Sunday, December 28, 2008

The Day The Earth Stood Still

Year: 2008
Director: Scott Derrickson
Cast: Keanu Reeves, Jennifer Connelly, Kathy Bates, Jaden Smith

Over 50 years ago, there was a film called The Day The Earth Stood Still, about an alien who arrived on earth to negotiate with the world leaders to stop fighting each other, or face annihilation. And now it has been remade.

Here's how it goes: after what seemed to be an ordinary day for astro-biologist Helen Benson (Jennifer Connelly), she gets whisked away by government agents, who take her to a military facility where she is informed of an imminent alien invasion. Not long after that, a giant glowing sphere descents from space and lands in Central Park in New York. A mysterious alien and a giant robot emerge from it, and before you can say 'Aliens!' the military capture the entity by force.

After Helen and other scientists study it, they realise that it is a human body inhabited by an alien, who calls himself Klaatu (Keanu Reeves). Klaatu requests to meet up with the world's leaders but is denied by the U.S. Secretary of Defense Regina Jackson (Kathy Bates), who believes Klaatu is a threat. Helen, who senses that Klaatu means no harm, helps him escape, only to learn from him later that after some deliberation on his part, he will destroy mankind in order to save the planet. Helen now has to convince him to change his mind.

Thematically I think the 1951 version was better, because Klaatu was motivated by the idea that Earth's powers that be would eventually bring their ever expanding nuclear war beyond the planet. In this version, it's an environmental friendly message, which although is relevant in today's age, doesn't quite hold water when it relates to an alien's intentions. Like, why would it care about another planet's life or death? Anyway, director Scott Derrickson manages to keep things interesting by using lots of special effects and keeping the pace steady. I especially enjoyed watching Klaatu's robot GORT annihilate the military forces and facilities when it is attacked.

And then there's Keanu. Sigh. You know, this guy never really grasped the first rule of good acting, which is to be convincing. As far as looking like an alien goes, he's got that part down pat. But when he speaks, it's Keanu. As in the same Keanu that was Neo. Or Constantine. Or Jack Traven from Speed. So essentially we get an alien that talks like Keanu, instead of Keanu that talks like an alien. But he did try to be different, and to that extent he more or less succeeds. And I liked the part where he spoke Mandarin, that was funny. Connelly plays the part of the human that has to be Klaatu's out of this world buddy, and she pulls it off well, though it's not a very complex role. Jaden Smith succeeds also as Helen's stepson Jacob, who lets his naivety and grief over his father's death get the better of him. Other supporting actors like James Hong and John Cleese unexpectedly shine in the few minutes of screen time they have.

This is an ambitious film, no doubt. But it is let down by a very flat ending, a very Hollywood type finish. And many of the other things happening in the film, especially the relationship turmoil between the characters are resolved way too quickly, which inevitably make it very unconvincing. A little more time spent on substance instead of style could have gone a long way.

An okay effort in my book. Watch it for the effects, if nothing else. (3/5)

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Body Of Lies

Year: 2008
Director: Ridley Scott
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Mark Strong, Golshifteh Farahani

Hollywood somehow loves reality. They love taking a piece of it and making a film out of it, and now the trend is talking about terrorism. 9/11 really changed moviemaking ideas, as now after we've seen Rendition, The Siege and The Kingdom, we have yet another tale about the war on terror.

Body Of Lies focuses on the CIA's efforts to nab a terrorist in the Middle East named Al-Saleem. Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) is the man on the ground in Iraq, working hand in hand with his handler, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) to gather information on Al-Saleem. Ferris grows more disillusioned with his job day by day, especially after his local partner gets killed in a mission to find a lead to Saleem. Hoffman however will have none of that and pushes Ferris to proceed. The two men are constantly at each other's throats because Hoffman seemingly operates on instinct without informing Ferris, and his actions directly jeopardises the mission and Ferris' life.

Ferris gets a lead that Saleem is in Jordan, so he heads there and teams up with the head of Jordanian intelligence, Hani (Mark Strong). Ferris and Hani strike a good friendship, but Hoffman doesn't trust Hani, and continuosly acts on his own accord which puts Ferris in a tough spot and threatens Hani's trust in him. Ferris then resorts to low yet effective tactics to lure Saleem out into the open. There's also a subplot where Ferris befriends a local nurse, Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani) and her life becomes a bargain when Saleem takes the bait and comes after Ferris.

