Sunday, December 27, 2009

Avatar

Year: 2009
Director: James Cameron
Cast: Sam Worthington, Zoe Saldana, Sigourney Weaver, Michelle Rodriguez, Stephen Lang, Giovanni Ribisi


How long has it been since we've heard from James Cameron? 12 years. In 1997 he brought Titanic to the screen, and it was the biggest film of all time. Between then and now, he laid low, making documentaries and stuff. And after all the time has passed, and the hype built up for this new movie, audiences are finally able to see the so called 'future of filmmaking'.

Avatar has been Cameron's labour of love for 10 years now. It has taken him that long to not only wait for the technology to be able to make it, but also to apply it and turn it into the visual spectacle that it is now. The question now of course, is this: was it worth it?

Avatar takes place in the distant future, where humans are in search of unobtainium, a rare mineral they require to save Earth. To that end, they take a trip to Pandora, a planet that possesses that mineral, which is inhabited by a somewhat primitive race known as the Na'vi.

The mission is run by the military, who have a hard time getting past the Na'vi, so they come up with a plan to infiltrate the Na'vi using one of their own, and perhaps help persuade them to peacefully move away so that no blood needs to be shed. Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), a paraplegic Marine is assigned to this task, originally meant for his dead twin brother. Now how does this infiltration plan work?

Scientists have been able to clone a Na'vi body and transfer a human's consciousness into it, so that person may control and actually be a Na'vi as he/she is in stasis (kinda like Surrogates). They call it an avatar. Jake is given an avatar and he gets himself amongst the Na'vi. He meets Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), daughter of the tribe leader, and through her, slowly gains the trust of her tribe. He and Neytiri eventually fall in love as her tribe accepts him as one of their own.

However, the military and the corporation funding the mission grow impatient, and decide to go ahead with destroying the Na'vi to get what they want. Jake has to choose between saving the Na'vi or letting his people destroy the new world he has learned to love.

After sitting through two hours and forty minutes of this film, I can tell you that Avatar will be remembered mostly for its visual wizardry. What you will see on screen is something like what Robert Zemekis has been trying to do lately: creating an animated film using motion capture. But I abhor Zemekis' work, not only because he has the nerve to think that this is better than live action, but also because it's really not impressive or necessary. However, Cameron has surpassed Zemekis, because his version of motion capture is astounding. Absolutely stunning. The Na'vi look very real, very lifelike. Every smile, frown, twitch, growl, scowl...all near perfect. That, combined with the stunning CGI used to visualise the military technology and weaponry, and most especially the scenery on Pandora, will leave you in awe. I particularly loved looking at the oh so marvelous floating mountains and jungle of Pandora, and the details that went into them. And also the fierce looking creatures that roam the skies and grounds of the planet, all beautifully rendered. Though those creatures are basically modeled after earth animals and dinosaurs, it is no less breathtaking.

But where Avatar succeeds in visuals, it fails in its plot. The storyline of a stranger that ventures into a land foreign to him, then falls in love with it, then turns his back on his more evil brethren, has been done before in Dances With Wolves and The Last Samurai. That basically means that you already know how this film will end, and some of you impatient ones will wonder why Cameron needs 160 minutes to do that.

Performance wise, the cast perform well enough. I give high marks to Saldana, who although appears only as her Na'vi self, and not how she really looks like, gives a performance that truly tugs at your heartstrings. It's a bonus that the motion capture translated her acting perfectly on screen. Worthington lands yet another meaty role as Sully, and he delivers here, much like he did in Terminator Salvation. Sigourney Weaver, who hasn't been in a Cameron film since Aliens, lends great support as Dr Grace Augustine, the head of the Avatar project. Michelle Rodriguez makes do with the limited screen time she has as a sympathetic Marine while Stephen Lang plays the two dimensional villain Col. Quaritch to a slimy tee. Giovanni Ribisi rounds up the cast as corporate slimeball Parker Selfridge. He reminds me of Paul Reiser's character in Aliens, just not as sneaky.

There's no doubt that Avatar is a groundbreaking masterpiece, and audiences will mostly enjoy it. But at the end of the day, is it really worth it? It cost US$400 million to make, and if this is the future of filmmaking, how much money will the studios have to shell out just to give audiences another one of these 'masterpieces'? We may never get to see a film like this again, unless someone knows how to do this at a lower cost. Perhaps it could have been done by using real actors in makeup, like most filmmakers would have opted. It wouldn't be the same, and the fun would be less, I suppose.

My verdict: go watch Avatar. If you like really awesome CGI, it's a sin to miss this. (4/5)

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Zombieland

Year: 2009
Director: Ruben Fleischer
Cast: Woody Harrelson, Jesse Eisenberg, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin


There have been many zombie movies produced over the years, like George A Romero's Dead series, the Resident Evil series and 28 Days Later, although in 28 Days Later, they weren't really zombies, but rage filled psychos with a lot more speed than the average zombie.

Zombieland prefers to take the road less travelled: the funny road. It's inspired by the other zombie comedy, Shaun Of The Dead, which this reviewer has yet to see. The premise in Zombieland is pretty standard: the world has been overrun by zombies and the few survivors left have to band together to stay alive.

The main leads are all identified by an American city name, and our main protagonist is Columbus, a young man who has managed to survive the zombie predicament despite being a coward for the most part. He narrates the film and informs the audience of the basic rules to stay alive in Zombieland, and even manages to demonstrate the rules while it is spelt out on screen. Totally hilarious.

Anyway, he meets Tallahassee, a trigger happy man who's obsessed with finding every last Twinkie there is. Together they travel the road and run into a pair of sisters, Wichita and Little Rock, who subsequently con them out of their weapons and vehicle. Somewhere down the line the four meet up again and decide to join forces and head to LA. Wichita plans to take her sister there, to an amusement park that is rumored to be zombie free.

Director Ruben Fleischer and writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick successfully create a film that is capable of entertaining despite having a really simple plot running through it. Sure, zombie films are never meant to be brain food (no pun intended), and every zombie flick looks a lot like the last one, but Zombieland keeps things fresh by piling on the laughs while mixing the action and horror up equally.

The cast work extremely well together. Woody Harrelson is very likeable even though he is pretty much playing himself here i.e. a character he's used to becoming. As Tallahassee, he comes off as the anti-hero that the audience will have no problem rooting for. However, it's Jesse Eisenberg who steals the show as Columbus, the coward who eventually breaks his own rules to save a life. His continuing narration keeps the audience focused on the story and not be numbed by all the gore and repetition you'd expect from a zombie movie. Emma Stone and Abigail Breslin provide great support as the two sisters who act as the perfect foil to the two guys.

The only drawback from Zombieland comes in the last part of the film, when things start to get personal between Columbus and Wichita, and the final fight between the four and the zombies start to feel draggy. There's only so much fun you can have watching zombies getting gunned down again and again.

But overall, I had fun spending 90 minutes watching this. It's the most fun you can have while learning a thing or two about life and surviving the dead. (4/5)

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Ninja Assassin

Year: 2009
Director: James McTeigue
Cast: Rain, Naomie Harris, Ben Miles, Sho Kosugi


I wasn't planning on watching this, but I got a free ticket for it, so I thought, why not? It may be a good way to waste 2 hours.

