Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Pixar is strong in this one

Wreck-It Ralph
My rating:

As I have previously mentioned, it is not the best of times to be a Pixar fan. A couple of disappointing releases have slightly tarnished its record of knockout successes - slightly, because a disappointing Pixar film is still a pretty good animated family film by all but its own standards. Wreck-It Ralph is not a Pixar release, but it cannot avoid the comparison; it's still a Disney film, and has John Lasseter as an executive producer. More obviously, its premise of videogame characters with inner lives and personalities of their own not only recalls the Toy Story series, but also A Bug's Life, Finding Nemo and Cars - in Pixar's penchant for creating anthropomorphosized, richly-detailed worlds that also provide opportunities for lots and lots of in-jokes. And its 87% score on RottenTomatoes has already trumped Pixar's last two (Brave scored 79%, Cars 2 38%), raising the possibility that perhaps the parent company is beating them at the game they used to rule.

Perhaps. But only because of what they learned from them.

Wreck-It Ralph (John C. Reilly) is the villain of the Fix-It Felix, Jr. video game at Litwak's Arcade, and he is not very popular. While Felix (Jack McBrayer) is nightly celebrated by the inhabitants of their gameworld, Ralph doesn't even get invited to their game's 30th anniversary party. Wanting to be a hero for a change, Ralph sneaks into Hero's Duty, a 1st-person-shooter game - in which Sergeant Calhoun (Jane Lynch) is the main character - in order to win a hero's medal. He ends up in Sugar Rush, a kart-racing game, and meets Vanellope Von Schweetz (Sarah Silverman), a character with a sad story of her own: she's a "glitch", equally shunned by everyone in her candyland gameworld, and forbidden to participate in the races by King Candy (Alan Tudyk). Ralph and Vanellope partner up to get her in a race and win him his medal, and a friendship grows between the two. But if Ralph isn't in his game, Mr. Litwak will junk their console - and as Felix teams up with Calhoun to find him, they learn that a Cy-Bug monster from Hero's Duty has infected Sugar Rush, thus threatening to destroy two video game worlds.

The trailer prominently features a scene at Bad-Anon, a support group for video game villains, presided by one of the Pac-Man ghosts (Clyde, if you must know) and in which Zangief from Street Fighter, Bowser from Super Mario Bros and Doctor Eggman from Sonic the Hedgehog all make prominent cameos.  It's a hilarious scene, and it encapsulates much of Wreck-It Ralph's appeal: appearances by fan-favourite videogame characters, clever in-jokes, and a commitment to fleshing out the inner worlds of videogames right down to the characters. This is one movie you'll want on Bluray DVD so you can pause and admire all the visual detail - from the tiny cameos by more videogame characters (Chun-Li makes at least two appearances if I recall correctly) to the fact that Game Central Station, the terminal in between game machines, is literally a giant multi-plug socket on the inside.

Which is, of course, exactly what you expect of a Disney animated film, even a non-Pixar one. What matters more is a strong emotional throughline that makes us care about the characters, especially our titular hero. And it's there; on one level, we feel for Ralph when he's unappreciated and ostracised from his own gameworld - but on a deeper level, it's about his need to define himself beyond his assigned label as videogame bad guy. Which is echoed by Vanellope, a malfunctioning character in her game who just wants to participate like the rest of her peers. They go from annoying each other - well, more like Vanellope annoying Ralph - to a deep and heartwarming friendship based on their common desires and helping each other realise them.

It's just... we've seen this kind of thing before. Not just the funny anthropomorphosized world, but also the unlikely-friendship storyline. Two wildly differing characters will meet, bicker, then grow in affection towards each other, only to have a heartbreaking fall out, before reconciling in time for a triumphant climax. It's in the majority of Pixar films, as well as most animated films from other studios as well - in fact, come to think of it, it's the classic romantic comedy formula that goes way back beyond Pixar. Which gives Wreck-It Ralph a been-there-done-that feel that's just a little disappointing. It feels like Walt Disney Animation Studios - through director Rich Moore, and writers Phil Johnston, Jennifer Lee and John Reardon - is trying too hard to make a Pixar-ish film and deliberately aping their formula.

