Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Death Proof

Year: 2007
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Kurt Russell, Rosario Dawson, Sydney Poitier, Vanessa Ferlito, Tracie Thoms, Jordan Ladd, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Rose McGowan, Zoe Bell


I finally made the time to watch the other half of the Grindhouse feature by Quentin Tarantino. I had seen Robert Rodriguez's Planet Terror a couple of months ago, and compared to this, it's still more over the top. But Tarantino isn't without his quirks and flaws in his feature.

This review I'm writing will probably be the first one where I keep the sypnosis real short. Why? Because there really isn't much to go on. Here goes: Death Proof focuses on a psychopathic stuntman called Stuntman Mike, who uses his death proof car to kill unsuspecting women. Why is the car death proof? Because it was built to protect the driver from serious harm.

Yeah, that's about it. Short enough for you? OK, now for the rest of the review. Let's start with what I like about it. There's a car crash in the middle part of the film. A spectacular one, which is horrific enough to stick in your mind for a while. Kudos to Tarantino for pulling it off. I don't know how he did it, had to be special effects of course. But well executed. There's also a lengthy car chase at the film's climax, which is only mildly entertaining, but not bad. And another plus point: the music. Tarantino uses obscure 60s and 70s music for his film, and it works. Really. Now, I'm not a fan of songs from that era, but damn, I loved the music he put in here. Wonderful.

Now for the downside of Death Proof. While Rodriguez's flaw is over-the-top ridiculousness, Tarantino's guilty for self-indulgence. And the fact that he doesn't really have a plot to hold the film for 2 hours. So what did he do? He filled the film with dialogue. Not just any dialogue. Stupid, unnecessary, irrelevant dialogue. I mean, think about it. The girls in this film have to talk about something, right? Tarantino pictures all the girls as bitchy, stoned, chain smoking, expletive spewing white trash/black huchi mamas in skimpy outfits who spend their time driving around with their feet out the car windows. And what do these girls talk about? Weed. Sex. Two-timing loser guys. And all that shit. Is this what modern day women talk about? Excuse me if I got it wrong, Mr Tarantino. Your movie may seem quite retro, but your characters use cellphones and read magazines with Jessica Simpson on the cover.

Anyway, the dialogue has no real connection whatsoever to the plot, if there really is one to begin with. And Tarantino spends an obscene amount of time on that! Nonstop chatter among girls, who probably deserve to get run over by Stuntman Mike. If Tarantino wrote them that way so that we can cheer Mike on, then fine. He got that right. Speaking of Mike, Kurt Russell does a decent job as said character, but his about turn behaviour at the end spoiled the fun. The ladies playing all the girls turn in decent performances too, despite being fed some of the dumbest lines you'll ever hear. But at least it's mildly hilarious to listen to them converse. Just a little.

I'm on the fence for this movie, just like I was for Planet Terror. If you plan on watching this, lower your expectations.

By the way, one worthy mention is the ending, which is borrowed straight out of old 70s Chinese kungfu movies. Funny, if nothing else. (3.5/5)

Saturday, December 22, 2007

National Treasure: Book Of Secrets

Year: 2007
Director: Jon Turteltaub
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Jon Voight, Ed Harris, Diane Kruger, Helen Mirren, Justin Bartha, Harvey Keitel, Bruce Greenwood

I remember falling sick on the day I went to watch the first National Treasure. But it wasn't because of the film, it was because the cinema hall was too cold. The first film was a nice little adventure, featuring a treasure hunt based on clues left behind in places you'd least expect to find them. Nicolas Cage plays Benjamin Gates, the protagonist who spearheaded that hunt.

In this sequel, Cage is back again as Ben, and there is yet another mystery to unravel. It begins when he and his father Patrick (Jon Voight), present their ancestor, Thomas Gates, as a national hero to be immortalised in the history books, at a ceremony. It is at this moment, that Mitch Wilkinson (Ed Harris), a man who appreciates treasure hunting and history as much as Ben does, presents part of a missing page from the diary of John Wilkes Booth, the assassin of President Abraham Lincoln. This piece of paper indicates that Ben's ancestor was a co-conspirator in Lincoln's murder.

Ben and Patrick are stunned of course, and refuse to believe it. And Ben, being the crazy, throw caution to the wind kind of guy that he is, intends to find the truth. He ropes in his tech wiz buddy Riley (Justin Bartha), and now ex-girlfriend Dr Abigail Chase (Diane Kruger) to follow the clues. Together they travel to Paris and Washington, and break into high security places, and discover that all this leads to a map to a lost city of gold. The fun begins when Ben asks his mother Emily (Helen Mirren), who can read Native American language, for assistance. And of course, Wilkinson is no doubt close behind them, waiting for his opportunity.

You're probably wondering, what is the Book Of Secrets? If you've seen the trailer, you'd know that it is a book filled with the nation's most confidential information, for President's eyes only. Part of the clues for this hunt is in the book, hence the book's involvement. Though I think it's rather strange that the book doesn't have a big role in the story after all, and yet it is featured in the title.

Anyway, like the first film, this sequel is fun to watch. But not because it presents fresh ideas (since it's a lot like the first film in concept), nor for the action sequences (though there's a nice car chase in the narrow streets of London thrown in). It's fun because of the characters and script. The interaction and camaraderie between the cast is charming and infectious, as they all have great chemistry together. Bartha gets the lion's share of the one-liners as usual, playing off against the seriousness of Cage and Kruger's characters. Voight and Mirren also shine as the estranged couple who can't seem to get along, squabbling like old people usually do.

But, as fun as it is, it's not original in many ways. It may appeal to people who love American history, or fans of Cage, but not for people who really crave for adrenalin pumping adventures. You know, the ones where the danger you see on screen feels real, and it keeps you on the edge. This one is like a ride in an amusement park, where the fun doesn't last.

I'd recommend it for people who'd like to bring their whole family go see something that everyone can enjoy. But not if you want something more meaty. (3.5/5)

Sunday, December 16, 2007

I Am Legend

Year: 2007
Director: Francis Lawrence
Cast: Will Smith, Alice Braga, Charlie Tahan, Dash Mihok

I Am Legend apparently is the third adaptation of Richard Matheson's novel, about a man being the sole survivor of a virus that wiped out everyone on earth. It is a fascinating concept, though not really unfamiliar in this age, thanks to Danny Boyle's 28 Days Later.

Will Smith, everyone's favourite action hero, plays Robert Neville, a military scientist who was given the task of stopping a deadly virus, that spawned from a miracle cure for cancer that went bad. He failed. The virus wiped out billions of humans on earth, and the ones that didn't perish became flesh eating creatures that come out after dark.

Neville is immune to the virus, so he is the lone survivor, occupying New York City all by himself, with only his faithful dog, Sam for company. It's been 3 years since the infection hit, and he still can't find a cure. When he's not working on the antidote, he spends his time hunting, going to the DVD store, searching for fuel and provisions and waiting for any other survivors to answer his radio signal for contact. At night, he barricades his home and hides from the infected ones, scurrying for food in the dark outside.

Eventually he makes contact with a woman and a child, but their presence puts him at risk, as the infected discover his whereabouts.....

Credit goes to director Francis Lawrence for making a movie that isn't boring at all. It's a familiar idea to show on screen, but he manages to make it exciting, nail-biting, suspenseful, dramatic and heart-rending, and not necessarily in that order. Akiva Goldsman, the Oscar winning screenwriter, also deserves credit for the good dialogue, and inserting several funny moments, not least of which is a scene where Neville watches Shrek on TV. Also impressive is the set design, where the filmmakers convincingly turn the city that never sleeps to one that looks like it has slept for a long time. The streets are empty, filled with wild grass, cars are strewn all over, animals run wild on the roads.....if you've watched 28 Days Later, you'll know what I mean.

Smith does a great job playing Neville, as he conveys his character's sadness, disbelief and loneliness convincingly. However, I can't help but feel that in the hands of a different actor, we might have had a better portrayal. Smith is good, no doubt about it. But in Neville's shoes, he's just like most of the guys he's played on screen, the ones that can laugh in the face of despair. I will give him credit for his effort though.