Ninja Assassin tells the story of Raizo, a former member of the ruthless ninja clan Ozunu. Through a series of flashbacks, we watch Raizo being raised by his master and put through rigorous and brutal training methods in order to become the perfect killing machine. Raizo endures it all, every beating, every painful torture until he becomes a ninja, then he turns his back on his clan after refusing to kill one of his own as proof of loyalty.

The main plot focuses on Raizo attempting to protect Mika, a Europol agent investigating the killings carried out by the Ozunu, and subsequently becomes a target herself when she gets too close. Raizo has to face off against his master and the clan to keep her alive.

Ninja Assassin is brought to you by the same guys who gave you V For Vendetta: director James McTeigue and producers Joel Silver and the Wachowski brothers. As far as action films go, it doesn't disappoint in the action department. McTeigue gives us plenty of nasty hand to hand combat with bloody results. You'll get to see lots of blood, which is obviously CGI fake blood, but it's still fun anyway. Korean superstar Rain, who plays Raizo, excels in the fight sequences, and he should, considering he trained long and hard for this film not only to be able to do the action, but look the part as well.

However, Rain isn't a good actor. His acting is wooden for the most part, it's the kind of style that would give Summer Glau from the TV Terminator series a run for her money. If they ever needed an Asian terminator, Rain would be a shoo-in. Sho Kosugi, who plays the merciless master Ozunu, certainly looks the part of a classic action villain, but he gets mostly B-grade lines to spout. My only favourite line from him is after Raizo turns against him and he goes "Killlllll hiimmmmmm!!!!!" Very B-grade, but very spot on.

And that's the main problem. The B-gradeness of the film. In essence, it's a B-grade film trying to pass off as something more. It borrows elements from The Replacement Killers and Ong Bak in order to look cool, but pales in comparison to those films. And then there are the plot holes, like the ninja clan not being too discreet about their assassination activities when they're supposed to be professionals. I mean, I've seen killers from other films being more secretive and effective than these guys. And why do they speak English to one another? Aren't they Japanese?

Ninja Assassin is a nice action film to watch and forget later. That's all it is. (3.5/5)

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

New Moon

Year: 2009
Director: Chris Weitz
Cast: Kristen Stewart, Robert Pattinson, Taylor Lautner, Billy Burke, Ashley Greene, Michael Sheen, Dakota Fanning, Peter Facinelli


The hype is back. And it's stronger than ever.

A year ago, teen moviegoers were going crazy over Twilight, the film adaptation of Stephenie Meyer's bestselling novel about a girl who falls in love with a vampire. It's a phenomenon that would rival Harry Potter, and it turned Kristen Stewart and Robert Pattinson into overnight darlings.

The new moon now rises. Stewart and Pattinson are back with almost everyone from the first film, and a new adventure begins. By the way, you wouldn't believe the amount of attention New Moon got and is still getting, from the pre-release buzz up to now. Everyone wants to know if the two onscreen lovebirds are dating offscreen, and Taylor Lautner, who plays Jacob Black, is getting a lot of limelight himself now that he's seeing Taylor Swift. Oh, wow. Isn't this exci...OK, let's not talk about that.

New Moon begins rather interestingly with a dream sequence, where Bella sees herself grow old as Edward stays young. She's still adamant about wanting to be a vampire in order to be able to stay with Edward forever.

The Cullens throw Bella a birthday party, and all goes well until Bella accidentally cuts her finger. Before you can even smell the blood, Jasper, Edward's younger brother and newest to the vegetarian vampire lifestyle, goes into a frenzy, forcing Edward to take action. The Cullens stop Jasper from causing any harm, but the damage is done.

Edward feels guilty over the incident, and wanting to keep Bella safe, decides to leave town with his family permanently. Bella is now alone, heartbroken and in serious grief. She spends her time staring out her window and screaming in her sleep. Time passes and she finally finds solace in her best friend Jacob, who tries to fill the void Edward left behind. He becomes her rock and shoulder to cry on, but Bella cannot bring herself to feel for him the same way she feels for Edward, even after Jacob reveals his secret to her. He is part of a family of werewolves who transform into their feral state when provoked. Things get complicated further when Alice, Edward's sister returns with grave news.....

This film is directed by Chris Weitz, who gave us the ambitious yet slightly dull The Golden Compass. Here he brings that similar style once more, where extensive yet unnecessarily detailed storytelling takes form. Unlike Twilight, where Catherine Hardwicke used dim lighting and grey hues to give a cloudy and misty feel, Weitz makes his film mostly golden brown on screen. Thus New Moon looks like summer most of the time. Which is okay, but Weitz chooses to tell this story like a book, which is full of dramatic dialogue concerning life, death, love, secrets and all that jazz.

This is the Achilles heel of the film. The lines. Stewart, Pattinson and Lautner are all forced to say lines that would work in the book, but sound really corny on celluloid; lines like "You're my only reason to stay alive" or "It's like a big hole has been punched through my chest" or "I won't ever hurt you, I promise" etc. This is like George Lucas' brand of romantic lines from Star Wars all over again. And we get to hear lots of this, in the middle third of the film, with Stewart leading the way. She actually does a decent job as Bella despite the awful dialogue given to her. I know most critics hated her performance, but it's not her fault if the screenwriter wants her to look like a lovesick teenager in desperate need of a man. Pattinson continues to look constantly constipated, and I think it's even more obvious now than in Twilight. Lautner gets a bigger role this time, and he gets to be the hunky guy with the muscles that the female fans will no doubt drool over.

My interest lies more in the supporting cast. Ashley Greene gets a bit more screentime to play the free spirited Alice, and she doesn't disappoint. Peter Facinelli gets less time as Cullen patriarch Carlisle, which is unfortunate, for his character is quite fascinating to watch. Michael Sheen and Dakota Fanning don't get much screentime as members of the Volturi, the vampire royals who enforce vampire law, but nevertheless make themselves memorable. I do hope they will return for the next instalment. Also look out for a welcome appearance by veteran Native American actor Graham Greene, who plays a friend of Bella's father.

In the end though, New Moon just isn't as concise as Twilight, and drags quite a bit before things pick up in the final third of the film. By then, your patience may well have run out.

I would like to see how Eclipse, the next instalment turns out when it comes to us in June, especially since it's going to be directed by David Slade, the man behind the dark vampire horror flick 30 Days Of Night. (3.5/5)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

The Box

Year: 2009
Director: Richard Kelly
Cast: Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, Frank Langella


Do you guys remember The Twilight Zone, the old TV show that told weird and sometimes creepy stories in your younger days? Well, the film I'm gonna talk about is in some way related to that.

The Box is based on the short story Button, Button by Richard Matheson, and was once translated to a story for The Twilight Zone. Set in 1976, it focuses on a couple, Norma and Arthur Lewis, she is a schoolteacher, he's an engineer for NASA. Times have been hard on them, and they've been living from paycheque to paycheque. They have a young son, Walter who is rather eager to grow up, but a good boy nonetheless.