Which isn't to say their formula doesn't still work. The fall out is still effectively sad, as is the triumphant and uplifting climax. The jokes are funny, the action scenes are exciting, and the voice acting is terrific. (I did not recognise Alan Tudyk there.) But I wish the film had spent more time exploring other video games instead of staying in Sugar Rush for most of its second half; the videogame in-jokes are replaced by candy and confectionery in-jokes, most of which I didn't get. And having Felix and Calhoun fall for each other is a subplot that I didn't enjoy; Felix is uninteresting and poorly-defined for all the screentime he gets, and a character like Calhoun is an ill fit as a romantic interest. Lastly, there just isn't much depth here, nothing more emotionally resonant beyond its be-yourself/be-whatever-you-want-to-be message - which is yet another thing that's been done over and over again in animated films.

Am I expecting too much of this movie? Perhaps I am. Thing is, Pixar is (usually) better than this. They don't always recycle the formula, as with The Incredibles and Wall-E. Even when they followed it, they're daring enough to explore new narrative and thematic territory, as with Up and Toy Story 2 and 3. They've raised the bar high enough that a film like this - even as well-crafted and heartfelt as it is - just clears it instead of soaring above it. To be honest, I might even prefer something as ambitiously flawed as Brave than something content to merely be the Pixar film Pixar never made. Guess I'm a Pixar fanboy through and through; I'm still waiting for their next to knock all our socks off.

NEXT REVIEW: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey
Expectations: tempered

Monday, December 24, 2012

A life less allegorical

Life of Pi
My rating:

I am afraid I have never read Life of Pi, the novel by Yann Martel. For a while there it was one of those literary sensations that everyone had either read, or were being pressed to read by those who had. One of my friends loved it, even though he'd come to it somewhat late - a couple of years after its 2001 release. But as much as he raved about how good it was, I never got much of an idea what was so good about it exactly. Its fanciful premise of a boy sharing a lifeboat with a menagerie of animals didn't pique my interest. And I guess I was a little snobbish, but I tend to be skeptical of these "you have to read this!" literary sensations du jour. Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code was one of those, which, yeah, blechh.

Good thing for movie adaptations then, so that I only need spend 2 hours watching it rather than a few days reading it.

A Canadian author (Rafe Spall) visits an Indian man named Pi (Irrfan Khan) in Montreal, having heard that he has an amazing story to tell. Born Piscine Molitor Patel in Pondicherry, India, the young Pi (played by Ayush Tandon) grows up in the zoo owned by his family - father (Adil Hussain), mother (Tabu), and elder brother Ravi (Mohamad Abas Khaleeli). He is a spiritually curious child, exploring and adopting aspects of the Hindu, Christian and Muslim faiths. At age 16 (played by Suraj Sharma), his father is forced to sell the zoo and migrate to Canada, travelling on the same cargo ship that is transporting the animals. In a violent storm, the ship capsizes and sinks. Pi is the only survivor, sharing a lifeboat with a zebra, a hyena, an orangutan - and an adult Bengal tiger named Richard Parker, who quickly devours the other animals. Boy and beast, stranded at sea together, must come to an uneasy understanding if they are to survive - in a story that, as Pi claims, will make you believe in God.

...aaand it didn't, not for me.TMBF's religious persuasion, if at all I have one, can best be described as agnostic bordering on atheist. Life of Pi did little to change that, even if I am generally open to films with a spiritual viewpoint. This one works best as an adventure story, and a visual-spectacle-heavy one at that. Director Ang Lee is no stranger to special effects, having helmed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hulk, and the eye-popping sights here are enough to make me wish I'd watched this in 3D. The sinking of the ship is spectacularly terrifying, and Pi's encounters with bioluminescent algae are breathtakingly beautiful. The largely-CGI tiger Richard Parker is flawlessly lifelike, and only when you know that PETA never protested this movie would you realise that the tiger - who gets soaked and tossed about the lifeboat and almost drowned - isn't real.

