Saturday, June 28, 2008

The Happening

Year: 2008
Director: M. Night Shyamalan
Cast: Mark Wahlberg, Zooey Deschanel, John Leguizamo, Ashlyn Sanchez

When I first heard about this film, I hated the tagline (cheap pop for the director's past work), I hated the title (not very inspiring) and I hated the idea of Mark Wahlberg being in it. But hey, it's M. Night Shyamalan's movie. That alone is reason enough to check it out.

The Happening begins in Central Park in New York, where all of a sudden, people start killing themselves. Then the phenomenon spreads. People start jumping off buildings and shooting themselves. People in nearby Philadelphia, who hear about all this on the news, start evacuating, thinking that it could be a virus or a terrorist attack that's causing all this.

Philly high school science teacher Elliot Moore (Mark Wahlberg) quickly takes his wife Alma (Zooey Deschanel) and joins his best friend Julian (John Leguizamo) and his daughter Jess (Ashlyn Sanchez) in leaving the city. As they travel alongside thousands of other people, they hear more distressing news about mass deaths occurring, and the mysterious attack continues to follow them wherever they go. So what exactly is happening?

Well, when you figure out the answer to that, you'd probably think the same thing I did. It's stupid. I mean, it's not like it's a completely far fetched idea. But the execution was very poor. The way it happens, the way it's explained, and the way the characters react to it. All poor. Where's the fear Shyamalan put in us when he showed us the dead in The Sixth Sense? Where's the fear we saw so evident on Haley Joel Osment's face on any of the characters here? With the exception of Leguizamo and Sanchez, everyone here either gets a bad script to read out of or their acting just plain sucks.

Wahlberg is an inconsistent actor, which is why I never liked him, and I hated the fact that he got an Oscar nod for The Departed. And here, he proves me right. Never once did he convince me that he's a high school teacher in this film, and he tries too hard in half of his scenes. Deschanel on the other hand looks so lost, she probably doesn't know which film she's in. Pretty to look at, but can't act to save herself here.

The good part is, it is quite scary to see people suddenly take their own lives for no reason at all. Some of the scenes will shock you, though the scenes where a guy feeds himself to the lions and another guy putting himself in the path of a moving lawnmower were overkill. These built up the story quite nicely, until we get to the third act of the film, when the leads meet a weird old lady who offers them shelter. I don't know what the heck she's doing in this film.

Basically, this film is about how Mother Nature reacts to humans in the wake of evolution and all the negative impacts, like pollution and global warming etc. But Shyamalan is simply out of his element here. Lady In The Water, which most critics hated, at least had quirky characters that helped move the story along. In The Happening, none of the characters are interesting enough to hold your attention, resulting in the 91 minute screen time feel so much longer than it should.

This film isn't happening (yeah I know most critics used this same line to shoot this film down, but I couldn't help using it too), another miss from M. Night. (2.5/5)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

Get Smart

Year: 2008
Director: Peter Segal
Cast: Steve Carell, Anne Hathaway, Dwayne Johnson, Alan Arkin, Terence Stamp, Ken Davitian

Get Smart is another film in the line of old TV shows being remade for the big screen, such as Mission: Impossible, Starsky & Hutch, S.W.A.T. and to some extent, The Incredible Hulk. I hear that The A-Team, one of my favourite shows, will be remade soon. Wonder how that one will turn out.

Anyway, back to Get Smart. I remembered watching this show when I was a kid, though at the time the show had probably been axed and was on reruns. It follows the adventures of Maxwell Smart, the bumbling agent working for CONTROL, a fictitious CIA type organization formed to stop KAOS, an evil terrorist group out to destroy the world. Smart is known for his clumsy antics and the infamous shoe-phone from which he communicates with his chief.

In this film, Smart is played by funnyman Steve Carell as a CONTROL analyst who aspires to become a field agent and get a piece of the action. He yearns for a chance to prove himself and stop becoming a laughing stock amongst his colleagues. However, despite passing his training courses with flying colours, the Chief (Alan Arkin) chooses to keep Max where he is. That is, until KAOS attacks CONTROL headquarters and learns the secret identity of all their agents.

