Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Departed

Year: 2006
Director: Martin Scorsese
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Matt Damon, Jack Nicholson, Mark Wahlberg, Martin Sheen

I watched this yesterday, and it was frankly one of the hardest films I've ever had to sit through. Not that it's bad, it just had a lot of everything. A lot of violence, a lot of cussing and a lot of censorship cuts. Tough. But I persevered luckily.

The Departed is adapted from the critically acclaimed Hong Kong movie Infernal Affairs, about the battle between the police and the mafia using moles within each other's organisations. I had not watched the original in its entirety, and I intend to once I get the opportunity. Many people who have watched both films have made comparisons. I hope I can stray from that in this review.

The Hollywood version takes place in South Boston, where the street crime is run by Frank Costello, a smart, vicious and always-in-control kingpin. To nail him, police captain Queenan and sergeant Dignam pick a new recruit from the force, Billy Costigan to go deep undercover and infiltrate Costello's gang. They pick Costigan because he comes from a family that has criminal history, plus Costello knew his late father.

Costello on the other hand also has a spy within the police force. Colin Sullivan, whom Costello watched over and supported since he was a boy, is now a member of the Boston police force. Sullivan acts as an informant, keeping Costello updated on the police's operations. Trouble begins when both sides discover the existence of a mole within their midst. Costigan and Sullivan are forced to race against each other to find out who it is, risking their covers being blown.

Scorsese chooses to film this as realistically as he sees fit. And unfortunately that involves showing violence and profanity in huge spades. When people get shot, it's usually in the head, with lots of blood spattered. Every other sentence spoken by the leads has a foul word in it, usually the one that begins with 'F'. Mark Wahlberg must have said that word at least 50 times throughout the film. And he's actually the worst thing about The Departed, because other than being foul-mouthed and having an appearance in the final scene, his character Dignam has no real importance here.

DiCaprio however is very convincing as Costigan. He hates the job given to him, and he struggles trying to make sense of it. The intensity on his face says it all. His character is afraid of the possibility of being discovered and eventually killed, and Leo pulls off that performance well. Damon is also quite good as Sullivan, but his character's motives are somewhat confusing. There are moments where Damon tries to humanise Sullivan, but in the end the character comes off somewhat selfish and unrepentant, unlike the original film. Perhaps we can pin the blame on Scorsese or screenplay adapter William Monahan for that mistake.

Nicholson does a great job playing Costello, and you can see him having fun with the role. However there are several times during the film where he seems to be enjoying it too much. Too many scenes, some either too long or unnecessary, featuring him in it, could have been edited out. Then maybe the 152 minute film would have been easier to watch. At least that's what i think. And the ending of the film feels rushed. A lot of violence takes place at the end, and this not only ruins the pacing but also makes it look like Scorsese wanted a typical Hollywood ending.

I am definitely going to look for the original film Infernal Affairs on DVD, I hear it's so much better. But to Scorsese's credit, it's watchable. However, if you're not a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio or you hate violence and really foul language, stay away from this. (3.5/5)

Friday, November 17, 2006

Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace

Year: 1999
Director: George Lucas
Cast: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman, Jake Lloyd

Who hasn't seen or heard of Star Wars? Everyone knows Star Wars. It holds such an important role in pop culture today. Even if you've never seen the movies, you must surely be familiar with its story of good versus evil taking place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. This was the film franchise that spawned arguably the most well known villain in the history of Hollywood: Darth Vader.

The original trilogy of episodes four to six were made in the 70s and 80s. The new trilogy of episodes one to three were filmed within the last eight years. This movie, the first one, was screened in 1999. Basically The Phantom Menace traces the beginning of the life of a young boy who would eventually become Darth Vader.

Episode I begins at the planet Naboo, where the greedy Trade Federation has formed a blockade in orbit. They plan on forcing Naboo's ruler, Queen Amidala to sign a treaty with them. With a massive army of armed droids at their command, they seem likely to succeed. But they are thwarted by two Jedis who arrive to escort the Queen safely to Coruscant, where she can plead her case to the Galactic Senate.

Due to damages sustained by their spacecraft during their escape, the Queen and the two Jedis: Qui-Gon Jinn and his apprentice Obi-Wan Kenobi, are forced to land on a desert planet called Tatooine, where they hope to repair their ship and continue their journey. This is the place where they meet a mysterious young boy named Anakin Skywalker, who offers to help them. Qui-Gon senses that the boy is special and is destined to become a great Jedi. But there are bigger problems at hand when the Trade Federation's ally in the Senate, the mysterious Darth Sidious, sends his apprentice Darth Maul to stop them...