Another bone I have to pick with the film is the CGI used to show the infected. In 28 Days Later (sorry for the repetitive comparisons), the infected are real extras with makeup effects, and very convincingly done. In here, the infected look like video game monsters, and kinda like distant cousins of the creatures in The Descent. Lawrence, who made the excellent Constantine, should have stuck with real, blood pumping actors for his film. It definitely would have made a difference.

I'm kind enough to give it a 4 star rating for its tremendous effort, but if you want a better action horror film in the same vein, try 28 Days Later. (4/5)

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Enchanted

Year: 2007
Director: Kevin Lima
Cast: Amy Adams, Patrick Dempsey, James Marsden, Susan Sarandon, Timothy Spall, Rachel Covey

After all those years of coming up with sweet and good natured films fitted with happy endings, Disney decided to make fun of themselves this time around. It's about time too.

Enchanted is a film where Disney takes their famous animated fantasies and fairy tales and merge them with the real world. And it is quite an effort indeed. I mean, think of all those 2-D film cartoons like Tarzan and Beauty & The Beast and Aladdin, and imagine what it would be like if they landed in a live action setting, which basically means turning the genre completely on its head. But the question is, does it work?

The story begins in 2-D, in the world called Andalasia, where a young maiden named Giselle dreams of finding her true love, and sings about it with her pet chipmunk Pip and the rest of her forest friends. A dashing prince, Edward, hears her singing and finds her, and in true Disney fairy tale fashion, takes her to his castle for a happily ever after marriage. But every tale like this has a villain, in this case, Edward's evil stepmother Queen Narissa. She doesn't plan on losing the throne to Edward and his bride, so she disguises herself as an old wretch and tricks Giselle into falling down a deep wishing well, where she is transported to a totally different world.

Up to this point, you'd be forgiven if you thought this was a classic Disney cartoon. But it is also at this point where the fun begins. Where has Giselle ended up? A place where there is no happily ever after. Which is: New York City. And now we move into live action. Giselle finds herself in the middle of a foreign land where no one is nice to her at all. She desperately tries to find her way home, but ends up getting robbed by a homeless man. Tough huh?

Luckily, she is rescued by a divorce lawyer, Robert Philip and his daughter Morgan. Robert is of course, a skeptic for happy endings, probably a pre-requisite for his career. As Giselle struggles to understand the way things are in the new world she is now in, Robert equally finds it hard to grasp the behaviour Giselle carries around. He thinks she is absolutely delusional, and rightfully so, since she acts like a complete fish out of water in his presence. However, Morgan takes a liking to her, and Robert tries his best to help Giselle, and even learns a thing or two about love and happiness from her.

Meanwhile, Prince Edward lands in New York with Pip the chipmunk in an attempt to find Giselle. But his efforts are hampered by his lack of understanding of this world, Pip's loss of ability to speak (this isn't a cartoon anymore haha) and the presence of Nathaniel, Edward's assistant who works in secret with Narissa to thwart her stepson's plans.

First off, I have to give points to director Kevin Lima and writer Bill Kelly for coming up with a truly entertaining film for audiences of all ages. You'll love all the characters here, from the naive and innocent Giselle to the well-meaning but over realistic Robert to the sometimes slow witted yet charming Edward. And Susan Sarandon is wonderfully hammy as the evil queen. Amy Adams is just perfect as Giselle. When you see her on screen, you will truly believe that she thinks of herself as a fantasy character, and that she believes in happy endings and all that fluff. It's sickeningly sweet, and yet intoxicating. Marsden gets to fool around this time, unlike in the X-Men films as Cyclops. Here, as Edward, he gets to play a total buffoon who can't understand Pip the chipmunk's sign language, which are some of the funniest things you'll ever see. Dempsey plays Robert the same way he plays McDreamy on that medical drama (oh you know which one) but is effective enough.

What else? Oh, Disney films usually come with song sequences. And Enchanted is no different. But how does it look like in the real world? Well, let's just say that it won't look out of place in a Bollywood film, but you know what? It's excellently done. Kevin Lima makes a particular song and dance sequence in Central Park hilarious and flawless, and even if you hate musicals, you'll find yourself tapping your feet along to it.

Perhaps you'll find the predictable happy ending as inevitable, and maybe even ridiculous, but there's just too much fun to be had to say no to watching this. Recommended. And bring the whole family. (4/5)

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium

Year: 2007
Director: Zach Helm
Cast: Dustin Hoffman, Natalie Portman, Jason Bateman, Zach Mills

I'm a huge fan of Natalie Portman. I admit it. She's gorgeous, talented and mesmerising on screen. Recently on Empire magazine's top 100 sexiest stars, she got 2nd place, losing to the overrated Angelina Jolie. Bah! Well, anyway she's the main reason why I went to watch Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium.

This film starts with a narration by a supporting character, a young boy named Eric (Zach Mills). Eric happens to be a helper down at the magical toy store owned by Mr Edward Magorium (Dustin Hoffman), an eccentric yet lovable 243 year old genius. The store is managed by a young girl, Molly Mahoney (Natalie Portman), who aspires to be a great pianist / songwriter, but is too insecure to see the sparkle within herself.

So why is this toy store magical? Well, for one thing, the store itself is alive! Toys fly around by themselves, rooms switch into different ones by a turn of a knob and there's a big book that can make a specific toy materialise by request. It's no wonder that the store is filled with children every day.

One day, Magorium hires an accountant, Henry Weston (Jason Bateman) to value the store. Why? Because he's leaving. Magorium tells Molly that he's going to die (which in this context, is a strange word to use) and he's leaving the store in her care. Molly doesn't like the idea, for she has no intention of taking over it. Worst of all, the store itself hates the idea and starts to throw a tantrum and misbehave. Yeah, you heard me right. Anyway, when Magorium eventually departs, the store goes haywire and the magic vanishes from it.

Eric, who loves the store more than he would love people, attempts to save it. He enlists Henry's help, but it proves to be hard to convince the skeptical accountant of the store's magic. But eventually, Eric and Henry begin a wonderful friendship, and together they try to inspire Molly to take control of the magic emporium.

On the surface, Mr Magorium's Wonder Emporium is a lot like Charlie & The Chocolate Factory. Magical building, eccentric owner, wonder kid etc. We even have a grown up version of the latter film's Mike Teavee in Henry Weston, but thankfully he doesn't have the smarty alecky attitude. In fact, Bateman does a pretty good job as Weston, whom everyone refers to as a mutant (Magorium calls him a cross between a counter and a mutant, so that explains it). The deadpan mannerisms Bateman brings to the film is perfect, and he gets more to do here than in his last film The Kingdom.

Mills also scores as the weird kid Eric, with his constant wide eyed expressions. There's one strange kid in every film like this, I know. But Eric is one of a kind. Hoffman is also fun to watch, playing Magorium as a kid trapped in a old man's body, yet possessing the wisdom befitting his age. Portman does well as Molly, but in some scenes, I somehow noticed her trying hard to believe in her character's faith in the magical store. Perhaps Portman is a little too old to play the teenage Molly, and the uninspiring haircut doesn't help much.

Director Zach Helm, who is still new at directing, doesn't quite succeed in making this film appealing to all ages. Sure, the kids would love it. But adults need to have something in it that would make them laugh and cheer and maybe even smile. It's magical, but it doesn't quite engage the audience and carry them onto the adventure that the film could have been. The simple ending also doesn't help matters.

It's a good attempt by a first time director, but there is much room for improvement here. An average film. And not one of Portman's best work. (3/5)

Saturday, December 08, 2007

The Golden Compass

Year: 2007
Director: Chris Weitz
Cast: Dakota Blue Richards, Nicole Kidman, Daniel Craig, Sam Elliott, Eva Green

Within the first half hour of watching this flick, I found myself quite confused, for I didn't know what the essence of the story was. I knew that it is yet another story of good and evil, and it's very similar to The Chronicles Of Narnia, and it is based on a literary fantasy. Thankfully the story gets better as it moves along.

The Golden Compass is set in a world of parallel universes, and there is one universe where people have an animal close to them at all times, for it manifests their soul within them. This animal is called a daemon. In this world, the people are governed by an all controlling type body known as The Magisterium.