One day, they receive a box with a big red button on it, not knowing who left it on their doorstep. Subsequently, a disfigured old man named Arlington Steward stops by and tells them about the box he gave them. Steward says that if they push the button, he will give them one million dollars in cash, tax free. But consequently, someone in the world, whom they do not know, will die. They have 24 hours to decide whether or not to push the button, or he takes the box back and offers it to someone else.

Norma and Arthur don't know what to make of the whole thing. Is the man telling the truth, and if so, how would it be possible? And if it is possible, are they ready to cause another person's demise? Well, in the end, you know the button has to be pushed so that the story can continue. But things start to get complicated after that, as Arthur tries to dig into the old man's identity, and that leads to very dire consequences.

Director Richard Kelly succeeds in making us empathise with his leads. The couple and their son are the main focus of the film, and it's through their eyes that we see and feel their plight. Norma has a walking disability, and we see Arthur using his knowledge to help her so that she can walk normally again. This subplot is quite relevant as it pertains to Norma's perception of Steward, although it's rather tragic how this fact gets overlooked in the climax.

Cameron Diaz is exceptionally good as Norma, since she's usually in a romcom or a comedy. She pulls off this serious role convincingly, though her Southern accent isn't quite perfect. James Marsden is a fine actor who hasn't quite snagged a lead role for himself yet, but ought to soon, for his performance as Arthur is strong indeed. Frank Langella lends a quiet yet disarming charm as the mysterious Arlington Steward.

On paper, The Box is a fine morality tale on choices we make, and how not to give in to curiousity. But here, the film falters in some places. There are a lot of things that don't make sense, or never explained, which may be in line of this being a Twilight Zone kind of tale. But scenes like the water gateways and Arthur and Norma being stalked by strangers right out of The Invasion begs some logical definition. And everyone in the film talks slowly most of the time, probably to suit the 70s era, but it's still much too distracting, and becomes dull after a while.

With some tighter editing and better execution, The Box would have been a great thriller. But it's not even thrilling in parts, and on a whole, not entertaining enough. (3/5)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

2012

Year: 2009
Director: Roland Emmerich
Cast: John Cusack, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Amanda Peet, Oliver Platt, Thandie Newton, Danny Glover, Woody Harrelson, Tom McCarthy


Before I begin this review, I'd like to answer a question posed to me in my last entry by a reader. The reason most of my ratings are at least 3/5 is because I am selective of the films I watch. I wouldn't watch something that I think I wouldn't enjoy, and this depends on the genre, who's in it, who directed it and how the promos play out. So I end up watching movies that I normally would be able to enjoy very much, or just call it a decent effort. Of course, a few slip through my radar, like The Last House On The Left, which I handed a 2.5 rating.

OK, on to 2012. As most of you would already know by now, that is if you've seen the trailers and know who's directing this, it's the end of the world, and Roland Emmerich is responsible again. It's not aliens, not a giant lizard, or global warming. Well, OK. Maybe nature has something to do with this one. Basically in 2009, scientists find out that the earth's core is heating up thanks to neutrinos from the sun, and the world will end in 2012.

The key scientist in this matter is Adrian Helmsley (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who brings his discovery to the attention of White House chief of staff Carl Anheuser (Oliver Platt) and President Thomas Wilson (Danny Glover). The President proceeds to make contingency plans with leaders of the G8 countries.

Cut to the final year. Struggling writer Jackson Curtis (John Cusack), who is on a camping trip at Yellowstone Park with his kids, discovers about the phenomenon and races home to save his family, which includes his kids, his ex-wife Kate (Amanda Peet) and her new boyfriend Gordon (Tom McCarthy). They barely manage to flee California before it collapses into the ocean. Jackson learns of the contingency plan and tries to get his family to safety.

Keep in mind one thing: when Emmerich tries to destroy the world on film, forget about everything else and just enjoy the action. You're not here to see plot development, good acting and all that jazz. You're here to see how Emmerich uses CGI to create large scale destruction. And this time it's global, so you'll see famous landmarks go down. You'll see humongous earthquakes, super tsunamis and giant volcanic fireballs throughout the movie. Think of all the great disaster flicks you've seen, put them all together and you have 2012. And by God, Emmerich does that splendidly. My favourite would be the sinking of California. Watch how Jackson and gang try to outrun huge earthquakes and buildings coming down around them. It's like a big rollercoaster ride.

Of the cast, Ejiofor and Platt stand out best, the former as the man who tries to morally do what's right, and the latter as the slimy, self-serving man who would sacrifice human lives to preserve what he thinks is the greater good. Cusack just manages to acquit himself as the hero in the type of film he wouldn't normally star in. Glover and Newton are wasted as the President and First Daughter respectively.

What I do like about this film is the colourful supporting cast, the ones who play smaller parts. It's quite representative of the global race. Jimi Mistry (Partition), Henry O (Rush Hour 3), John Billingsley (True Blood), Patrick Bauchau (Pretender), Chin Han (The Dark Knight) and Blu Mankuma (TV's Robocop) all play key roles here. We even have a Russian villain played by Zlatko Buric, who is quite hilarious to watch too.

Verdict: it's a nice popcorn flick, but it would have been better if it was shorter. At 158 minutes, it can be taxing. (3.5/5)

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

Year: 2009
Director: Quentin Tarantino
Cast: Brad Pitt, Christoph Waltz, Eli Roth, Melanie Laurent, Diane Kruger, Michael Fassbender, Daniel Bruhl, Til Schweiger


When you think about Quentin Tarantino movies, you start thinking about a whole new definition of cool. A new form of brilliant filmmaking. A style so unorthodox that even if you can't appreciate it as a whole, you'd still find entertaining in parts.

Tarantino is well known for making movies that don't conform to other films of a specific genre. He'll mix, match and borrow any element he feels adequate or suitable to make it work, and even if it seems like blatant copying to some, to most people it comes off as a wonderful homage to other classics.

His new film, Inglourious Basterds, is a World War II film that really isn't so much of a war film, but more of a spaghetti western meets The Dirty Dozen type of movie. You won't see those big battle sequences and bombs being dropped from soaring airplanes while everything around the cast blows up like Pearl Harbor here. It's quite a character driven film, to be honest.

Basterds begins with Col Hans Landa, a Nazi officer nicknamed The Jew Hunter, paying a visit to a family in France suspected of hiding Jewish refugees. He finds the Jews and kills them, but one of them, a young girl named Shosanna Dreyfus, manages to escape.

Cut to a few years later, where a team of Jewish American soldiers led by Lt Aldo Raine, drop themselves into France to do, as Raine proudly states, "one thing and one thing only: killing Nazis." Raine and company make such a notorious reputation among the Nazis that it incurs the wrath of Hitler himself. Meanwhile, Shosanna, who now runs a small cinema in Paris, finds herself in a unique position to exact revenge on the Nazis when a German officer named Fredrick Zoller, is smitten with her, and proposes to his commanding officer to premiere a pro-German film (starring Zoller no less) at her cinema.

