal for fear of spoiling the effect. There's a lot I can't reveal about the storyline, because half the pleasure is the delicious realisation that there is much, much more going on under the surface - literally, as it so happens. Which makes this a hard review to write.

So let's talk about that surface. As you might have guessed from the synopsis, it starts off as the most clichéd kind of horror movie ever, in which a bunch of attractive, dumb and horny kids go to a secluded spot only to get themselves bloodily murdered. But right from the beginning, there is also a mysterious corporation not only watching their every move, but also unleashing murderous horrors on them, and even influencing their behaviour in insidious ways. Clearly there's more to this than your typical slasher flick, but before we find that out, we're treated to plenty of Whedon's trademark snarky humour from Sitterson and Hadley - as well as the vicious irony of a banal office environment juxtaposed with the pain and death being dealt to a group of innocent young people.

Because what we have here is a clever and devastating critique on the horror genre, in particular the ones in which the torture and mutilation of nubile young morons is the whole selling point. It wouldn't surprise me if that's exactly what Whedon is intending: a subtle judgment of the kind of horror fan who loves watching attractive people suffer, and for whom the gorier the mutilation, the better. But it's subtle, and not at all off-putting; in fact, horror fans are more likely to be delighted at a late-stage sequence that appears to pay homage to a dozen different horror subgenres and franchises. That part had me grinning like a 12-year-old, and is indicative of the movie as a whole; it is equal parts smart, scathing and fun, and juggles all three remarkably well.

What it isn't, however, is emotionally engaging. If it were, it would've earned 4-½ stars easily, but the principal five college kids in the cabin never become compelling characters, despite Whedon's valiant attempts to humanise them. It doesn't help that they're all played by unfamiliar faces whose credits are probably largely in TV, and whose bland good looks don't make up for the dullness of their performances. (On the other hand, Richard Jenkins and Bradley Whitford are terrific, likely because their characters are much more fun to watch.) Oh yeah, Chris Hemsworth is in this; yes, Thor himself, in a movie he clearly made before his star-making turn as Marvel's Norse god superhero. But here, all his considerable charm is absent. As clever as Whedon's simultaneous subversion and aversion of horror clichés are, he hasn't quite succeeded at creating protagonists actually worth caring about.

But the brilliantly twisty storyline makes this more than worth a watch - heck, it makes it required viewing for any horror fan, or even anyone with a vague interest in horror movies. It's criminal that this film sat gathering dust in MGM's vaults for so long; guess we have the combination of Hemsworth's newly-minted star status and Whedon's being tapped for the directorial gig on The Avengers to thank for finally getting to watch it. I totally get why Whedon has such a rabid fanbase - he's a really, really good storyteller, whether as director or screenwriter. (And even if he didn't pull it off here, he's long since proven his mettle at creating great characters in his other works.) If he keeps making more great movies - or if I ever get around to catching Buffy, Angel or Dollhouse on DVD - I might just join the ranks of the Whedonites myself.

Expectations: Escape from New York in space! Woohoo!

Friday, May 4, 2012

A Peter Bay-I mean, Michael Berg-I mean, Peter Berg film

My rating:

Yes, they finally did it: they finally made a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster movie based on a boardgame. Which is a thing we have been threatened with for a few years now, and if this one succeeds at the U.S. box-office, that long-dormant Ridley Scott-directed Monopoly movie might finally get off the ground. Apparently there are enough seemingly-sane people who see nothing silly about this anymore, so we might as well grin and bear it (and in my case, watch it and review it). Hasbro, the toy company that makes the boardgame, actually has a logo animation that played after Universal Pictures' in this movie, like they're an actual studio and everything now. This is a thing that has happened, and all that is left to us is to see what kind of movies they actually make.

What they've made here is a Michael Bay-wannabe that's actually somewhat better than most actual Michael Bay movies.