The main character here is a young and spunky girl named Lyra Belacqua, who stays at the Jordan College. Her daemon is a shape changing animal named Pan, who shifts from cat to bird to squirrel as he requires. She is watched over by the college lords, as well as her uncle, Lord Asriel. Asriel has recently returned from a journey with a discovery of the mysterious Dust, an element that The Magisterium seeks so hard to deny of its existence.

Sensing that The Magisterium will take action concerning Asriel's find, action that may affect all life, one of the college lords hands Lyra an alethiometer, a truth telling device also known as The Golden Compass. The device is vital if free thinkers are to survive the machinations of The Magisterium, and Lyra is the key to it all. The Magisterium sends Mrs Coulter, an influential member of their ranks, to take Lyra under her wing. Lyra finds Mrs Coulter quite charming, but soon discovers her dark and dangerous side, and runs off, with the compass and Pan in tow.

Lyra is on a mission of her own: to save her best friend, who has been kidnapped by mysterious people known as Gobblers. She finds out that they are connected to The Magisterium, and that many children have been taken by them to be experimented on. Along the way, Lyra finds some very useful allies, among them the Gyptians, a race of people who travel on water; Lee Scoresby, an aeronaut; Serafina Pekkala, queen of the witches; and a talking ice bear named Iorek Byrnison.

Lyra brings all of her friends to the place where the kidnapped children are, but can they save them?

The Golden Compass is based on Philip Pullman's novel, which isn't too far removed from stories like Narnia, Eragon and Harry Potter. In fact, you can say that it also shares similarities with Star Wars, since The Magisterium is so much like the Empire. But anyway, director Chris Weitz manages to weave a great film out of the novel, though I heard it differs significantly from each other. Nevertheless, Weitz successfully keeps the audience's interest intact throughout the movie by balancing the pace well and not overdoing the visual effects. The action scenes are also well executed, even a fight scene between two talking bears which is of course completely CGI, is breathtaking.

The star of the film is definitely Dakota Blue Richards, who has us all rooting for Lyra throughout. She has just the right amount of charm, wits and spunk to play a brave and strong young girl. Nicole Kidman is fittingly icy as Mrs Coulter, but personally I'm not impressed too much. This role looks too easy for her. I do like Sam Elliott, playing Lee Scoresby, the only character without a British accent in the film. Daniel Craig and Eva Green get too little screen time as Asriel and Serafina respectively. Oh, do listen out for some well known voices for the animals: Ian McKellen as the bear Iorek Byrnison, Freddie Highmore as Pan and Deadwood's Ian McShane as Iorek's rival Ragnar.

At a little less than two hours, it's a good film that won't bore you with unnecessary details and draggy scenes like Narnia, and it's fun for the whole family. It ends with a cliffhanger of sorts, since the story is a planned trilogy. Let's hope the next one is just as good, if not better. (4/5)

Sunday, December 02, 2007

The Kingdom

Year: 2007
Director: Peter Berg
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Chris Cooper, Jennifer Garner, Jason Bateman, Ashraf Barhom, Ali Suliman, Jeremy Piven

In a post-911 world, terrorism is probably the most talked about subject these days. This is reflected as well in films and TV. You can see it on the hit TV series 24, as well as films like The Siege and Collateral Damage. Hollywood has a tendency of viewing Middle Easterns as the villains, which may change with the upcoming thriller Rendition. But for now, let's talk about The Kingdom.

It begins in Saudi Arabia, where a community of Americans living there are brutally attacked by terrorists. The following response team on the scene also fall prey to a larger, more devastating assault, killing 2 US government agents. The FBI are shocked and upset with the incident, and Special Agent Ronald Fleury (Jamie Foxx) wants to assemble a team and head to Riyadh to investigate.

However, the Saudis are not keen on the idea, and neither is the US State Department, due to the oil connection between the 2 countries (Saudis selling oil to the Americans) that makes their relationship very sensitive. Fleury however defies the State Dept and gets a team together anyway, and pulls some strings to get there quickly. He takes along fellow agents Janet Mayes (Jennifer Garner), Grant Sykes (Chris Cooper) and Adam Leavitt (Jason Bateman), who are experts in forensics, bombs and intelligence respectively.

Upon landing in Riyadh, they are greeted by Colonel Al-Ghazi of the Saudi State Police (Ashraf Barhom), who is determined to help catch the men responsible for the attacks. However, he informs the team that the Saudi government have restricted the team from directly participating in the investigation. Fleury isn't pleased, but does his best to uncover any information within the small time frame that his team has. Al-Ghazi tries his best to assist the FBI despite his hands being tied by his superiors, being very passionate about it, since the attackers were disguised as policemen. They learn that the attack may have been planned by Abu Hamza, who is connected to Al-Qaeda.

As the team dig deeper, they get closer and closer to Abu Hamza, and gain a small victory from it. However, the terrorists have targeted the team next with another brutal assault....

Peter Berg, who was an actor on TV's Chicago Hope before becoming a director, takes the reins of this film and turns it into a well crafted thriller. Writer Matthew Michael Carnahan fills the script with very plausible situations and dialogue, especially the ones that involve politics within the government departments. Together, Berg and Carnahan have made a film that passes off as quality entertainment. They even fill in some scenes of culture clashes between the Americans and the Saudis, like how to greet Saudi royalty, and how Mayes isn't allowed to touch a Muslim because she's a woman. Kudos also goes out to the cast, who flesh out their characters convincingly. Barhom deserves special mention for his intense and sometimes humorous portrayal of Colonel Al-Ghazi.

If there's any fault I can find with The Kingdom, it is the familiarity. Terrorism? Nothing new. American heroism. Done before. Sensitive politics between governments and within their own? Yes, been there too. I even predicted which character would bite the dust in the end. People who aren't pro-American would probably not like this film. But me? I'm neutral in a way. I can see how some people would see this as more American propaganda, but I would just sit back and enjoy the film. At the very least, the top-notch acting is worth the price of the ticket.

If you want good entertainment, this one is a good bet. Pay close attention to the end, where the final lines underscore the insanity our world has become. (4/5)

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Balls Of Fury

Year: 2007
Director: Robert Ben Garant
Cast: Dan Fogler, Christopher Walken, Maggie Q, George Lopez, James Hong, Thomas Lennon

Have you ever heard of a sports film being made on table tennis or ping pong? Nope, I don't think you have. Hollywood usually makes films about basketball, baseball, football, soccer, car racing etc. But ping pong? Seriously. But hey, there's a first time for everything, so here now we have Balls Of Fury, a huge comedy with tiny balls, as the tagline reads.

The protagonist in this film is Randy Daytona (Dan Fogler), a former child prodigy in table tennis, who was humiliated at the 1988 Olympics by a German player, Karl Wolfschtagg (Thomas Lennon). It was at this same venue where Randy's father Pete (Robert Patrick in a cameo) gets killed by a gangster for losing a bet on the match.

Now, in present time, Randy works in Vegas, performing parlour tricks surrounding table tennis, when he gets a visit by FBI agent Ernie Rodriguez (George Lopez). Lopez tells Randy of an underground ping pong tournament being organised by Feng (Christopher Walken), the same gangster who killed Randy's father. The FBI need Randy to get himself invited for the tournament and infiltrate Feng's hideout. So Randy gets himself back into the game, but finds that he doesn't possess the magic that he once had.

Lopez then takes Randy to Master Wong (James Hong), a blind old man that once trained Feng, to learn the finer points of the game. It is through Master Wong, and sparring sessions with his beautiful niece Maggie (Maggie Q), that Randy finally gains the skill he needs to take part in Feng's tournament. Will Randy succeed in getting his revenge?

Oh well, if you've watched comedies such as this, you can answer that question easily. Let me start off by saying that this is one comedy you shouldn't take too seriously. It relies on slapstick humour a lot, and the jokes are the kind that would make 10 year olds laugh from start to finish. But hey, even adults can enjoy this, if they leave their logic at the door. Director Robert Ben Garant, who co-wrote the screenplay with Thomas Lennon, keeps everything light, and even manages to pay tribute to 80s rock by having Def Leppard's music in the background.