When Life of Pi is an adventure about survival at sea, it's quite enjoyable. Pi's efforts to survive in a 20-foot lifeboat alongside a flesh-eating tiger are fascinating; first he builds himself a makeshift raft on which he can keep away from the tiger's reach, then he has to keep feeding it so that it doesn't just swim over and devour him. Richard Parker starts out as threat, then enemy, then a burden, and finally earns Pi's friendship and affection - but it is always incontrovertibly a wild animal, never a Disneyesque cute anthropomorphic sidekick. Also enjoyable are the early portrayals of Pi's life in India, that include amusing vignettes of how both boy and tiger got their names. Pi's spiritual curiosity as a child lends him the faith he needs to survive his ordeal (and informs one poignant scene in which he kills a living thing, a fish, for the first time), and a lesson his father teaches him about the tiger's animal nature gives him the knowledge he needs to keep them both alive.

It's when Life of Pi tries to be a religious allegory that it gets shaky. The "make you believe in God" part comes at almost the very end, after a late plot twist of the sort that's meant to call into question everything you've seen. And I'm not in the least bit convinced; I'm not even piqued. I can't imagine it persuading anyone to believe in God who isn't already a card-carrying member of a theist faith. (Which probably accounts for the novel's popularity; religious people love it because it affirms what they already believe.) Again, I have no problems with overtly spiritual films or stories per se; if I can accept a reality in which, say, superheroes exist, I can accept a reality in which God exists and is an ineffable omnipresent force in that story's world. But this whole movie builds up towards a six-word line of dialogue that is almost smug in its conviction that it will make a believer out of you - you, the audience. But it just... doesn't... work. 

And it puts into sharp relief all of the film's other weaknesses. The most immediately noticeable is that it's often kinda slow; I rarely felt truly immersed in the story, rather I was always conscious that I was watching a movie and waiting for what happens next. (Although this is usually not a problem of the film's pacing per se, but more its inability to fully capture my interest from early on.) Once that ending comes around however, I also realized how aimless its plot was. At one point during the ocean voyage, they land on an island that turns out to be literally carnivorous - a man-eating island. This is what earns this review the Fantasy label, and not only is it a strange and tonally incongruous plot development, it also adds no support to the proof-of-God allegory. Nor does the childhood sweetheart Pi leaves behind in Pondicherry, or the quirky interludes about Pi's and Richard Parker's names, or even the entire relationship between the boy and the tiger. And for all of Pi's interest in three major religions, there's nothing Hindu, Christian or Islamic about those final six words.

So what we're left with is a gentle, warm-hearted, quirky lost-at-sea adventure story that's heavy on CGI spectacle, but also a little too slowly-paced. It's worth viewing on the big screen in Digital 2D simply for the gorgeous visuals - and yes, again, this is one I wish I'd watched in 3D. But as an allegory that proves the existence of God? Or even as a story that convincingly presents a reality in which God exists? Nope. In fact, its allegory is so unconvincing that I can only ascribe the novel's popularity to the fact that religious people still make up a far greater majority throughout the world than agnostics or atheists. I think most people who loved this book, loved it because it merely affirms what they already believe.

NEXT REVIEW: Wreck-It Ralph
Expectations: man, sure took me long enough

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Even wallflowers can bloom

The Perks of Being a Wallflower
My rating:

So I think I really have become spoiled by the Digital 2D format. Almost every major Hollywood film (and a few Hong Kong and even local ones) are released in this format, and I pretty much exclusively watch Hollywood movies in Digital 2D now. Costs me an extra RM2-3 per ticket, but I reckon it's worth it. Unfortunately, The Perks of Being a Wallflower is not screened here in this format, and I wonder if the fact that it's also being released under the GSC International Screens label has something to do with it. I mention this because the quality of the prints GSC is screening isn't very good at all. There are scratches, as well as infrequent jump cuts that I'm assuming are caused by a not-very-good projectionist switching from one reel to the next on the projector. Which would bring back nostalgic memories of watching movies in good ol' analog, were I the slightest bit nostalgic about crappy obsolete technology.

All that being said, you should still absolutely watch it. In cinemas even. Because it's good.