If you're not a fan of Star Wars, you'd probably have stopped reading at this point. But if you are a fan, then all this would be already too familiar to you. So what can I say? Well, if you've always been intrigued by sci-fi and you love action and adventure, then this film would do nicely. It has everything from speedy pod races, space dogfights, laser shootouts, lightsaber duels etc.

However, if you're looking for good acting, you won't find much here. Neeson, McGregor and Portman do just fine. They are after all good actors. It's just that some of their lines seem corny, and that affects their performance a little. Lloyd is hardly impressive with his acting, looking lost and wooden half the time. Pernilla August however is quite good as Anakin's mother.

The final half hour of the movie is my favourite part, where four different battles take place. The Gungans, residents of Naboo who live underwater, fight the droid army; Naboo's starfighters including Anakin attack the Trade Federation vessel in orbit; Queen Amidala leads her guards to capture the Viceroy of the Federation; and the two Jedis battle Darth Maul in a breathtaking lightsaber duel.

Most Star Wars fans love Episode III the most out of the new trilogy, but I love this one best. Jar Jar Binks isn't as annoying as most people think, it has great action sequences, and thanks to the absence of the lovestruck adult Anakin played by Hayden Christensen in the later films, the dialogue is actually a whole lot better.

Being a Star Wars fan, I'd give it 4 out of 5. 3.5 for non-fans reading this. (4/5)

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Open Season

Year: 2006
Directors: Roger Allen & Jill Culton
Voice cast: Martin Lawrence, Ashton Kutcher, Gary Sinise, Debra Messing

This year we've seen a lot of animation films, from Ice Age 2 to Cars to Over The Hedge. And there are more coming up: Barnyard, Flushed Away and Happy Feet. And then there's this one, Open Season.

In this animated movie that takes place in the small town of Timberline, there's a story of a 900 pound domesticated bear named Boog, looked after by his owner, Beth the park ranger. One day, he crosses paths with a fast talking mule deer named Elliot. Elliot had been captured by the obsessed hunter Shaw, so Boog frees him. In return, Elliot takes Boog out of his comfortable home (Beth's garage to be exact) and shows him what he's missing. Unfortunately this gets the big bear in a lot of trouble, and Beth is forced to set him loose into the wild where he belongs. But does he really belong there, being domesticated all his life and knowing nothing about surviving in the woods? That's where Elliot comes in, with all the other quirky animals, who unfortunately make life harder for Boog. But there's more. Open hunting season begins, and Boog and Elliot have to work together with the other animals to drive the hunters away from their home.

So after Ice Age, Madagascar, The Wild and Finding Nemo, here's yet another animated film featuring talking animals. The common theme of friendship between odd characters is of course present. And with Lawrence and Kutcher voicing a bear and a deer respectively, it should be good, right? Well, not quite.

Unlike Finding Nemo, there aren't many laugh out loud jokes here. Kutcher is inconsistent in his performance, being hilarious sometimes and annoying at other times. The supporting characters are not much fun either. There's a grumpy squirrel, a beaver, an adorable porcupine, two skunks, a couple of tense looking ducks and a very vain deer, but none of them really stand out. However, listening to serious actor Gary Sinise (CSI NY) voice a crazy hunter like Shaw is fun. It's quite hard to believe that he actually did it, and that's a revelation.

It's a fun movie, but it's quite forgettable. I'd recommend Ice Age instead. (2.5/5)

Monday, November 06, 2006

The Prestige

Year: 2006
Director: Christopher Nolan
Cast: Hugh Jackman, Christian Bale, Michael Caine, Scarlett Johansson

Have you ever watched Memento? It's also directed by Nolan, a story of a man played by Guy Pearce, who suffers from short-term memory loss, trying to find the man who killed his wife. The film moves backwards, from the end to the beginning. This film is a masterpiece, because the way Nolan tells his story, revealing layer after layer, piece by piece until the very end is mind-bending, yet so alluring. The man is a genius. I pray I'll get to watch that film again someday.

But for now, let's focus on this one, Nolan's latest treasure. The Prestige takes place in London, at the turn of the century. Two friends, who are aspiring magicians, engage themselves in a battle that is both personal and professional. Each of them is obsessed in becoming the better magician.