The Chief needs to find out what's KAOS' next move, so he assigns the only two agents whose identities are still intact: the beautiful Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) and Max, who has been promoted to Agent 86! 99 is reluctant to pair up with Max since the latter has no field experience, but she has no choice. So the two set off to Russia to follow up a lead on the theft of nuclear weapons by KAOS. Things get interesting and fun as the two argue, fight and compete with one another to overcome every obstacle in their path, and learn that they do make a great pair when they learn to work together. Eventually they find out about a plot by KAOS to attack the United States, and a possible double agent in their midst.

I gotta tell you, I haven't had this much fun with an action comedy for a long time. Director Peter Segal, who directed three Adam Sandler films, delivers the laughs effectively by making Max go through all sorts of mishaps, but never really lets him be as incompetent as say, Johnny English, thereby making Max a very lovable and more importantly believable character. Max may be clumsy and clueless at times, but he can fight and shoot competently, and defend himself when the need arises.

Casting wise, Carell is perfect for the role of Max. Not only does he look like the late Don Adams, who played Max in the TV series, Carell also has the ability to make fun of himself and keep a straight face. He shares great chemistry with Hathaway, whose Agent 99 is the perfect foil for Max. watch the hilarious scene when the duo have a face off on the dance floor. Dwayne Johnson aka The Rock, lends good support as Agent 23, and Arkin is commendable as the Chief. Terence Stamp however is wasted in his role as KAOS leader Siegfried. It's Ken Davitian that stands out as Siegfried's right hand man Shtarker.

What I like about this film is that it is never dull. If you're not laughing, you're enjoying the action that's unfolding. The film even pays tribute to the TV series by having the familiar multiple entrance doors that lead to the phone booth, the theme song and of course, the shoephone. It caters to fans of the show and also has enough to entertain the younger audience who may not know who Maxwell Smart is.

Good for a barrel of laughs. Recommended. (4/5)

Sunday, June 15, 2008

The Incredible Hulk

Year: 2008
Director: Louis Letterier
Cast: Edward Norton, Liv Tyler, Tim Roth, William Hurt, Tim Blake Nelson

Once upon a time, in 2003 to be exact, there was a film called Hulk and it starred Eric Bana and Jennifer Connelly and it was directed by Ang Lee. It was unique, introspective and overdramatic. There were as many of those who liked it as those who hated it, and somehow it didn't quite fulfill the needs of the Hulk's fans.

And now we have The Incredible Hulk. Like Batman Begins was a reboot of the franchise almost killed by Joel Schumacher, this film is an attempt by Marvel and director Louis Letterier to give Hulk fans what Lee could not. Basically the Hulk's core story is the same. It's about Bruce Banner, a scientist who is exposed to dangerous gamma radiation and as a result, becomes a raging green monster when agitated. In this version, we begin with flashbacks of Banner destroying the lab where he worked after his transformation, and then fleeing the clutches of his employer, General Ross as he works tirelessly to find a cure.

He isolates himself from Ross by living in Brazil, working at a bottled drink factory and keeping a low profile. However, a mistake on Banner's part leads Ross and the US army to his location and he is forced to flee again. Through contacts with a mysterious Mr Blue, Banner learns that he has to return to his lab to find the information he needs to create a cure for his condition. He seeks help from his old flame Betty Ross, daughter of the general. But time is running out for him, as the general closes in on him. Banner has another threat, in the form of a British soldier named Emil Blonsky, who after witnessing Banner's transformation into the Hulk, asks the general to help him level the playing field.