I've lost count, but this has to be at least the fourth time Ridley Scott has teamed up with Russell Crowe, and I gotta say I can't blame him. Crowe is a fine actor, and when teamed with DiCaprio, makes it even better. The two actors have not been paired together since The Quick & The Dead (which by the way was so bad I never finished watching it), so it's been a long time. To their credit, DiCaprio and Crowe do well in their respective roles, the former as the CIA agent who grows sick of his duty as time passes, and seeks a normal life with Aisha, and the latter as the headstrong yet cold man who believes himself as a patriot and the things that he does are all for the greater good, no matter how many lives are lost in the process. Watch how Crowe, who put on weight for the role, goes about his daily business such as watching his kids' soccer game and taking care of his family and at the same time giving orders via cellphone to DiCaprio.

Strong and Farahani also bring memorable performances, him as the smart and sleek head spy who may or may not be on the right side, and her as the romantic interest to Ferris. The setting of the film, location and violence portrayed also bring enough realism, as any Ridley Scott film would need.

However the film weighs its success too much on its leads. Without a straightforward plot, and the lack of focus on the consequences of deception (particularly the negative aspects) in the war on terrorism makes the film seem rather cold and unflinching. Maybe that's what Scott wanted, but the somewhat simplistic ending is in contrast to that. The pace is also rather slow at times, but thankfully DiCaprio and Crowe make it almost worthwhile.

A valiant effort though, in telling the story about the battle against terrorism. (3.5/5)

Friday, December 12, 2008

Transporter 3

Year: 2008
Director: Olivier Megaton
Cast: Jason Statham, Natalya Rudakova, Francois Berleand, Robert Knepper

I didn't think The Transporter was good enough to come up with yet another sequel. Don't get me wrong, I loved the first one. Good action sequences and some funny dialogue made it fun to watch. The second was all right, but a little over the top. And I had thought Jason Statham wouldn't want to play this role yet again, despite being so good at it. Like Jet Li, action roles are all Statham will be remembered for, but certainly he wouldn't want to be stuck doing Frank Martin again and again, or would he?

Anyway, the third Transporter film begins when a friend of Frank's crashes his car through Frank's house, nearly dead and a girl in the back seat. Apparently his friend screwed up a transport job Frank had turned down earlier, and now he has paid for it dearly. Suddenly Frank gets knocked out, and he wakes up with a metal bracelet cuffed to his wrist. It's a device that is programmed to explode if he moves more than 75 feet from his car.

A man named Johnson wants Frank to carry the girl across Europe in his car, or he dies. Frank reluctantly agrees and proceeds with the task at hand. The girl, Valentina is not cooperative in filling in the blanks, so Frank calls to his friend, Inspector Tarconi for help. We learn then that Valentina is the daughter of the Internal Minister of Ukraine, who is being blackmailed by Johnson to allow a corporation to dump toxic waste in his country, in exchange for his daughter's life.

Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen return to write this sequel, with Olivier Megaton as director. Corey Yuen also returns as action director, and as a result we get some decent hand to hand combat sequences. Watch how Frank fights ten guys in a garage, using his appendages, clothes and garage tools. Cool stuff. Throw in a car chase, a bicycle stunt sequence and a car stunt atop a train, and we should have a good action flick. Right? Wrong.

The lead female character Valentina is one annoying bitch. I'm sure it's not Natalya Rudakova's fault, but the writers who made her seem cold one minute, then high the next, then petty and childish later on. Besson and Kamen try to make her a romantic foil for Frank, but it just doesn't work. Shu Qi wasn't a great damsel in the first film, but she's so much more watchable. Then there's the dialogue, which come off as boring and tiresome, leaving us itching for more of the action scenes instead. And the fact that Frank's three rules are suspended this time around takes the fun out of the film.

But at least Statham doesn't disappoint in the role that made him famous. Robert Knepper, whom you'll all know as the villain in TV series Prison Break, brings his slimy performance from TV to film well as Johnson. Francois Berleand once again comes onboard as Inspector Tarconi, and provides the humour for an otherwise dull affair.

It is just average entertainment this time around, and miles behind the first Transporter film. (3/5)

Saturday, December 06, 2008


Year: 2008
Director: Catherine Hardwicke
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Billy Burke, Peter Facinelli, Cam Gigandet, Sarah Clarke

This is it. Time to find out what the big deal is behind one of the most talked about films this year.