Alex Hopper (Taylor Kitsch) is a ne'er-do-well who somehow lucked into dating the extremely hot Sam (Brooklyn Decker) - who happens to be the daughter of U.S. Navy Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson), commander of the Pacific Fleet. After joining the Navy for a few years at the behest of his brother Stone (Alexander Skarsgård), Hopper has made Lieutenant, but his continually poor impulse control lead to him brawling with visiting Japanese Captain Nagata (Tadanobu Asano) on the eve of RIMPAC, the world's biggest multi-national naval exercise. When the fleet sets out, he is serving on board the destroyer John Paul Jones while his brother commands the Sampson - both of which, along with Nagata's ship Myoko, is sent to investigate a UFO falling into the Pacific Ocean near the coast of Hawaii. The UFO is in fact an invading alien force that sets up a massive force field over the Hawaiian islands and proceeds to attack the city. Meanwhile, Sam and a disabled Army vet named Mick (Gregory D. Gadson) are hiking in the mountains when they discover the aliens have taken over a communications array in order to send a signal to their home planet. Along with Zapata (Hamish Linklater), a scientist at the array, they have to stop them, while Hopper battles the main alien fleet.

Remember when I asked how dumb this movie might be? Well guys, it is pretty dumb. It starts with an animated sequence demonstrating the term "Goldilocks planet", i.e. a planet that can support life due to its position within the habitable zone, by quick-panning to first a planet that's too hot, then too cold - because we wouldn't have understood the concept if we were just told about it. Then it trots out that old saw about how an encounter with aliens would be like the Spaniards meeting the Indians, only we are the Indians. (In those exact words, too.) It's weirdly xenophobic; there's really no reason why a species advanced enough to develop interstellar travel wouldn't also understand the value of peaceful, mutually beneficial relations with another sentient race, Hollywood. But what takes the cake is when it depicts ordinary radio transmissions as - I shit you not - a friggin' laser beam shooting into the sky.

Which is the kind of thing you expect to see in a Michael Bay movie. Which is exactly what Battleship wants to be - only it's directed by Peter Berg. Now, Berg is not a dumb filmmaker; he is actually capable of making an intelligent film, case in point, 2007's The Kingdom. Aping another director seems beneath him, yet this movie is definitely, definitely, Michael Bay lite. When it's not blowing things up in an orgy of pyrotechnics, it's being a shamelessly cheesy celebration of American military heroism. Never more so than when a group of WW2 naval veterans just happen to be picturesquely perched all over the deck of the titular battleship, just before they are asked - and agree, of course - to fight for their country one last time. But first another group of them walk towards the camera in slow motion, because of course. Even the soundtrack has Michael Bay all over it - or specifically, Steve Jablonsky, he who also did the Transformers movies and peppered this one with a bunch of classic rock songs (of course).

But it's fun. Seriously, it is. It doesn't reach the heights of dumb fun that Fast Five does, and there's a lot that'll make you roll your eyes, but there's also a lot of stuff asploding to enjoy. I don't recall seeing an action movie involving naval warships before, and their huge-ass (and very loud) guns provide something fresh in terms of good ol' fashioned action thrills. Turns out Michael Bay lite is actually more palatable than, um, concentrated Michael Bay - there are no annoying racist stereotypes, no tonal whiplash between serious drama and silly comedy, no self-indulgently long and tedious action sequences, and no palpable disdain for the audience. The expositional scenes tend to drag, but the action bits are coherently and effectively put together (and did I mention loud?). It holds together as a movie far better than anything in Bay's filmography since The Rock (his last good one).

Still, it's dumb. If you're wondering if it features any allusions to its boardgame; first of all, no, no one utters the line "You sunk my battleship!" There is however a sequence in which Hopper and crew track the enemy ships on a grid and fire on them by calling out grid coordinates. The movie plays this scene completely seriously, which'll only work on someone who's never played the boardgame. And of all the recent alien invasion movies, this one takes the cake for Dumbest Aliens. They don't seem to have a plan at all, other than that their communications ship crashed and burned and that's why they need to take over one of our radio arrays. And also, they'll wreak some cinematically spectacular destruction on an army base and an elevated freeway just for the hell of it.