Raine's team also have a plan of their own to take out the Nazis, with the help of German double agent Bridget von Hammersmark and English officer Lt. Hicox. But the brilliant tactics of Col Landa might ruin everyone's plans...

First of all, before you pass judgment on this film, whether you've seen it already or not, let me say this: this is Tarantino we're talking about. That being said, you can't just take this too seriously. For example, the real World War II was nothing like this. This film is WWII the way Tarantino imagined it to be. It's not supposed to be historically accurate, it's only meant to be fun and entertaining. And by God, it is.

You'll be pleasantly treated to his very unique style, like starting the film like a western, complete with soundtrack and credit fonts that match. Throughout the film, you'll hear western film type music that surprisingly enough, doesn't feel out of place at all. You'll probably chuckle at the idea, but you won't find it repulsive or silly one bit. Then there's the division of the film into chapters with titles, which is just perfect to keep the audience interested. That's the magic Tarantino brings to his films.

And then there's the lengthy dialogue exchanges, that seem to go on for up to 30 minutes per scene. For those of you who expect this to be a full blown action film or a Brad Pitt vehicle, let me warn you that it isn't either of those. It's full of scenes where conversation is the main course, and thankfully unlike Death Proof (where the dialogue was completely irrelevant to the main plot of a stuntman running girls over with his car for kicks), the dialogue here is spot on, wonderfully written and brilliantly executed.

Brad Pitt doesn't get the most airtime here, despite having first billing. But you will enjoy watching him as Aldo Raine, complete with his over the top Southern accent. He's just so much fun to watch here. Christoph Waltz steals the show as Col Hans Landa, a villain that exudes charm, cunning and an underlying sense of dread. If you sat in a room with him, you'll be taken in by his character, yet you know he's just waiting for the right moment to swallow you whole. Melanie Laurent is impressive as Shosanna, the woman with a vengeance, while Diane Kruger and Eli Roth lend credible support as Hammersmark and Sgt Donowitz, Raine's right hand man, respectively.

That's the Tarantino film, a movie that feels like it was made by a complete film geek, but it never fails to entertain. He certainly has redeemed himself from Death Proof. Go see this. (4/5)


Sunday, November 01, 2009

Pandorum

Year: 2009
Director: Christian Alvart
Cast: Dennis Quaid, Ben Foster, Antje Traue, Cung Le, Cam Gigandet, Eddie Rouse


There haven't been many space horror flicks that hit the mark other than the Alien series. Paul W.S. Anderson's Event Horizon comes to mind, but that one relied a lot on gore and violence, and less on suspense. Anderson now becomes producer on the latest space horror flick, Pandorum.

Pandorum takes place on a gigantic space freighter, Elysium. This spaceship is on a century long journey from Earth to a new planet, Tanis. It is carrying thousands of people seeking a new home after Earth is on near collapse due to overpopulation.

We begin with a crewmember named Bower (Ben Foster), who awakens after a long period spent in hypersleep, not remembering much about his mission, why he is on board this ship or even his own memories of himself. He awakens another man, Payton (Dennis Quaid), and together they try to work out what happened to the Elysium, which seems to be malfunctioning in many aspects.

Bower crawls out of the room they are trapped in and tries to get to the bridge. On the way, he runs into a few survivors, who seem to be armed and well prepared for hostile guests. Then he sees a large group of alien like creatures, cannibalistic and extremely violent. Bower reluctantly joins forces with the other survivors to stay alive and one step ahead of the creatures, while Payton guides him by radio through the vessel. As they progress, Bower learns a few shocking truths about the situation at hand.

So basically, Pandorum is a space thriller that combines elements from Neil Marshall's Doomsday and The Descent. If you recall, the former features wild people dressed as punks that feast on human flesh, while the latter features ugly creatures crawling about in a dark, claustrophobic environment. You'll get to see all that here. The ship is mostly dark and unlit, some spaces are narrow and tight, and the monsters look like distant cousins of the ones in The Descent. While all this may not be wholly original, it does make for a fun ride, at least for the first half.

Then when the revelations start coming in the second half, the film gets a bit messy. It does have a couple of twists that you won't quite expect, but by then the film starts to get weary, and you'll tire of it and want it to get to the end.

Foster is commendable as the main protagonist Bower, while the always reliable Dennis Quaid lends credible support as Payton. The other survivors; a girl who fights well but is mostly emotionless, a Vietnamese man who doesn't speak English, and a man who is basically the token weird guy with the weird mannerisms, are seemingly out of place in this story. I guess they aren't like Bower at all because they have been awake on the ship a lot longer than him, and have adapted to their environment, but still seeing them here is rather off-putting.

By the way, Pandorum is referred to in the film as a condition where someone suffers from paranoia and reacts violently due to extreme stress after being in space for long periods. This condition is happening to one of our protagonists, and therein lies the surprise.

Overall, director Christian Alvart did a decent job here. It won't stand toe to toe with Alien and its sequels, but it's worth a watch. (3.5/5)

Sunday, October 25, 2009

Law Abiding Citizen

Year: 2009
Director: F. Gary Gray
Cast: Gerard Butler, Jamie Foxx, Bruce McGill, Colm Meaney


When the justice system fails you, what do you do? In filmdom, it usually means that someone will take the law into his own hands and serve justice in the most violent way possible.

But here, in Law Abiding Citizen, the filmmakers take it a step further. It's not just about punishing the guilty, it's about punishing the system and the incompetent people who support it.

Gerard Butler plays Clyde Shelton, a happy family man whose world gets turned upside down when two robbers break into his home and kill his wife and daughter right before his eyes. Based on the evidence available, assistant D.A. Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx) is unable to fully convict both the robbers, so he settles for sending one of them to the death penalty while the other one, who is the main orchestrator of the crime, walks away with a slap on the wrist.

Clyde is no doubt unhappy about this and pleads to Nick to do the right thing and bring both men to justice, but Nick refuses. Cut to ten years later, when one of the robbers finally receives his death sentence, but it doesn't go according to plan. What was supposed to be a routine lethal injection turns ugly and the guy dies horribly. Then his accomplice who escaped the law many years back is kidnapped and mutilated. By Clyde no less.

Nick and the police waste no time in bringing Clyde in and charging him for murder. However, Clyde has a few tricks up his sleeve. He manipulates the system and forces Nick to do as he says or he starts killing people. And even when he's behind bars, people who were connected to his family's case start to die. The defence attorney. The judge. And then Nick's colleagues.

Nick realises that he is up against someone extraordinary, someone who is smart and capable of anything, and isn't afraid to commit unspeakable acts. Can Nick stop Clyde on his mission of destruction?

F. Gary Gray directed an excellent film 11 years ago, called The Negotiator. That film, as far as cop thrillers go, is still unmatched in my book. That being said, Law Abiding Citizen is not Gray's best work, but I will say it is fairly decent. He knows how to bring out the best in his cast, and he always has the best actors to work with.

Foxx is good as the man desperate to stop the chaos unfolding before him, but it is Butler who brings the goods as Clyde, the man who is willing to do anything to bring the justice system to its knees. Some people have compared him to Hannibal Lecter and The Joker, but I feel that Clyde has a more noble motivation, and that is why he is the one you'd root for throughout the film.