Fogler plays the unlikely hero Randy the way we would root the underdog guy that doesn't look like a movie hero, and it works. But I do find it a little hard to accept Maggie Q as his romantic interest, since they look quite mismatched, and the story doesn't quite give them time to strike up the right chemistry to make it believable. Walken isn't at his funniest here, though he does look hilarious wearing old Chinese outfits as his costume. What I do like seeing is James Hong as the Yoda-like Master Wong. He gets the best lines and scenes in the film, hands down. There are also some worthy cameos in this film, such as Jason Scott Lee, Cary Hiroyuki Tagawa and Heroes star Masi Oka.

If you want some light hearted material, Balls Of Fury will do just fine for a few laughs. (3.5/5)

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Hitman

Year: 2007
Director: Xavier Gens
Cast: Timothy Olyphant, Dougray Scott, Olga Kurylenko, Robert Knepper, Michael Offei, Ulrich Thomsen

It's been a while since I've watched a film based on a video game. Films like these tend to get scathing remarks by the critics, due to the absence of a good plot and the existence of mindless action that leads to nowhere. So does Hitman live up to being better than other video game adaptations such as Doom, Super Mario Bros and Street Fighter?

Hitman focuses on a mysterious man named Agent 47. 47 is an assassin trained by an equally mysterious company known as The Organisation. In the beginning, 47 narrates an explanation of how he and several other children were chosen at birth, trained in the art of killing since childhood and given a barcode tattoo on the back of their heads before being sent out to do their duty.

On his latest assignment, 47 is ordered to kill Mikhail Belicoff, the president of Russia. He succeeds, but suddenly realises that his employers now have him as a target. He escapes, and proceeds to kidnap Nika, a prostitute linked to Belicoff, who is now a target as well. At the same time, he has to evade the clutches of Interpol agent Michael Whittier, who has been chasing him for the past 3 years. Whittier tries his best to apprehend 47, but his efforts are hampered by the Russian secret police, led by Yuri Marklov. Meanwhile, 47 drags Nika along while pursuing the client who requested the hit on Belicoff.

To be honest, the plot is rather complicated, which is quite rare for a video game adaptation. But the plot is more of an excuse to move the action along, and in a few scenes, the action seems out of place or badly timed. There's an action sequence between 47 and 3 others just like him at a train station. The way the scene was set up is quite ridiculous, despite the fact that it was well done.

Xavier Gens, the director, keeps the pace tight, which is good. However, like most action films, the story doesn't make much sense, for example, too little is known about The Organisation, and their purpose is never explained. The reason for Nika becoming a target as well is also not elaborated.

Timothy Olyphant does a decent enough job playing 47, who isn't as cold hearted as a hitman should be. But then again, we've seen this kind of character many times before. Olyphant is better here than in Live Free Or Die Hard, but I prefer him as Seth Bullock in Deadwood. Dougray Scott tries a little too hard sometimes but is effective nevertheless as Michael Whittier. The rest of the cast are generally okay. Look out for Prison Break's Robert Knepper and Lost's Henry Ian Cusick playing Russian characters. It's quite weird, since I've seen them on TV playing non-Russian guys. Hmm.

It's a good action film, but it isn't very original. You'll notice similarities with The Transporter, The Bourne Identity and The Replacement Killers. I suggest you watch those other films instead. (3.5/5)

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Stardust

Year: 2007
Director: Matthew Vaughn
Cast: Claire Danes, Charlie Cox, Michelle Pfeiffer, Robert DeNiro, Mark Strong, Sienna Miller

It's not often that you get a fairytale type movie that doesn't succumb to the usual cliches you'd find in a storybook. Well, actually to be honest, Stardust does have many of those familiar elements I'm talking about. But its execution is quite different.

Stardust is adapted from the novel of the same name by Neil Gaiman, which focuses on one Tristan Thorne, who lives in a village called Wall, so named because it is situated on one side of a wall that separates England from a mystical land named Stormhold. Tristan has a major crush on Victoria, a spoilt girl who doesn't care for him, but indulges in the attention he gives her. One night, the two witness a star fall from the sky, and Tristan promises to bring Victoria that star for her hand in marriage. She agrees, and off he goes over the wall to seek it.

But little does he know that the reason the star fell is because of the actions of the King of Stormhold, who sends a magic gem into the heavens, and tells his princes that the throne will go to the one who brings it back. The princes, who are notorious for killing each other to ascend the throne, waste no time in stabbing each other in the back as they race to retrieve the star.

The falling star is also witnessed by a trio of witches, led by Lamia, who wishes to use the star to restore their youth, and they will stop at nothing to do so. Lamia is perceived as a vain yet dangerous woman who possesses lethal magical powers. She sets out to get the star through any means necessary.

But all of them are in for an adventure, as Tristan gets to the star first, who turns out to be a beautiful girl named Yvaine. He drags her back to his village, since she isn't too excited about being a wedding gift. The trip is of course laden with one obstacle after another, as Septimus, the most ambitious of the princes, and Lamia close in on the two youths. Tristan and Yvaine get into all sorts of trouble, but they get a little help from a pirate of a flying ship called Captain Shakespeare, who helps escort them on part of their journey. Of course, along the way, Tristan and Yvaine learn more about each other, and the inevitable happens.....

Would you expect finding a dashing prince in this film? Nope, because all the greedy princes are not so dashing. But we do have Tristan, who matures from a naive lovesick boy at the beginning of the story to a handsome hero with courage. We have a wicked witch in Lamia, who rivals the wicked witch of the west, and then some. And then we have a pirate, who is not quite what he seems. All excellent ingredients for a good fairytale.

Danes manages to steal the show in many parts as the headstrong but understanding Yvaine, while Cox is perfect as the wide-eyed Tristan who becomes a true hero in the end. Pfeiffer seems to have fun in her role as Lamia, while DeNiro is hilarious as Captain Shakespeare. Who says DeNiro isn't funny? He'll have you in stitches for sure. Mark Strong rounds up the main cast as Septimus, also look out for cameos by Peter O'Toole as the King and Ricky Gervais as a trader.

Praise goes to Matthew Vaughn for doing wonders with this film, from the pacing to set design to action sequences. He gets it right from start to finish, and gives a movie that anyone can enjoy. Go ahead and see this if you want to have fun, with minimal violence. (4/5)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

30 Days Of Night

Year: 2007
Director: David Slade
Cast: Josh Hartnett, Melissa George, Danny Huston, Ben Foster

Out of all the mythical creatures that have terrorised movie audiences over the years, none have been as popular as the vampire. The bloodsucking nocturnal being has thrilled movie fans for the longest time, in many different incarnations. And here we have another vampire film, but not quite as familiar.

30 Days Of Night is set in a little town known as Barrow, Alaska. It is at the northernmost tip of the USA, thus it is cold all year, and for a month there, the sun does not rise. That month has come again, and a majority of Barrow's inhabitants leave town to escape the prolonged darkness. A small population of about 150 stay behind, including the town sheriff, Eben Oleson and his estranged wife Stella.

On the last day of sunshine, a mysterious stranger walks into town and wastes no time getting himself in trouble and winds up in the lock-up. This is when he tells Eben and Stella that death is coming. Then bad things start happening. The power gets cut off. All modes of transportation are disabled, including the sled dogs that wind up dead. People start dying, in violent fashion. Eben quickly finds that Barrow has been invaded by a bloodthirsty gang of vampires, who have come to kill and drain the blood of every human being they can find for the following month of darkness. The survivors band together and try desperately to last a month indoors, trapped by the vampires hunting them on the outside.

30 Days Of Night is based on the graphic novel of the same name by writer Steve Niles and artist Ben Templesmith, and they have come up with a different kind of vampire altogether. These aren't the ones that wear middle age costumes and look like Tom Cruise. They don't wear skin-tight suits and kill werewolves. They don't carry swords and fight other vampires that look like WWE wrestler Triple H. No, these vampires are vile, mean killing machines with dark eyes and a full set of sharp teeth. Oh, and they don't speak English. Cool.

Director David Slade certainly has a great vision for this film. I admire his style, which includes occasional handheld camera work, dim lighting (to suit the darkness mood) and minimal music. But you ought to check out his music score during the climax, it's pretty cool. Slade also does not hold back on the gore, and rightfully so. After all, what's a vampire flick without the blood, right?