I'm of course referring to Twilight, a film based on Stephenie Meyer's best-selling book. It focuses on Bella Swan, a teenage girl who decides to move in with her father in Forks, Washington instead of travelling with her mum and her new stepdad. Bella seems very detached from her dad, who is the sheriff of the town. But she manages, and despite getting too much attention from the other kids at school, she adapts.

Then she meets Edward Cullen, a handsome but strange looking boy. First they exchange curious glances, then he becomes her lab partner, which doesn't sit well with him at first. She finds him very intriguing, but the real shocker comes when he saves her from a car accident. With his bare hands to stop the oncoming car!

So now Bella wants to know what he's all about, but Edward refuses to reveal his secret, even resorting to being rude to her to drive her away. But the two can't seem to get enough of each other's attention, and they inevitably fall in love. She then finds out who he is: a vampire. Not just him, but his family too. But they are essentially good vampires, because they don't feed on humans, despite sometimes having the appetite for it. Bella and Edward begin an unlikely romance, which goes well until the presence of three other vampires who do feed on humans threatens their safety, and their respective families.

Twilight is getting a lot of attention, particularly because it's almost as famous as Harry Potter. Potter is for kids however, Twilight is for young girls. Prior to watching this, I have heard of all the praises younger viewers have been giving this film, and I can see why. Vampire mythology has always been an interesting exploration in filmdom, and this time it is neither the Dracula kind or the violent kind. (There is some violence here, but quite minimal) Then you have a young, good looking couple playing the leads. So it's no surprise why this is a hit. Director Catherine Hardwicke succeeds in making a well paced, well told film. It's rarely boring, even as it takes its time to show the heartfelt yet tense romance between Bella and Edward.

Kristen Stewart, whom I'll always remember for playing Jodie Foster's diabetic kid in Panic Room, acquits herself well as Bella, the awkward kid who although gets a lot of attention from the people around her, only wants attention from the one person who loves to lie low. Robert Pattinson, whom I'll always remember for playing the gay-looking Cedric Diggory in Harry Potter & The Goblet Of Fire, isn't too shabby either as Edward, though he seems better at conveying his emotions from his face than his words. However, both Stewart and Pattinson don't really have much room to work with their characters, as they seem to have the same expressions throughout the film. But they do reasonably well with what they have, and that is enough.

Cam Gigandet is the lead villain vampire, and unfortunately he's a one-dimensional baddie, the kind that chooses thrill over brains. This is old school villainy. The supporting cast, who play Edward's vampire family in particular, are quite fun to watch. If only Hardwicke had given them more screen time, they would have been more memorable.

And now for the negative points. For all its well executed filmmaking, there are several scenes that turn out to be unintentionally funny. You know it's bad when you laugh at a film for the wrong reasons. Check out the scene when Bella walks into the school lab where Edward is. As she enters, the fan blows her hair....and then there's the slow-mo effect. The scene was meant to show Edward's reaction as she walks in, but it was just weird. Slow-mo? This isn't John Woo. Then there's the bad vampires walking slow-mo, like it was a Jerry Bruckheimer film. And the way the Cullen family are first introduced reminds me of the film Disturbing Behaviour. You know, perfect looks, outstanding dress style etc. And some of the dialogue is just too corny, like Edward calling Bella 'his own personal heroin', as in drug. Oh, and the vampires in Twilight don't have fangs (I can accept that), but they actually sparkle in sunlight too? Perhaps Hardwicke should leave that part out.

But you know what? I had a great time watching this. Really. Despite it being humorless for the most part, and a lot of time spent on courtship between the two leads, it's very engrossing. If you're a girl, you'll look at Edward and say "oh he's so handsome!" and if you're a guy, you'll look at Bella and think "hey I knew a girl like her once". And the music, despite being tailored for the teenage crowd, is very spot-on. I didn't think Muse's Supermassive Black Hole could fit in Twilight, until I saw the baseball scene. Then there's Linkin Park and Paramore rocking during the closing credits, making me not want to leave the cinema till the very end.

It's a good movie. Go watch it. And there will be a sequel, since Hardwicke left the ending wide open, and there are three more books to translate to celluloid. (4/5)


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