However, the film needs an edge to be more memorable. It's lacking something. At first I couldn't put my finger on it, but now I think it's lacking a good amount of thrills and exceptional dialogue. You'll see Foxx and Butler spar verbally many times, but their dialogue needs an edge to make it stand out. The other supporting characters who get killed off are also not worth mentioning, which makes their deaths feel empty, and you won't sympathise with Nick at all, and root for Clyde instead. I think that's where the film fails to hit on an emotional standpoint.

It's a good thriller, and it's surely worth your time. Just keep in mind there are better films out there. (3.5/5)

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Surrogates

Year: 2009
Director: Jonathan Mostow
Cast: Bruce Willis, Radha Mitchell, Rosamund Pike, Boris Kodjoe, James Cromwell, Ving Rhames


My last review was Gamer, a film where people can control other people. Now in Surrogates, it's an almost similar plot, where people control robot versions of themselves.

Surrogates takes place in the near future, where technology has become advanced, and android versions of people can be made and controlled by their owners. Humans no longer have to leave their homes, they can simply plug their minds into a computer and control their robotic selves, made to look like alternative or better versions of their true image, and venture out into the world, and still be able to feel everything the same way they would normally. Best of all, these surrogates are very sturdy and safe to use, or so they thought.

One day, two surrogates are found destroyed, and their owners dead, their brains liquified in the process. FBI agents Greer (Bruce Willis) and Peters (Radha Mitchell) investigate, and learn that a special weapon was used by a person not using a surrogate to do it. Their investigation leads them to the Dreads, a group of humans who abhor the use of surrogates and live in their own territory, away from everyone else. Greer then learns that the creator of the surrogates, Dr Canter (James Cromwell) may have been involved somehow, since one of the victims was his own son. All this leads to a war that could decide the fate of surrogacy.

Jonathan Mostow, director of the ingenious suspense thriller Breakdown, as well as the underappreciated Terminator sequel, takes the helm for Surrogates. He succeeds in creating a futuristic world where everyone has become dependent on a machine to carry out their day to day activities. In this film, you'll see all kinds of alternate versions of people, some very lifelike, some not so animated, some way too perfect looking and some weird ones too. Greer himself has a surrogate, which looks like a de-aged version of Willis; younger, wearing a wig and sporting a super smooth face. Kudos to the CGI team for making all the surrogates look very convincing.

Willis once again uses his great screen presence to ground the film and give it the right emotional core, and at the same time be the action hero. Rosamund Pike, who plays his wife, finally found a role that was tailor made for her singular facial expression. But at least this time, there are a couple of moments where she has the chance to unplug and emote, and we get to see her all messed up, which is a nice change. Cromwell and Rhames, who plays The Prophet, leader of the Dreads, are wasted here though.

One of the drawbacks of Surrogates, is the ending. It's too perfect, and predictable. In a film like this, you'd hope to see more arguments about the influence of technology on our lives, and we get some of it, in a form of a subplot involving Greer's damaged relationship with his wife, who is plugged 24/7. But a little more time spent on this would help give this film a bit more weight. In the end, it's just another action sci-fi that just falls short of other similar themed films like I, Robot and Minority Report.

A nice way to spend 88 minutes, but don't expect brain food. (3.5/5)

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Gamer

Year: 2009
Director: Mark Neveldine & Brian Taylor
Cast: Gerard Butler, Michael C. Hall, Amber Valletta, Kyra Sedgwick, Ludacris, Logan Lerman


Video games have evolved, from those addictive, coin operated space invader type machines to the realistic, online based battle types where you play a soldier in a first person shoot 'em up situation. I personally never understood those online games, I'm too primitive.

In Gamer, our film review for the week, it is the not too distant future, and technology has evolved up to a point where games can be more real than ever. We're not just online controlling characters on a program, now the characters are in the real world itself. For instance, in this world there is a more realistic version of The Sims called Society, where real people can be controlled by online players to become anyone they choose.

But the real focus here is Society's more violent brother, Slayers. Slayers is a game where players control other people in a full scale realistic combat situation. The controlled ones are death row convicts, who are promised freedom if they survive 30 sessions. So their lives are literally in the hands of the one pulling their strings.

The top character in Slayers is Kable (Gerard Butler), a man wrongfully convicted for murder. His real name is Tillman, and so far he has survived 27 sessions of the game, thanks to his player, a young boy named Simon (Logan Lerman). However, there is word going around that the owner of Slayers, Ken Castle (Michael C. Hall) will not allow Kable to survive the aforementioned 30 sessions and thus not granting him his freedom. Why? Well, there is something about Kable. He's a special man, who is motivated by his need to see his wife and daughter again, and he will do anything to see things through. Castle knows this, and thus makes it difficult for him.

Kable is not without allies though. He receives help from Humanz, an underground group who knows about Castle. Castle has implemented a special kind of technology that allows his games to work, and Humanz believes there is more to it than meets the eye, and that same technology will allow him to take over the country. Can Kable stop him before it's too late?

Directors Neveldine and Taylor have created a gritty sci-fi action film that pulls no punches with the stark violence and sex on display. Too bad the local censors removed most of it. But what's left is still a visible message on how the world would look like if technology became too advanced and people become much too reliant on it.

Unfortunately, this film suffers from bad editing and jerky camerawork, which made it difficult to follow at times. One moment you'll see Kable getting blown up, the next he's tumbling all over the place and not aware who's he shooting at. The pace keeps getting uneven and you'll get irritated trying to make sense of it all.

Butler succeeds once again becoming the action hero that you'll be rooting for, but not to be outdone is Hall, who brings his deadpan Dexter persona to the big screen as the villain. He's cool, charming and especially funny when he engages in a musical number during a confrontation with Butler. Well put by the directors. Ludacris and Sedgwick are wasted in their roles though. But do look out for minor appearances by Alison Lohman, Keith David, John Leguizamo, Zoe Bell and a very hilarious Milo Ventimiglia.

It's a film that was almost entertaining. The key word is 'almost'. (3/5)

Sunday, September 20, 2009

A Perfect Getaway

Year: 2009
Director: David Twohy
Cast: Steve Zahn, Milla Jovovich, Timothy Olyphant, Kiele Sanchez, Chris Hemsworth, Marley Shelton


It's been a while since I've watched a whodunit type thriller at the movies. And this one I saw yesterday was quite entertaining.

Steve Zahn and Milla Jovovich play newlyweds Cliff and Cydney, who are enjoying their honeymoon hiking in the remote islands of Hawaii. While there, they run into another couple, Kale and Cleo (Chris Hemsworth and Marley Shelton), who seem intimidating and dangerous. Cliff and Cydney almost get into a confrontation with them after they refuse giving them a ride in their jeep, and proceed to their destination.

Later, C & C meet another couple, Nick and Gina (Timothy Olyphant and Kiele Sanchez), who are interesting but downright weird. Nick for one, claims to have been in the military, and has several outstanding stories to tell, the kind that'll make you wonder if he's trustworthy or not. It doesn't help matters that there were reports of a couple being found murdered just the day before, and that authorities are looking for the suspects, a man and a woman. Cliff and Cydney tread carefully with their new friends, and then notice Kale and Cleo following them on their path too. So who can they trust?