Out of all the actors on hand, it's Josh Hartnett that shines the brightest as Eben, displaying a mature sense of acting. He plays the sheriff that is scared, yet trying to be brave for his townsfolk, being protective and having to think constantly on how to stay ahead of the enemy. Melissa George, who plays Stella, does more emotional scenes than the rest of the cast, which is a pity. A tough exterior might have suited her character better. Danny Huston is truly menacing and terrifying as the vampire leader Marlow, while the underrated Ben Foster makes good of his limited screen time as the stranger.

However, as good as this film looks on the surface, it is flawed. The pace of the film is rather slow, from the time the first attack begins until the last 15 minutes of the film. Understandably, the entire movie is supposed to depict the 30 days in question, but the passing of time isn't smoothly done. The film jumps from the first day to day 7 to day 18 and so forth, yet it doesn't quite feel like time has moved that much, and trust me, it's not because the darkness is constant. A lot of the dialogue is also quite cliched and could have been improved, including the vampires' lines.

Overall, a slightly above average attempt at making a good vampire film. (3.5/5)

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Shoot 'Em Up

Year: 2007
Director: Michael Davis
Cast: Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti, Monica Bellucci

If there ever was a film that really lives up to its name, it would be Shoot 'Em Up. I know it's not much of a title, but the film is downright fun, despite the story being less than stellar.

It begins at a bus stop, where a mysterious man who calls himself Smith (Clive Owen) is sitting there chewing on a carrot. A pregnant lady suddenly runs past him, fearing for her life. Then an armed man follows suit, hot on her heels. Smith decides to get involved, and saves the lady by killing the man with his carrot. No kidding.

Then all hell breaks loose, as a group of gunmen led by a man named Hertz (Paul Giamatti) arrive on the scene and start firing. Smith helps the lady deliver the baby, but she gets killed in the crossfire. He then runs off with the child, pursued by Hertz and his gang, with bullets flying and bodies falling by the wayside. Smith takes the child to a hooker he was involved with once, Donna Quintano (Monica Bellucci). She initially refuses to help him watch over the child, until he saves her from Hertz later. Now Smith has to protect an extra person, with not much of a plan to start with.

You're probably wondering if there's a plot underneath all this. Well, there is. See, Hertz works for someone who wants the child dead. The child plays an important role for a certain US Senator running for president, and Hertz's employers do not want the senator to achieve his goal. The goal is....well you'll have to see the movie to find out more. But really, it doesn't matter. What matters is the action, and Shoot 'Em Up delivers in spades.

Director Michael Davis also wrote the screenplay, and he focuses on the action scenes most of the time, which isn't a bad thing. But hey, he even has time to fill in some classic one-liners for Owen and Giamatti to play off each other with. That being said, the action is well choreographed. You'll see Owen slide, jump, drive and dive all over the place with gun in one hand and baby in the other, gunning down the bad guys with ease. Sure, it's not entirely original, and some of the stuff that unfolds are downright ridiculous. But who cares? If you even try to make any sense out of what's happening, that's when the fun stops.

Owen once again does a great job playing the hero. He has just the right amount of charm and screen presence to pull it off. He sure does make a great action hero, and I hope we can expect more from him in the action genre in the future. Giamatti hams it up as the talkative but hilarious Hertz, who in the film, seems to get calls from his wife at the most inopportune times. He also gets the best lines in the film. Bellucci plays a damsel in distress well enough, and somehow that kinda fits with the way action films were made back then, so it's a tribute of sorts.

Shoot 'Em Up is like The Replacement Killers without the seriousness. Watch this film, but leave your logic behind when you do. It's really fun. (4/5)

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Disturbia

Year: 2007
Director: D.J. Caruso
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, David Morse, Sarah Roemer, Aaron Yoo, Carrie-Anne Moss

For the record, I haven't watched Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window, which this film is supposedly based on. Most people would say that Rear Window is better, after all who can beat Hitchcock? But this film, updated for this generation and custom made for the teen crowd, is more than decent.

The protagonist in Disturbia is a young man named Kale Brecht, who hasn't quite been the same ever since he watched his father die in a car crash. His pent up depression causes him to attack his Spanish teacher in class at the mere mention of his dad, and the law reacts by placing him under house arrest. He gets to wear an electronic anklet that alerts the police if he tries to go beyond his lawn.

Stuck at home, he turns to the internet and video games for solace, until his mum cuts him off. Yeah, party pooper. Which leaves him with one option: watching the neighbours. He discovers how fascinating it is to spy on their daily activities and coerces his best friend, Ronald to come over and join in. Then he meets the new girl next door, Ashley. She catches Kale and Ronald spying on her and decides to join their little activity.

The three of them focus their attention on their strange neighbour, Robert Turner, who seems to fit the description of a serial killer at large. When Kale witnesses a woman being attacked in Turner's house, he is determined to get to the bottom of things, and ropes in his friends to help. But he may have bitten off more than he can chew, as Turner turns out to be a crafty person that knows how to stay one step ahead of him.

Director D.J. Caruso deserves praise for one thing: taking his time to unravel his work. I think most teen films would just get straight to the point, or worse, do unrelated things and miss the point altogether. But Caruso makes it worthwhile by spending time showing Kale struggle with not being able to leave his house, and of course, the love angle between Kale and Ashley. What's a teen film without that, eh? But when the thrills start, they come at breakneck speed, and I am glad to note that it was done solidly.

LaBeouf once again charms his way through yet another film, just like he did with Transformers. He's just natural and perfect for playing Kale. Morse once again plays a villain in Turner, and it's hard not to be chilled by the silent, cold exterior he always uses in his roles. Though I must say, watching him on House is a pain in the ass, not because he's good at playing bad, but because he's too deadpan.

Perhaps the only thing that's missing in Disturbia, despite the fact that it was well made, is a genuine surprise. It's pretty straightforward, you won't have any problems understanding this film. This isn't as entertaining as Saw or Identity. But it has enough heart stopping moments to keep you on the edge of your seat till the end.

Solid entertainment, nothing less than that. (4/5)

Monday, October 29, 2007

1408

Year: 2007
Director: Mikael Hafstrom
Cast: John Cusack, Samuel L Jackson, Mary McCormack

If you lived in Malaysia, you'd have no idea how many times this film's release was delayed. For some reason the local film distributor kept putting it off, and as a result, us Malaysians only get to see it 4 months after the US. Well, patience does pay off, I guess.

1408 is based on the Stephen King short story, and focuses on Mike Enslin, a man that writes guidebooks on haunted places, and his latest research happens to be haunted hotels. He's searched high and low but has yet to find a truly haunted place to sleep in, all he gets are spooky but boring inns that have a history of deaths, yet no ghosts.

One day, he receives a postcard by The Dolphin Hotel in New York, with a message that says "Don't Enter 1408". Curious, he decides to give this hotel a shot. Once he arrives, he asks to stay in that very room, but is strongly dissuaded by the hotel manager, Gerald Olin. Olin tells him of all the grisly deaths that have occured in that room, and unlike the other faux experiences that Enslin's had, this room's evil is genuine. Enslin however, is adamant and persuades Olin to let him stay in 1408. After much persuasion, Olin agrees.

Once inside, Enslin finds it just like any other hotel room, and then gradually things start to take a turn for the worse. The clock radio turns itself on. The window slams itself shut on Enslin's hand at one point. He starts to get visions of apparitions walking across the room, some try to attack him. He continuously tries to explain it to himself how it's all possible, but it doesn't help him much. He tries to leave the room, but fails. Then the evil in the room deals him their trump card: his personal demons. The room shows him the moments he watched his young daughter die of a terminal illness. Enslin goes to the brink of insanity as he tries to survive.

For a horror flick, this one is quite different from the hack and slash films Hollywood is known for. When dealing with ghosts and things that go bump in the night, the result can be a fresh change of scenery. But only if it is executed well, and unfortunately director Mikael Hafstrom only gets it half right. He manages to pile on the scares good enough to incite terror, but it is unevenly done. He throws whatever he has at you left and right, up and down, back and front, but it doesn't make sense a lot of times. It feels as if he doesn't have a good reason to use a certain scare tactic, he just shoots and hopes it hits the mark. Perhaps if he had used a psychological angle in connecting the terror of the room to Enslin's past, he may have come up with something more interesting.