The question on everyone's mind is, is this better than Ang Lee's film? The answer is yes, on many different levels. Lee was innovative in using a comicbook like visual to tell his story, and went further to establish Banner's psyche and the source behind his rage. All of that is good, but overdone. It also didn't help that there were scenes where the Hulk jumped as far as three miles and looked bright green. That was just stupid. In the end, it was more of an Ang Lee film than a Hulk film. Letterier on the other hand, goes straight to the point. He establishes his main protagonist, explores his need to find a cure and gives Banner a worthy villain to square off against. He successfully balances the drama with the action, never letting either one to outdo the other. And the action sequences are a sight to behold! When the Hulk appears, he truly goes berserk and cuts loose, and you'll love watching it all unfold. My favourite would be the Hulk versus the army on the university grounds, but you'll probably remember this film for the confrontation between Hulk and his nemesis, the Abomination at the end of the film.

I was initially skeptical when I heard that Edward Norton would play Bruce Banner, but hell, he is perfect for it. He may not look like a scientist, but he definitely looks like the way Banner is portrayed in the books, as an unassuming troubled man. Norton does a splendid job in bringing forth the weight of the responsibility Banner has to carry. Liv Tyler isn't too shabby playing Betty Ross, but she lacks chemistry with Norton. William Hurt and Tim Roth lend able support as General Ross and Blonsky respectively, having no trouble being the villains here.

For those of you who know the Hulk from the TV series back in the day, watch out for a couple of cameos from there, plus the obligatory cameo from Marvel creator Stan Lee, and the much talked about appearance from a well known Marvel hero at the end of the film. Clue: he had a film out earlier this year.

It's tons better than the other Hulk movie, and absolutely more memorable. Hulk Smash! (4/5)

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Kung Fu Panda

Year: 2008
Directors: Mark Osborne & John Stevenson
Voice cast: Jack Black, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, Ian McShane, David Cross, Lucy Liu, Seth Rogen, Jackie Chan, James Hong

The last time Jack Black voiced an animated character, it was in Shark Tale. I hated Shark Tale. But it wasn't because of Black, it was because of Will Smith's annoying character Oscar. Thankfully this time, Black is the lead character, and he is actually a lot funnier than he is in his other live action films.

Kung Fu Panda tells the story of Po, an overweight panda who dreams of emulating his heroes, the Furious Five: a viper, a crane, a tigress, a monkey and a mantis, and become a hero of the valley. Alas, he is somewhat stuck helping his father selling noodles in his village. One day, the legendary Master Oogway, an old tortoise, calls for an event to select the Chosen One, who is destined to become the Dragon Warrior and protect the valley from evil. Po tries to attend the event, but ends up crashing it and through some sheer dumb luck, is picked by Oogway to be the Dragon Warrior!

Naturally, the Furious Five and their teacher, Master Shifu are not pleased, and overcome with disbelief that the fat panda will be the Chosen One. Oogway persuades Shifu to teach the panda the ways of kung fu, and Shifu obliges at first, merely to convince the panda that he really isn't the Chosen One. But Po presses on, and eventually manages to win Shifu over. However, there is danger on the horizon, as Tai Lung, a snow leopard who was once a student of Shifu, escapes from prison and vows to take revenge on his former master and the valley. Can Po live up to the prophecy and stop Tai Lung?

Well, this being an animated film, you can guess what the answer to that question will be. But animated films aren't about being surprised, it's about having fun. In this respect, directors Mark Osborne and John Stevenson score a huge amount of points in telling a familiar tale in a very fun way. Po reminds me of Chris Farley in Beverly Hills Ninja, but much more adorable and hilarious. We have Black to thank for that, by making Po very likeable despite his flaws, and that I mean physical ones of course. Dustin Hoffman acquits himself well in giving Shifu a definitive presence in the story. The other voice cast do a great job too, though the great Jackie Chan only got half a dozen lines as Monkey. I think that's unfair.

As for the animation, the technical crew are splendid as well. Master Shifu especially looks awesome up close, with every hair visible and real. The action scenes are fast paced and well choreographed, making this film not boring at all. It's a film with large doses of action, humour and suspense, with a little bit of drama thrown in.

I'd go as far as saying that this film is so much better than Shrek and all its sequels. This is good entertainment for all ages. Recommended. (4/5)


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