David Twohy made one of the best remembered B-grade films ever: Pitch Black. It cemented Vin Diesel's action hero persona and the film became a cult classic. Now Twohy makes another B-grader, a suspense thriller, and it delivers more often than not. There are no A listers in this film, but the cast are on par with their performances. Twohy also paces the film well, and he does a brilliant job in getting the most out of his scenery.

Out of the cast, Zahn and Olyphant stand out best. Zahn is a tour de force, especially in the third act, when he stops being the weasel type guy he has perfected in so many of his other roles. Olyphant is also, as his character likes to say, outstanding, as Nick. I hated his performance as the villain in Die Hard 4, and I had trouble taking him seriously in any other role besides Seth Bullock in Deadwood. But here, he redeems himself as the eccentric Nick, and his continuous banter with Zahn about movie screenwriting will keep you in stitches. Sanchez also impresses as Gina, which is a step up from her shortlived role on TV's Lost.

Now, this movie, being a whodunit thriller, has to have a twist. And it is a brilliant one too. I saw it coming though, because I keep reading reviews and such. But it didn't ruin my enjoyment in any way. However, I didn't like how Hemsworth and Shelton were quite underused here.

Anyway, you ought to go see this. It's a nice way to spend two hours. (3.5/5)

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Orphan

Year: 2009
Director: Jaume Collet-Serra
Cast: Vera Farmiga, Peter Sarsgaard, Isabelle Fuhrman, CCH Pounder, Jimmy Bennett, Aryana Engineer


Kids. You know how scary they can be. In real life, they can be real monsters, the way they run up and down public walkways screaming at the top of their lungs, or cry uncontrollably when they don't get what they want. In the movies however, most kids are portrayed either bratty or devilish.

In Orphan, we're definitely not talking about Kevin McAllister type kids. We're talking about the kind that are capable of hurting and killing people. The kind that you know would spell trouble the moment you see that cold emotionless stare coming from their eyes.

Orphan focuses on a couple, John and Kate Coleman (Peter Sarsgaard and Vera Farmiga). They have two children, son Daniel (Jimmy Bennett) and daughter Maxine (Aryana Engineer). Maxine happens to be hearing impaired. Recently, Kate had a stillborn child, and is still recovering from that loss. On top of that, she is a recovering alcoholic, and John himself has infidelity issues. The couple decide to adopt a child to help bring some positive vibes into their fragile family. And with that in mind, they adopt Esther (Isabelle Fuhrman), a well-mannered, bright and mature 9 year old girl from the orphanage.

At first, Esther fits in well, as she bonds with Max and despite having issues with Daniel, gets along generally well with her new family. However, it doesn't take long for everyone to realise that Esther isn't as perfect as she initially seems. She wears old fashioned dresses that make her the target of ridicule at school, and she responds violently towards her tormentors. She is cunning enough to manipulate John and Kate against each other, and slowly shows her true colours when she resorts to brutal violence to protect herself, like threatening her siblings and committing murder.

Kate notices how dastardly Esther can be and tries to prove it, but her problems with John hamper her efforts. When Esther puts Daniel and Max in danger and frames Kate for it, Kate has to pull out all the stops to save her family.

Jaume Collet-Serra, who directed House Of Wax, does a decent job in fleshing out his characters. Every member of the Coleman family has a role to play, and they all deliver. Jaume could have improved the pacing a little though, but overall the film doesn't suffer too much from it.

Farmiga and Sarsgaard acquit themselves splendidly as the troubled couple, but it is 12 year old Isabelle Fuhrman who steals the show as the evil Esther. When you first meet her, you'd be so convinced that she is such a sweet girl, and then she totally turns to the dark side, and you find yourself wondering where that sweet girl went to. Fuhrman is excellent, and depending on the roles she will get after this, will go a long way in Hollywood. I must also give credit to young Aryana Engineer, who plays Maxine. This little girl knows how to show fear, and her eventual emergence of courage towards the end of the film.

But Orphan isn't without its flaws. It has several plotholes, the most obvious being why nobody in the family ever keeps a close eye on Esther, which allows her to scheme and carry out her evil plans smoothly. And the climax of the film seems a tad overdone.

Oh, and you'd be wondering how a little girl like Esther can do all this stuff, right? Well, that's the secret the film's tagline is implying. The revelation on Esther's background is the film's trump card, and it will tie up all the loose ends you'll be having before you get to the third act. It's not as good a twist as other films I've seen, but at the same time it's not entirely implausible.

A decent thriller, which just might make you think twice about adopting innocent looking kids. (3.5/5)

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Up

Year: 2009
Director: Pete Docter & Bob Peterson
Voice cast: Ed Asner, Jordan Nagai, Christopher Plummer, Bob Peterson


Pixar is probably the only movie making machine in the world that never misses its mark in delivering quality films. This animation studio makes film after film that scores in every aspect, be it storytelling, plot, pacing, direction, you name it. It's no wonder that it's the top animation studio in Hollywood right now.

So what's up with their latest project, Up? Well, like all their previous efforts, it's filled with a lot of heart, peppered with wild adventures and features characters you'll love and remember when it's over.

Up focuses on one Carl Fredricksen, an elderly man living in an old house on a plot of land being bought up by a big corporation. We are introduced to Carl in a unique way: we get to see how ever since he was a kid, he yearned for adventure. He longs to go to Paradise Falls, a beautiful place in South America, just like his childhood hero, explorer Charles Muntz did. Carl meets Ellie, a young girl in his neighborhood who loves adventure as well, and the two become close. We see how they get married, grow old together and still long for that adventure to Paradise Falls, but never quite achieve their dream when Ellie passes on.

Back to the present. Carl finally decides to get that adventure going, so what does this 78 year old balloon salesman do? He ties thousands of balloons to his house and literally floats away! Yes, only Pixar can make us believe in this stuff, but there you go.

The fun begins when Carl discovers a stowaway on his trip: a young Wilderness Explorer kid named Russell. Russell is a boy who insists on helping Carl in order to get that one last badge on his belt for a promotion in his group. Carl is reluctant, but obviously has no other choice but to let Russell join him on his trip. They eventually make it to South America, where they run into a talking dog, a rainbow colored bird and another adventurer who has very sinister plans.

Pete Docter, who previously directed Monsters Inc, teams up with writer Bob Peterson, who wrote Finding Nemo, and together they make a film that is truly heartwarming. Up is about achieving something, a dream, something you've always wanted to do, but never got around to accomplish, and the film says that you're never too old to do just that. It's also about friendship, love and sacrifice, and how two unlikely people can become the best of friends.

Carl is the unlikely hero here, the old man who seeks one last adventure, and makes a few new friends in the process. I particularly liked Russell, the little kid who brings out the caring side of Carl and also provides most of the humour here. These two make the perfect movie buddy team that many will remember for the ages.