But at the very least, John Cusack doesn't falter in his performance as Mike Enslin. He is one of the most underrated actors of his generation, and he proves it again here. In fact, this film is all his, as the other cast members, including Samuel L Jackson, have minor roles. Cusack leads the way and carries the film by himself, and despite the uneven directing, makes it worth watching to a certain level.

It's a good horror flick, but it can be a lot better. I only wish Hafstrom could have made this as good as his last effort, Derailed. (3.5/5)

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Planet Terror

Year: 2007
Director: Robert Rodriguez
Cast: Rose McGowan, Freddy Rodriguez, Marley Shelton, Josh Brolin, Michael Biehn, Jeff Fahey, Naveen Andrews, Michael Parks

Planet Terror is one half of the Grindhouse double feature, a collaboration of sorts between Robert Rodriguez and Quentin Tarantino, where each director will present one film and combine them in one screening. This is what they used to do back in the 70s, as opposed to the high budget blockbusters which were more popular. So you can say that Rodriguez and Tarantino are trying to pay homage to the past.

This film is Rodriguez's contribution, a zombie type film with enough gore and violence that would make The Hills Have Eyes look like a walk in the park. But then again, Rodriguez throws in so much over-the-topness into his flick, that it ends up looking like a spoof half the time, and in that half it can get quite ridiculous, and even funny in certain moments.

The story begins with Cherry Darling (Rose McGowan), a go-go dancer who wants out of the business of dancing on tables for men. She runs into her old boyfriend El Wray (Freddy Rodriguez), a guy who's pretty good with guns. She probably couldn't ask for a better day to run into him, because it's this day that zombies start to walk the earth. It all starts with a deal gone bad between scientist Abby (Naveen Andrews) and military Lt Muldoon (Bruce Willis in a minor role) over a gas that causes people to turn into flesh eating creatures. Soon, a majority of the population becomes infected and turns into zombies, and it's up to Cherry, El Wray, a female doctor (Marley Shelton), the local Sheriff (Michael Biehn), his BBQ cook brother (Jeff Fahey) and a small ragtag group of survivors who are apparently immune to the gas, to stop the infected and survive.

This isn't Spy Kids. There, I said it. Planet Terror is much closer to Rodriguez's campy yet fun vampire flick From Dusk Till Dawn. I had a real blast with that film, especially because George Clooney can still play a badass even when he looks like ER's Doug Ross. And Quentin Tarantino was a riot in that film. But there's no Clooney in Planet Terror. What we do have however, are a bunch of non Grade A actors making a gory spoof. You'll see people like Josh Brolin and Michael Biehn, who aren't A-list by today's Hollywood standards, making a comeback. And they do it pretty well too. McGowan and Freddy Rodriguez are splendid as the leads, and make themselves quite memorable. Check out the cameos from pop star Fergie and Quentin Tarantino too.

But then, the over the top style of Rodriguez is quite numbing after a while. I mean, how much gore and violence and disgusting images can you withstand? Maybe some of you can stomach it, but for me, it got a little too carried away at times. When that happens, it kinda distracts me from the essence of the film. But I'll give credit to Rodriguez for making this film very retro, as if he had filmed it back in the day. He even has a fake movie trailer at the beginning, starring his favourite choices Danny Trejo and Cheech Marin. It's a nice touch indeed.

Verdict: Watch it if you want something different, but not if you hate gore and violence. Even if it is cartoonish. Excuse me while I go find Tarantino's half, Death Proof. (3.5/5)

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Resident Evil: Extinction

Year: 2007
Director: Russell Mulcahy
Cast: Milla Jovovich, Oded Fehr, Ali Larter, Iain Glen

More sequels, more trilogies. That's the flavour of the year, it seems. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn't. In the case of Resident Evil, it is the former, though you'll have to keep in mind to let go of your inhibitions and just enjoy the ride.

Based on the popular video game of the same name, Resident Evil is about a genetically engineered female warrior named Alice, who must save humanity from her creators after a virus, called the T-Virus turns everyone into undead zombies. For the past two films, Alice has succeeded in evading her creators and saving whatever's left of humanity, while disposing of countless zombies along the way.

In this film, the third of the series, the earth has become a vast desert land, after the T-Virus wipes out mankind, infects the planet and turned it into an empty world of sand. Most of the cities have been buried and the undead still roam, looking for food. There are but a small band of survivors, led by Claire Redfield and the male hero from the second film, Carlos Olivera. They continuously move from city to city, looking for food, gas and ammunition, being careful not to run into the zombies. Incidentally, Alice is still alive, and on the move as well, trying to survive on her own.

However, the Umbrella Corporation, who created Alice and the T-Virus, are still operating in the underground Raccoon City. Dr Isaacs, the chief scientist, needs Alice to find a cure for the virus. He gets an opportunity when his satellites lock on her when she saves Claire's convoy from a flock of undead crows. He sets a trap for her and the convoy, and now Alice has to band together with her new friends to escape Dr Isaacs' clutches and make their way to Alaska, which may be the last uninfected place on earth.

As far as action goes, Extinction does not disappoint. You'll have plenty to savour on screen as Alice shoots and maims the zombies in brutal yet stylish fashion, while looking so good at the same time. Kudos to Russell Mulcahy for not making this instalment look like a video game. By choosing a desert setting, he avoids the darkness cliche existent in most zombie flicks. The vast emptiness of the desert is in fact quite fitting and a nice change of scenery.

Jovovich, Fehr and Larter acquit themselves well enough in their roles as Alice, Carlos and Claire respectively, and Glen makes a nice villain in Dr Isaacs. Though it is Jovovich that holds everything together for this film. I don't think the film would have been fun and effective if not for her. My only gripe is how she looks too perfect in almost all the scenes she is in, when wear and tear from being in the desert and fighting the undead should exist.

Writer and producer Paul W.S. Anderson has said that this is the last one, but the ending seems to indicate otherwise. Well, if they can make it fun the fourth time around, why not eh? (4/5)

Monday, October 15, 2007

Lust, Caution

Year: 2007
Director: Ang Lee
Cast: Tony Leung, Tang Wei, Wang Lee Hom, Joan Chen

This will officially be the first Chinese film I'm reviewing here. I only wish I could say more good things about it. But anyway, let's get to it.

Ang Lee's Lust, Caution has already generated a lot of buzz worldwide due to its explicit sex scenes, which has caused the film to be condemned by Western audiences. However, Chinese and Taiwan viewers seem to love it, as it tells a story set in Shanghai during World War II, about the Chinese rebellion against Japanese occupation.

The story focuses on a young girl named Wang Jiazhi, who lives with her friend in Shanghai. Her mum has passed on and her dad has run to Britain, giving her empty promises that he will send for her. One day, Wang meets Kuang Yumin, a young man who is idealistic about liberating China from the Japanese. He invites her and her friend, Lai Shujin, to join his play about patriotism, and they agree. After a successful performance in front of an enthusiastic audience, Kuang, the two girls and his fellow three male friends become more confident about the impact they can make on the people.

Soon, Kuang receives information on a high ranking Chinese political figure, Mr Yee, who is loyal to the Japanese. Kuang plans to assassinate Yee in his quest for patriotism, and convinces his five mates to follow his lead. They hatch a plan to get close to Yee by having Wang and one of the boys to pose as a married couple, and get close to Mr Yee's wife, who loves to play mahjong and have talks with her female friends on occasion. The plan works to a certain extent, and Wang even catches Mr Yee's eye, and tries to seduce him. However, unfortunate circumstances ruins their plan to kill Yee, and they abandon their intentions and go back to their lives.

Cut to three years later, when a chance encounter between Wang and Kuang reignites the assassination plot. With the help of an old man who has bigger plans on overthrowing the Japanese, Wang reassumes her role and infiltrates the Yee couple once more. This time she manages to directly get herself involved in an affair with Mr Yee, with violent and uneasy results. It turns out Mr Yee is a sadistic masochist who enjoys being in control of her. Wang suffers as she continues the masquerade, but soldiers on at the old man's persuasion. She gets closer and closer to Yee personally, and finally makes a decision that will affect both Yee and her comrades.

