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


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)


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