And let's not forget the great effort by the technical team in making the animation close to flawless. It's an improvement from Ratatouille and The Incredibles, Pixar's previous efforts in presenting human characters. But my guess is, you will all be enthralled by a great story well delivered, and not mind too much about the animation itself.

Another winner from Pixar:) (4.5/5)

Sunday, August 23, 2009

District 9

Year: 2009
Director: Neill Blomkamp
Cast: Sharlto Copley, Vanessa Haywood, David James, Louis Minnaar


Aliens in film have been generally portrayed in three ways: the violent kind (Alien, Predator, their sequels and the crossovers), the good kind (E.T., Close Encounters Of The Third Kind) and the invading kind (Independence Day, The Invasion). There are also those stupid Martians from Mars Attacks, but let's not get into that.

And now we have aliens as refugees. Refugees you say? Yes, that's what I said. In this new film produced by LOTR's Peter Jackson, aliens have arrived on earth, and they are refugees stranded with no way to get home.

District 9 is set in Johannesburg, South Africa, where for the past 20 years, aliens have arrived and made earth their new home. Through a series of interviews via documentary style, we learn that the aliens, commonly known as prawns (due to the resemblance), are stranded on earth and are now living in a huge slum area known as District 9. And like common slum inhabitants, they live in worn down shacks, feed on garbage and tussle with law enforcement regularly. Some people want them gone, others cry for their basic rights.

The aliens' welfare is being handled by Multi-National United (MNU), a huge corporation that plans to relocate the aliens to a new, larger area called District 10. MNU picks one of their trusted employees, Wikus van der Merwe, to lead MNU officials and security personnel in the relocation process. Wikus is a regular family man who is excited about his new responsibility and for the most part, seems well equipped to handle the task.

However, during the relocation process, something happens to Wikus, an incident that will forever change his fate and intertwines it with the fate of the aliens. This is where he, and the audience learn that MNU isn't all what it seems.

Neill Blomkamp is a first time director who hails from South Africa, and no doubt he used his experiences during the apartheid rule to show humanity at its worst. What he presents on film isn't too far fetched, even though this story of aliens being refugees on earth is ultimately science fiction. You will see how badly humans treat the aliens, and the levels they will sink to, to get what they want. It's a stark reminder of how we, as a supposedly advanced and evolved race, can still do the most evil things imaginable.

Sharlto Copley has no prior acting experience before being in this film, but damn he's good. Copley gives Wikus the perfect heartfelt performance as the man who is caught between his evil employers and the alien race he thought he understood. As the film progresses, things get really critical and life threatening for him, and you'd have to be a heartless person to not pity him.

On the surface, this film doesn't look like it was made on a large budget. In fact it was only made at a cost of $30 million. But even so, the action sequences and special effects are cool to watch. There is a good amount of violence here, so you may want to reconsider watching this if you're squeamish. But I seriously hope you don't, because there is a message behind this film, and that violence only magnifies the impact of that message rather than glorify onscreen mayhem.

District 9 is without a doubt the sleeper hit of the year. Recommended. (4/5)

Sunday, August 09, 2009

G.I. Joe: The Rise Of Cobra

Year: 2009
Director: Stephen Sommers
Cast: Channing Tatum, Marlon Wayans, Rachel Nichols, Sienna Miller, Christopher Eccleston, Byung-hun Lee, Dennis Quaid, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Said Taghmaoui, Ray Park, Jonathan Pryce


You know what other cartoon was famous in the 80s and was based on a toyline besides Transformers? G.I. Joe. It spawned cartoon shows, more toys and comicbooks. And just like Transformers, it gets the Hollywood treatment.

The film begins with a man named McCullen (Christopher Eccleston), a weapons designer who introduces a new weapon to NATO. It's a special warhead that contains nanomites, tiny robotic bugs that eat away at anything made of metal.

So McCullen arranges for the US military to transport the warheads from his facility to NATO. The military convoy, led by Duke (Channing Tatum) and Ripcord (Marlon Wayans) are ambushed by troops armed with super high tech gadgets. They are then promptly rescued by the top secret G.I. Joe team, who offer to help secure the warhead transport to its destination.

However, it is later revealed that McCullen planned the attack, and is planning to use his weapon on major cities across the globe. On McCullen's side are The Baroness (Sienna Miller), the mysterious Doctor (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and the ninja Storm Shadow (Byung-hun Lee). Duke and Ripcord join the Joes, who are led by General Hawk (Dennis Quaid). The Joe key players are the lovely Scarlett (Rachel Nichols), mute ninja Snake Eyes (Ray Park), communications expert Breaker (Said Taghmaoui) and weapons man Heavy Duty (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje).

What follows then are many edge of the seat action sequences, lots of explosions and destruction. But here's what makes this interesting: many of the lead characters have histories. Duke and The Baroness were romantically involved before this, and Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow are mortal enemies. Director Stephen Sommers did the right thing by fleshing out his characters well. Through a handful of flashbacks, viewers will get to see the motivations and backstories of the lead players, thus we understand them and empathise with them better. Sommers deserves credit for balancing the action and drama perfectly.

And the action? Well, all I can say is it's mind blowing. It will remind you of Transformers, due to the amount of shit getting blown up. But I suppose watching humans fight is a tad easier than watching robots fight, so it'll be easier on the eyes and a bit more believable. Check out the car chase sequence in Paris, which is awesome to behold even though it's very obvious a lot of CGI was used.

The cast perform splendidly, I must say. Most of them have great chemistry on screen. Tatum still looks more like an action figure than an actor, but being the former is probably more important than the latter in this film. Nichols, Wayans and Miller also stand out, especially Wayans who gets to be the comic relief. Check out the cameo appearances of a few stars of Sommers' The Mummy in this film. I gotta admit, that was cool.

So what didn't work? Some of the lines were quite cheesy, especially the Doctor's lines. With the voice and the dialogue given, Gordon-Levitt sounded like a cartoon character, even more so than the Decepticons. And poor Quaid was underused, but then again his character wasn't really important.

My verdict: it's a great candidate for a summer action blockbuster. (4/5)

Sunday, August 02, 2009

The Taking Of Pelham 123

Year: 2009
Director: Tony Scott
Cast: Denzel Washington, John Travolta, James Gandolfini, John Turturro, Luiz Guzman, Ramon Rodriguez


In the midst of alien robots, teenage wizards and animals from the ice age, there's still room for an old fashioned action movie. This year it's Tony Scott's turn to bring one to the fore, with two big Hollywood names leading the way.

The Taking Of Pelham 123 is actually a remake of a film with the same name produced in 1974. The film begins with a hijacking of a subway train in New York by four men. The leader, who calls himself Ryder (John Travolta) takes the train to a secluded part of the tunnel and waits.

Train dispatcher Walter Garber (Denzel Washington) notices this and calls the train. Ryder answers and demands 10 million dollars in exchange for the train passengers, and the money needs to arrive in one hour or he starts killing them. Despite not being a trained hostage negotiator, Garber continues to communicate with Ryder, and he does it so well Ryder chooses to deal with him throughout the waiting period.