I'll tell you right now, I'm not a fan of Ang Lee's work. And after this film, I'm still not a fan. Sure, he can tell a story well, and he chooses the right people to play their roles every time. But he always takes too long to get the point across. You have no idea how much time he wasted on filming the women playing mahjong. Maybe I don't get it, but some conciseness can be effective. And a lot of time is spent posturing and lamenting, and worst of all it comes to a very unsatisfying climax that essentially makes no sense to me. I mean, I'm sure the book it's based on would be more gratifying, because the way Ang told this story makes me wonder why our protagonist did what she did.

As for the acting, Tang Wei is a knockout as Wang. She acts well in most of her scenes, and even speaks good English in a few scenes that require it. Had it been Zhang Ziyi, it would have been a disaster. Leung is effective as Mr Yee, though he comes across as a cold hearted man throughout the film, which makes it quite monotonous. But then again, I don't know if that's how the book described him. Wang Lee Hom does fine as Kuang, while Joan Chen doesn't do much as Mrs Yee, but still generates some screen presence.

The sex scenes between Leung and Tang Wei were cut out by the local censors, but I guess it wouldn't have made much of a difference to me. In the end, Lust, Caution is just unnecessarily too long, and is only slightly mitigated by the cast's performance. (3/5)

Friday, October 12, 2007

The Bourne Ultimatum

Year: 2007
Director: Paul Greengrass
Cast: Matt Damon, Julia Stiles, David Strathairn, Joan Allen, Scott Glenn, Paddy Considine, Albert Finney

You know, I should have reviewed The Bourne Supremacy before writing this, for your benefit. But I just don't have the luxury of watching that instalment at the moment, so I'll just focus on this.

However, what I will do, is give you a recap. In The Bourne Identity, Jason Bourne doesn't quite succeed in finding all the people who made him a killer, but he finds happiness in Marie, the girl who helped him evade his employers. In the sequel The Bourne Supremacy, the CIA botch one of their jobs with the Russians, who frame Bourne for it, then assign someone to kill him to tie up loose ends. But he survives and Marie ends up dead. Bourne goes after the CIA and the Russians and kills a few more people, including the man who killed Marie, and continues to suffer from the guilt of being an assassin.

And now, Matt Damon returns again as Bourne in Ultimatum. The CIA continue to hunt him down, as the Director of the agency, Ezra Kramer (Scott Glenn), believes he is a threat to the country. But Pamela Landy (Joan Allen), the CIA officer from Supremacy, doesn't believe so. She thinks he's after something else.

Bourne on the other hand, comes across a newspaper article about him, written by a British journalist named Simon Ross (Paddy Considine), and arranges a meeting with him in order to learn who Ross' source is. Bourne's former employers, the upgraded Operation Blackbriar, led by CIA deputy director Noah Vosen are also after Ross for the same reason. They soon run into Bourne, and despatch one of their 'assets' to take out both Bourne and Ross. Bourne escapes but like everyone Bourne comes into contact with, Ross gets killed.

Bourne uses Ross' notes and traces his source to a man named Neil Daniels, and runs into his former handler, Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles). She helps him follow Daniels to Tangier, as Vosen seeks Pamela's help to find Bourne. Things get sticky when Vosen learns that Nicky is helping Bourne and orders her execution. This is when Pamela realises that she isn't playing the same game Vosen is, and decides to get to the bottom of things. Bourne fails to save Daniels from getting assassinated by Vosen's 'asset', and returns to New York to learn about his past, face his 'creators' and put an end to them.

I have to admit, this is a wonderfully plotted, well executed action movie. I loved it. Truly. Paul Greengrass has done wonders with this supposedly final instalment of the Bourne series. True, his shaky handheld camerawork can be distracting at times, but in most ways, it works in bringing out the action the way it should be seen: personal, up close and in your face. Every blow in a hand-to-hand combat sequence, every crash in a car chase and every leap in a foot race can be felt. Best of all, the action doesn't overwhelm the drama and quieter moments in the film.

Damon does splendidly again as the troubled Bourne, who is as determined as ever to bring a sense of closure to his mystery. You are not going to see him smile or crack a joke, Bourne is all business, and he means it. And you can't find a better actor than Damon to pull it off. Stiles on the other hand, tries hard but doesn't quite have the screen presence to make her character memorable. Strathairn makes a good villain as Vosen, while Allen doesn't disappoint as Pamela Landy.

Another thing worth mentioning is the locations used in the film. The crew travelled to London, Tangier, Paris and New York, and the way they filmed in the middle of huge crowds is just amazing, especially in London where they filmed at the Waterloo train station. Imagine filming while being surrounded by huge crowds of hundreds of people. Credit goes to Greengrass and his camera team.

As usual, Moby's Extreme Ways plays during the closing credits, though it's a remix this time. Bah, they shouldn't have changed that! Anyway, great film, even better than Live Free Or Die Hard. (4.5/5)

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Stay

Year: 2005
Director: Marc Forster
Cast: Ewan McGregor, Naomi Watts, Ryan Gosling, Janeane Garofalo, Bob Hoskins

I didn't know what to expect before I watched this film, other than it having some sort of supernatural element to it. And now that I've seen it, I find that it's far more than that.

Stay is set in New York, though the setting looks unlike it at all. Ewan McGregor plays Dr Sam Foster, a psychiatrist who seems happy doing his job and living with his girlfriend Lila (Naomi Watts). Lila is a former suicide victim who's happy now with Sam. One day, Sam meets his colleague's patient, Henry Letham (Ryan Gosling), who seems disturbed with the way the world is around him. Henry tells Sam that he plans to kill himself in 3 days. Sam starts to worry about him, and tries to find a way to help him.

But first, he has to learn more about Henry, and through his discussions with the young man, Sam learns that his parents died in a car wreck, he likes art by Reveur, an artist who killed himself on his 21st birthday, and he doesn't have a girlfriend, other than liking a girl named Athena, who works at a diner. However, something strange happens to Sam, as he digs deeper into Henry's life, his own grip on reality starts to blur. He begins to hear and see things that are unreal, he experiences dejavu for no reason and soon he can't tell the difference between dreams and reality.

Lila starts to worry about Sam as he races against time to stop Henry from taking his own life. But the more he tries, the more confused and disoriented he becomes, and Henry drifts further and further from the will to live. Both men finally come to a revelation that brings a surprise to the story.

Some have said that this is a lot like David Lynch's style, which was used for Twin Peaks. True, this film relies on surrealism to bring the story across. Director Marc Forster does well in bending the reality and vision of the protagonists in his story. He gets his cinematographer to use unique camera angles and blends one scene to the next seamlessly to distort the audience's view. Watching this is like going down the rabbit hole in Alice's Wonderland. The choice of music is also perfect.

However, Forster relies too much on it in his direction of Stay, especially in the second half. Yes, it is well done. But you can't have too much of a good thing. It affects the storytelling and ends up confusing the audience on which direction the film is actually going. Towards the end, some of the scenes do not really make sense, and you'll be wondering if that really was Forster's intention, to confuse you.

McGregor is convincing enough as a psychiatrist wanting to help his patient, and end up getting more than he bargained for. Watts lends able support as Lila, whose suicidal past is the root of the core of this film. Gosling does much better here than in Fracture, looking very believable as the disturbed Henry. Henry comes across as someone plagued by guilt and death, wanting redemption but too afraid to reach out for it. Gosling brings all that onscreen, and then some.

The ending will be confusing to most people, though I think that one needs to pay close attention throughout the film and deduce the conclusion when you get there. At the end, you'll be wondering if everything you've seen is real. It can be a big payoff, or a real annoyance to you.

Worth checking out, but not completely satisfying. (3.5/5)

Sunday, October 07, 2007

The Bourne Identity

Year: 2002
Director: Doug Liman
Cast: Matt Damon, Franka Potente, Chris Cooper, Clive Owen, Brian Cox, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Julia Stiles

This may sound strange, but I'm probably the only guy who watched The Bourne Supremacy before The Bourne Identity. And I'm itching to catch The Bourne Ultimatum when it opens next week, so I had some catching up to do. So I got my hands on this film, to see where the great Jason Bourne came from.