You don't expect compelling characters from this, and you won't get it; Hopper's excuse for a character arc is pure cliché. Taylor Kitsch and Tadanobu Asano also don't seem to get the kind of broadly melodramatic performance that this movie needs (Asano in particular comes off as wooden, which he is most assuredly not if you've seen any of his Japanese films). Oh, and Rihanna is in this too, making her film debut as one of three sidekick sailors under Hopper's command - a role that tests her thespian talents not at all. To be honest, Bay is better at getting his actors to go as apeshit as his movies always are - but overall, Battleship is a case where the imitation beats the original. It's frankly quite blatant how closely this movie rides Bay's coattails, so much so that I wonder if Berg had his hands tied by some overzealous Hasbro execs. But there ain't a thing wrong with the Michael Bay brand of cheese 'n 'splosions, as long as it's not the Michael Bay brand of stupid.

NEXT REVIEW: The Cabin in the Woods
Expectations: horror yikes, but Joss Whedon yay

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Such pretty pretty flowers

The Flowers of War
My rating:

I sometimes worry about my credibility as a film critic. Almost all the movies I review are multiplex blockbuster fare (or crappy local films); I hardly ever watch any more, um, substantial stuff. I have a pretty big pile of unwatched DVDs that include highly-acclaimed and award-winning titles from years ago. In my defense, the local cinema releases keep me busy enough, and I certainly catch any critically buzzed-about film that actually gets released here as much as I can. Which brings us to The Flowers of War, Zhang Yimou's magnum opus set during the Rape of Nanjing, and China's entry for Best Foreign Language Film at the last Academy Awards - although it didn't make the shortlist. But a Zhang Yimou film starring Christian Bale, making it the closest thing to a Hollywood Zhang Yimou film? I couldn't miss it.

Besides, most Chinese audiences will probably think it's a very important film. An oh so very very important film.

It is the Second Sino-Japanese War, and the city of Nanjing has just fallen to the invading Japanese army. An American mortician named John Miller (Christian Bale) heads through the ruined city towards the Winchester Cathedral, where he has been contracted to bury the head priest - but the church is only manned by a boy named George Chen (Huang Tianyuan) who tells him there is no money to pay him, as well as a group of Catholic convent girls hiding out from the Japanese. And shortly afterwards, they are joined by a gaggle of prostitutes from the city's red-light district - also, Major Li (Tong Dawei), a lone surviving Chinese soldier, holes up outside to prepare an almost-certainly-hopeless defense. At first, the drunken Miller wants nothing to do with the refugees, even though one student named Shu (Zhang Xinyi) has a crush on him, and the de facto leader of the prostitutes, Yu Mo (Ni Ni) attempts to seduce him into helping them flee the city. But when the Japanese break through and threaten the girls with brutal rape and murder, Miller is finally moved into heroism - even as an entire army bent on ravaging their city stands between them and safety.

In the aforementioned big pile of unwatched DVDs is City of Life and Death, which I had picked up on the strength of LoveHKFilm's and McGarmott's reviews. No, I still haven't watched it - but from both their reviews, I expect it's the better film about the Rape of Nanjing. A lot of what's been written about it sounds like it does a lot of things right where The Flowers of War went wrong. But first, let me reassure you that this is not a bad movie. Zhang Yimou does not make bad movies (even though he does not always achieve the greatness he aims for, as in this case). This is a beautifully mounted production, clearly costing lots of renminbi and looks like it was worth every yuan. Zhang is an exacting filmmaker, and gorgeous, precisely-composed shots clearly have the stamp of the man who directed Hero. The man clearly knows how to make an effectively manipulative melodrama; it is never not a compelling watch, and many scenes evoke the strong emotions Zhang is going for.