The movie begins with a murder trial, where one of the magicians in question, Alfred Borden, is accused of killing the other magician, Robert Angier. From there, the story moves back and forth through time. We see flashbacks from both protagonists, going back to how both Robert and Alfred learned their trade from the magic mentor of sorts, John Cutter. A particular magic trick involving Robert's wife ends in tragedy, and Robert blames Alfred for it. That tragedy is the catalyst that starts the rivalry between them.

Robert sabotages one of Alfred's shows. Alfred retaliates in kind, then comes up with a trick called the Transported Man, a trick that Robert can't figure out. With Cutter's help, Robert copies the act, but Alfred sabotages his show. This makes Robert even more determined to discover Alfred's secret, and he resorts to underhanded tactics to get them. His quest leads him to America searching for a scientist named Tesla, who may be able to help him construct a machine that will allow him to perfect the trick.

If you think I've given away too much, guess again. There is still a lot to discover from this point on. But I'll say this much: Nolan did great. He flips the story back and forth effortlessly between the past and present, from both Robert and Alfred's point of view. If you were not paying attention, you'd probably be lost. But stay with the plot and you're assured of a thrill of a ride.

Performance wise, Jackman is believable as the obsessed Robert, but I feel that the character gets darker towards the end, and he could have done a little better with that. Or maybe I'm just too used to seeing him as Wolverine in the X-Men films, so it's hard to see him in a different light. Bale on the other hand is intense as Alfred. Bale plays him with a real dark like quality to him. You never know what he really is about, until you get to the end. And what can I say about Michael Caine that hasn't already been said? He's not a two-time Oscar winner for nothing. He plays Cutter magnificently, being enigmatic, wise and fair all at once. Scarlett Johansson however is not so effective as Olivia, the assistant to both magicians. Her role isn't large enough to satisfy the plot.

If you like being challenged, go see this. There's a surprise waiting at the end. The cast had said in interviews that the story is built to look like one big magic trick, and it's true. Just remember the tagline: are you watching closely? (4.5/5)

Sunday, November 05, 2006

World Trade Center

Year: 2006
Director: Oliver Stone
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Michael Pena, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Maria Bello

Oliver Stone is well known for making controversial films, such as Alexander and JFK. Unfortunately for me, I haven't seen most of his films. I've only seen Alexander, and that isn't a good representation of the man's talent. I'd love to watch JFK, Any Given Sunday, Natural Born Killers and the Oscar winning Platoon. For now, I'll start with this one.

World Trade Center is all about that fateful day in New York on September 11 2001. The day terrorists flew two passenger airplanes into the twin towers, killing 2749 people. This story is told through the eyes of four people: John and Donna McLoughlin and Will and Alison Jimeno.

Cage and Pena play John and Will respectively; two Port Authority police officers sent to the towers after the attack, and were subsequently pinned underneath the rubble with their colleagues when the towers came down. Bello and Gyllenhaal play their respective wives, who anxiously wait at home for news of their husbands' fate.

The collapse of the towers, visualised from the inside was done realistically. And you got to give credit to Stone for visualising the situation under the rubble from John and Will's perspective. It's dark, claustrophobic and downright terrifying. Imagine being trapped under tons of rock and steel, being unable to move at all, trying to stay awake in order to survive. It is scary indeed. And to their credit, Cage and Pena play the two men well enough, as they try to keep each other alive throughout the ordeal, not being able to see each other, only hearing each other's voices, as they talk about their families, hopes and the future. Bello and Gyllenhaal are also commendable as the distraught spouses, trying to hold themselves and their families together as the news breaks.

A critic over here expressed his disappointment due to the lack of controversial angles Stone could have used. And considering the subject matter at hand, I can understand his feelings. But in my opinion, this film isn't about terrorism. It's not about why it happened or what happened afterwards. It's about that day, 9/11. It's about what went on in New York City on that day, and how two people survived the tragedy. That's it. It's a human story. It's the movie's strength, and also its weakness.

Strength, because it doesn't pretend to be anything other than a human story. Weakness, because the human drama from the four protagonists is all you'll get to see. No creative drama portrayed by other people such as victims in the towers before it happened. No views from other people around the city at the time. Perhaps Stone didn't want to lose the focus. But we do get some perspectives from the rescuers as well as one particular former US marine who drove all the way to the scene to help, and eventually finds John And Will there. Perhaps the simplicity of the film is its Achilles heel.

If you like human stories of courage, or you're interested in the 9/11 incident, this will do just fine. But don't expect anything groundbreaking. (3/5)


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...