Charlie (Logan Lerman) is facing the normal everyday indignities of a teenage boy starting high school: nervousness, awkwardness, social introversion, and lack of any friends. Only his English teacher Mr. Anderson (Paul Rudd) shows him kindness; and though his family - his mom and dad (Kate Walsh and Dylan McDermott) and older sister Candace (Nina Dobrev) - are warm and loving enough, they can't understand what he's going through. But when he meets seniors Sam (Emma Watson) and Patrick (Ezra Miller), he finally finds a place to belong amongst their quirky, insular clique. Patrick is gay and in a secret relationship with closeted football player Brad (Johnny Simmons); Charlie gets a girlfriend in emo goth girl Mary Elizabeth (Mae Whitman), although it is the luminous Sam whom he is head over heels in love with. But through the entire school year, Charlie hides deep-seated emotional problems - possibly related to his beloved Aunt Helen (Melanie Lynskey) - that threaten to resurface and wreck his life once again.

This film is an adaptation of Stephen Chbosky's 1999 novel of the same name, a bestseller among young teens at that time. And yes, Chbosky also wrote and directed the film; he is an accomplished writer and producer, having co-created the TV series Jericho. I can see why the novel was popular. It's about a lonely and awkward social outcast teenager who falls in amongst a group of equally socially outcast teens, gains self-esteem through their acceptance of who he is, and even finds love. Which can be a far too precious and Mary Sue-ish kind of story, appealing to the most self-absorbed instincts among teenagers (and the teenager in all of us). But this one is good. And what makes it good is a great deal of humour, sensitivity and warmth in the story and characters, as well as a willingness to delve into some pretty dark territory.

But our protagonist is surrounded by good people. He loves all his family members and they him; his teacher encourages his interest in writing by lending him books; and Sam and Patrick extend him their kindness and friendship the minute they learn of his past trauma - that his best friend in junior high committed suicide. Much of the first half is taken up by Charlie becoming part of their circle, experiencing their eclectic tastes in music, their participation in live performances of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, and their casual drug use. But as nice as they are to him, they still have their own troubles to deal with, particularly Patrick and Sam - the latter whom is dating a college student, thus thwarting his romantic interest in her. In fact, it's Charlie who ends up doing something stupid and cruel when Mary Elizabeth somehow becomes his girlfriend.   

Because Charlie isn't just a normal awkward teenager - and what drives the story, for the most part, is the question of exactly what ails him. Aside from his friend committing suicide, he also lost his Aunt Helen to a car crash when he was little - but none of these seem to explain his stint in a psychiatric hospital before he started high school, or the "episodes" that Charlie tantalizingly mentions, in the letters he writes to an imaginary friend that serves as the film's ongoing narrative voiceover. It isn't till near the end, when he suffers a final emotional breakdown, that the truth is revealed, in a terrifically gripping scene. The film almost has the structure of a mystery in that sense, with the suspenseful buildup and cathartic revelation of that genre. 

As Emma Watson's first film that isn't part of the Harry Potter series, she acquits herself well. Her role isn't much of a challenge; she just needs to be luminously beautiful, which, well, she is. I'm a lot more impressed with Logan Lerman, whom I thought was terrible in two movies, but who was really good here. Where he was wooden and uncharismatic in popcorn fare, here he successfully plays a confused young man who simply doesn't know how to convey emotion; we're rooting for Charlie all the way, and we dearly want him to snap out of his depression and get the girl. And Ezra Miller is a lot of fun, a comic relief character whose flamboyant personality masks a deeper pain.

It's not a perfect film, to be honest. It occasionally lapses into cliché (do high school seniors really perform random acts of bullying on freshmen for no reason whatsoever?) and contrivances (when your friends have ostracised you after you did something awful, it's pretty convenient to suddenly have the opportunity to come heroically charging to their rescue). But neither of these things define it; what does is the sincerity and sensitivity it employs in telling a very familiar coming-of-age story. For some young viewers in those terribly confusing teenage years, this film may very well be a life-changer. As I bet the novel already was a generation ago.

Expectations: well, it looks really pretty