The problem is that this is a film about the Rape of Nanjing. One of the most horrifying atrocities in recent history, and still a highly emotionally-charged subject for every living Chinese. "Beautiful" and "gorgeous" are not exactly appropriate words for it - yet this is the approach Zhang took. I knew the film was suspect in the opening scenes, when we saw the last-ditch defense by the ragged remnants of the Chinese garrison against the invading Japanese. It was an effectively choreographed action scene, but I kept wondering why we were spending so much time on this when the movie's supposed to be about a group of refugees in a church. There's also a subplot involving the prostitutes who supposedly worked at a red light district with a thousand-year-old history, which the film wanted to romanticise while at the same time allowing the prostitutes to perform a heroic sacrifice that both affirms and redeems their ancient traditions. This we know because they say so, in just so many highly on-the-nose words - but more puzzling than that is a weird fantasy sequence in which they sashay down the church aisle in slow motion while a disco ball glitters above them.

It's a somewhat stylised film, is what I'm trying to say, and the stylisation tends to undercut the gravity of the real-life horrors that it means to depict. And even when it's not resorting to slow-mo or fantasy sequences or carefully-composed explosions of colours, it tends to play everything too broadly. The students all cry and scream hysterically, and although you can't quite expect 13-year-old girls to be stoic when facing gang-rape, their histrionics gets a bit much. On the other hand, the prostitutes (the ones not named Yu Mo, that is) bitch and whine constantly about their jewellery, their er hu strings, their pet cat, and other trivialities that they stupidly put themselves in danger for. This brings us to the rape scene - because you can't make a movie about this historical event without showing that - which is one of the most disturbing things I've ever seen on the big screen. It's a grisly fate for a character whom the film allows us to get to know (I'm hiding her identity for fear of spoilers, but really, once she leaves the safety of the cathedral, there's a horrible inevitability to what awaits her).

The end result is that you're horrified at the movie, not at the actual historical Rape of Nanjing; instead of feeling the weight of the real-life tragedy that happened just 55 years ago, you walk out just feeling nonplussed about what you saw. Or rather, I did - perhaps the primarily Chinese audience with me was all "Every Chinese must watch this! We must never forget what happened to our people! Oh the inhumanity!" I'm guessing the film worked great with them, which is why I'm giving it 3-½ stars. Me, I think the subject matter warranted a more restrained approach. Zhang has been accused of propaganda, which I can see; you'll not find a more cackingly, demonically evil bunch of villains than the Japanese soldiers in this movie, and not even the appearance of the seemingly more honourable Colonel Hasegawa (Atsuro Watabe) will mitigate that portrayal. What I thought was more apparent is that Zhang is guilty of exploitation. Not for the purpose of titillation - that would've been unforgivable - but exploitation of the horrors of the events to manipulate our emotions.

Oh, and I haven't even mentioned Christian Bale. His performance is expectedly fine, but his very presence raises the question Roger Ebert brought up: why does this story need a white person to be our viewpoint character? The answer is that this is a China production intended to be China's entry to the Oscars; the powers-that-be want to sell Chinese culture to the West, and Zhang Yimou is their pitchman. And while a film about a recent historical atrocity ought to make for a worthwhile product, the ends appear to have unduly influenced the means. It's trying too hard. (And I could've told them the typically overblown Asian style of melodrama doesn't really fly with Western audiences.) Still, flaws and all, it's a worthwhile watch, if you can stomach a really unpleasant rape/murder scene. And Ni Ni's big screen debut is pretty amazing as Yu Mo, the most seductive of the prostitutes. (The rest of whom, like the schoolgirls not named Shu, get barely any characterisation aside from misplaced priorities in a time of war.) The white guy even gets to sleep with her, so there's that too.

NEXT REVIEW: Battleship
Expectations: big, loud and dumb - question is, how dumb?