The Bourne Identity begins somewhere in the Mediterranean Sea, where a group of fishermen find a man in the open water and bring him aboard. The doctor onboard finds two bullets in the man's back, and a capsule that emits a laser showing a Zurich bank account number. The man has no memory of who he is and where he's been before they found him.

The fishermen bring him to land, and the man makes his way to Switzerland. He finds his way to the bank and opens the safe deposit box assigned to the number, and finds a gun, lots of cash and six passports with his picture in them, all with different names. He assumes the name of the American passport, Jason Bourne, then takes the passports and money, and leaves. However, his employers are keeping track of his movements closely, and before long they attempt to kill him.

But who are his employers, you ask? The CIA, no less! See, Bourne is an assassin trained by the CIA's project Treadstone, led by a man named Conklin. Bourne's last mission went awry, and now Conklin wants to get Bourne and clean up the mess. This is because Bourne's intended target, an African warlord called Wombosi, is making his move to spill the beans on the CIA's attempts on his life.

However, Bourne has trouble piecing his past together by himself. He runs into Marie, a German girl who needs money, and asks for her help to get to Paris, where he believes he will find some answers. Marie agrees, and unwittingly gets dragged into the fray as Conklin's men and other 'products' of Treadstone close in on Bourne.

After watching this, I can conclude that this is not the typical action thriller. It's a thinking man's action thriller. At the end of it, you won't have all the answers you seek. But it's a spy thriller of sorts, where nothing is what it seems, so the open ended questions will pave the way for the sequels. Better yet, it's a film where characterisation was done well. Director Doug Liman gives us an insight into Bourne's character, as a man who is trained to kill, yet has no idea how or why he knows how to do all that. Liman also gives us some great action sequences, like the car chase between Bourne and the police through Paris, and some neat hand-to-hand fights.

Performance wise, Matt Damon is perfect as the assassin riddled with amnesia. In this film, Damon looks like a wide-eyed boy with no idea about what's going on, then in some scenes he just jumps straight into action and becomes deadly, giving Bourne a sense of unpredictability that fits his profile. If you met Bourne on the street, you would have no clue on how dangerous he actually is, which is cool. Franka Potente lends able support as Marie, and plays off the emotionally vulnerable Bourne splendidly.

And now, I'm all set for The Bourne Ultimatum, which promises to be better than its two predecessors. Bring it on. (4/5)

Saturday, October 06, 2007

The Hills Have Eyes

Year: 2006
Director: Alexandre Aja
Cast: Aaron Stanford, Emilie de Ravin, Kathleen Quinlan, Vinessa Shaw, Ted Levine, Dan Byrd, Robert Joy, Tom Bower

In the movies, violence can be fun if it's done right. Violence is kinda like horror's best friend, they always seem to go hand in hand. Some may abhor it, but others who just love to be scared would just enjoy the violence they see on screen. It can be fun, as long as it stays on screen of course.

OK, enough beating around the bush. The Hills Have Eyes was originally done by Wes Craven back in 1977 and now remade by Alexandre Aja. The story focuses on the Carter family, who are travelling across the New Mexico desert via motor home towards San Diego. They take a little detour through an unknown road, thanks to a shady gas station man and end up getting waylaid by a group of cannibalistic freaks.

These freaks apparently originated from a group of miners who refused to leave their homes when their village was used as a nuclear testing site by the US government. Now transformed and mutated by the radiation, they prey on any hapless people who cross into their territory. The Carter family, made up of parents Big Bob (Levine) and Ethel (Quinlan), daughters Lynn (Shaw) and Brenda (de Ravin), son Bobby (Byrd), son-in-law Doug (Stanford) and grandchild Catherine, and two dogs (Beauty and Beast) are now the next victims. When the freaks massacre half the family and kidnap the baby, the remaining family members must band together and become as violent as their attackers to survive.

I haven't seen the original, so I can't make comparisons. But I can tell you that this is one fun movie. If you're not the squeamish type, you'll enjoy the horror and violence depicted on screen. Director Alexandre Aja does an excellent job in almost every department, from the pacing to the casting to the music score to the production design. He uses classical 50s music during the opening and closing credits, giving an eerie feel to his film. He filmed in Morocco, using their vast desert landscape to great effect.

The cast, from the actors playing the Carters to the ones playing the freaks do a splendid job indeed. They bring out the best and worst of their characters, making it a very believable experience. Byrd, de Ravin, Stanford and Joy, who plays the freak Lizard, stand out best.

It's admirable to watch a normal American suburban family suddenly thrust into a life threatening situation turn the tables on their tormentors, with deadly force. It shows what some of us would do when backed into a corner with no way out, and having to resort to ruthlessness to stay alive.

A great and memorable horror flick. Just don't watch the sequel to this. (4.5/5)

Sunday, September 30, 2007

The Brave One

Year: 2007
Director: Neil Jordan
Cast: Jodie Foster, Terrence Howard, Naveen Andrews, Nicky Katt, Mary Steenburgen, Ene Oloja

If you're the kind of person who appreciates good and consistent acting, you can't go wrong with Jodie Foster. She surely isn't a two-time Oscar winner for nothing. Although initially typecast as the vulnerable female that finds strength within herself to fight back (Silence Of The Lambs, Panic Room, Flightplan), she broke the trend by starring in the Spike Lee thriller Inside Man as a ruthless problem solver. Now she's back as yet another vulnerable woman, though this time it's far more real than ever.

In The Brave One, Foster plays Erica Bain, a radio show host in New York City who records sounds of the city and talks about it on air. She is about to get married to her beloved fiancee David Kirmani (Naveen Andrews) and she couldn't be happier. But that is not to be, as she and David are attacked by three thugs while walking her dog at Central Park. Erica wakes up at the hospital three weeks later and learns that David is dead.

Devastated, Erica struggles to come to terms with her fiancee's demise, grieving and at the same time feeling unsafe. The police aren't very helpful with her situation, so she decides to buy a gun, illegally. One night, she encounters an armed man at the local convenience store and shoots him dead. Her initial reaction to this is of shock and maybe even shame, but it finally gives her the courage to live and a reason to go on.

Enter Detective Mercer (Terrence Howard), a cop who is frustrated at one of his cases that he is unable to close because his hands are bound by the law. He investigates the store shooting alongside his partner, Detective Vitale (Nicky Katt) and thinks that it is a work of a vigilante. Then Erica gets herself in two more situations and kills another three men. Mercer realises that it's all done by the same person thanks to ballistic reports. Before long, Mercer runs into Erica, and they form a friendship, a bond of sorts. Mercer sympathises with Erica's loss, and Erica in turn takes pity over Mercer's inability to close his case. But when Mercer starts putting all the clues together and learns of Erica's role in the vigilante killings, he realises that he has to do something about it quickly, as Erica closes in on the three men who attacked her......

Naturally, this is a revenge tale which isn't too different from The Punisher, except that the comicbook driven film focuses more on the action and violence. The Brave One zeroes in on the ethics of taking the law into your own hands, and what killing people in the name of justice does to your psyche. In this sense, Foster does splendidly as the tortured Erica, who at first struggles to survive within her own life after the attack. She realises that everything has changed and she has to change with it, and turns into a justice driven woman that has to break the rules to make things right, no matter the cost. Howard is equally impressive as the detective trying to keep everything together and get to the bottom of things as he battles his own demons. His bond with Erica is the heart of the film.

But as good as Howard is, this film is Foster's vehicle. It is Foster who leads the way from beginning to end. Neil Jordan successfully conveys every emotion from his cast for the audience to witness, and uses good camera tricks such as close-ups of Foster to express her pain. The object of the film isn't the violence, but more on the divide between right and wrong, and the line that Foster has to walk on between them, and Jordan does well in bringing the point across.

Something unexpected happens at the end of the film, which can be considered cool, as long as you suspend your disbelief for a moment. But this film is a real gem, and I think it's one of Jodie Foster's best work.

I'll end this review with a line quoted from Erica's neighbour Josai, played by Ene Oloja: "There are plenty of ways to die. But you have to figure out a way to live. Now, that's hard." (4/5)

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