Some tense moments then follow when police lieutenant Camonetti (John Turturro) enters the picture, and when the Mayor (James Gandolfini) himself gets into the action, things get interesting. However it is ultimately Garber that needs to see things to the end, because Ryder says so.

This is the fourth time Tony Scott is working with Denzel, and it's easy to see why. Denzel is the kind of guy whom you'll always root for. Unlike in Scott's last three collaborations with Denzel where the latter plays the iconic action hero, this time he plays the everyman caught in a difficult situation where he's forced to adapt and use his wits in order to save lives. And as always, Denzel pulls it off with great ease. He makes you believe in him and care about his character. Travolta on the other hand simply makes a slight adjustment to his usual bad guy routine to play Ryder, but the beauty of it is it never really gets old. Travolta's villain is usually charming, smart, violent and confident all the way. It's always fun to see that, at least for me. However, what makes this film work is the chemistry between the two leads. Their conversations over the radio during the film is the best part, as they get to know each other and bring each other to a point they've never been to.

Turturro and Gandolfini lend in credible support as the cop and the Mayor respectively. Gandolfini in particular gets some of the best lines and scenes, as his Mayor character isn't a well liked person in his own city, which leads to some very hilarious moments.

The movie suffers a little with the lack of some worthy action sequences and the existence of a few plotholes here and there, but that's OK because Scott manages to keep the suspense in check throughout. He still uses his quick cut, screen distorting filming style to great effect here, and thankfully not overdone like in Man On Fire.

Verdict: A well made thriller that stays on track from start to finish. (4/5)

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince

Year: 2009
Director: David Yates
Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint, Emma Watson, Michael Gambon, Alan Rickman, Helena Bonham Carter, Jim Broadbent, Tom Felton, Jessie Cave, David Thewlis


Looking back I recalled how little these kids were when they first started out. They had those wide eyed expressions and the hunger for adventure. And always, no matter how dangerous it'd get, Hermione, Ron and their special friend, Harry Potter would beat the odds and stand triumphant.

But as time passed and as J.K. Rowling wrote further, the stories got darker. The magic and fantasy started to fade, and in its place is darkness and death. And the three children are now grown up, transformed from being sleuths to warriors of light. The Dark Lord is making his move, and Harry now needs to embrace his role as the chosen one.

And that's how it is with Harry Potter. Innocence makes way for sacrifice and strangely enough, teenage love. Harry Potter & The Half-Blood Prince begins where Order Of The Phoenix left off, after the death of Harry's godfather, Sirius Black. Professor Dumbledore recruits Harry for a special task, which involves acquiring information from a certain wizard named Professor Horace Slughorn, whom Dumbledore has just recently appointed to teach at Hogwarts.

You see, Slughorn used to teach the Dark Lord when he was younger, and the former holds a secret that may help Dumbledore find a way to defeat Voldermort once and for all. So Harry attempts to get close to Slughorn, and succeeds by not only using his reputation of being the chosen one, but also by using a potions book once owned by the Half-Blood Prince, that gives Harry an edge in class.

But that's not all that's brewing. Ron Weasley has become a target of infatuation of one Lavender Brown, who won't stop in her obssessive pursuit of him, much to the chagrin of Hermione Granger, who is finally letting her true feelings towards Ron come forth. Harry himself finds love in the form of Ron's younger sister Ginny. And if that's not enough, Draco Malfoy, Harry's nemesis has been chosen by Voldermort to carry out a task of his own.

As I had said earlier, the wide eyed fantasy and magic we started out with is gone. Now we're getting serious. But is it still fun? Well, thankfully director David Yates still manages to keep the story flowing, even though when you look upon this film after it's over, you'll realize that it's mostly filler material for something bigger to happen next. There is very little action here, except for a Quidditch match to behold. No dangerous challenges like you've seen in The Goblet Of Fire or wizard fights in Order Of The Phoenix. What you get is a lot of drama and yet another major character biting the dust. It's a fascinating experience, but not one that'll make you go "wow".

The kids have come of age indeed. Grint hasn't got much to do this time other than play Quidditch and be a lovestruck teen though. Watson fares slightly better, by not being overdramatic as in previous instalments and giving just enough to make us feel for her when she gets her heart broken. Radcliffe does alright as the great Harry Potter, but nothing too outstanding. Tom Felton on the other hand, finally gets to step up as Draco gets a bigger responsibility this time around. The adult supporting cast do their parts well, and Alan Rickman once again leads the way followed by Michael Gambon. Helen Bonham Carter still continues to be as annoying as ever as Bellatrix Lestrange, only this time she gets 10 lines instead of 3.

In the end, this film is as one reviewer said about the book it's based on, it's just another cop out story to kill off a major character. But I guess it's the process and journey undertaken here that counts. And it is entertaining to an extent, and succeeds in making us anticipate the Deathly Hallows I and II coming next. (4/5)

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Public Enemies

Year: 2009
Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Johnny Depp, Christian Bale, Marion Cotillard, Giovanni Ribisi, Billy Crudup, Stephen Lang, Stephen Dorff, John Ortiz


A thoroughly made film starring the who's who of Hollywood. That's how you know you're watching a Michael Mann film. It's usually about two individuals, very different from each other, who cross paths and sparks fly, and they're played by two great thespians and supported by an equally talented cast. Just think of The Insider, Heat and Collateral and you'll catch my drift.

Public Enemies focuses on Depression era gangster John Dillinger, who carried out a series of daring bank robberies with his gang in the 30s. Dillinger was a man with great confidence and bravado, who is skilled enough to break his cohorts out of prison and outsmart law enforcement officers time and time again.

J Edgar Hoover, the founder of the FBI, makes it his personal quest to bring Dillinger to justice, and to that end he assigns Melvin Purvis, a man who is determined and well equipped to track Dillinger down. When Purvis is unable to catch Dillinger due to the incompetence of the agents assigned to his force, he asks Hoover to give him people who can get the job done.

There is also a subplot regarding Dillinger's personal life, where he meets and falls for coat check girl Billie Frechette. Billie finds him charming and falls for him too. However, it is this relationship that eventually puts Dillinger in harm's way, no matter how fast he runs.

If there's one thing Michael Mann is good at, it's bringing his leads to the front. Character driven stories are his forte, and he does a splendid job here. Public Enemies is like a biography on John Dillinger, though it isn't really since it focuses on the last few years of his life. But Mann succeeds in making Dillinger the hero, despite being a criminal through and through. Deep down, you know Dillinger is wrong, but here he is portrayed as a good man who cares for the people close to him, and even the public back then worshipped him as a hero because he robbed from the institutions who couldn't save them from the depression. Kudos also goes to the set and costume designs who are all spot on.

Johnny Depp does it again, is there any other way to say it? Dillinger is nowhere near as quirky as Willy Wonka or hilarious as Captain Jack Sparrow, but Depp is in his element as always, giving Dillinger equal amounts of charm, human compassion and boldness required of a criminal. Christian Bale plays the supporting character here as Melvin Purvis, who is well trained at what he does, and despite his dogged determination, isn't entirely cold hearted as some of his colleagues are. Marion Cotillard also stands out as Dillinger's girlfriend Billie, though her really best moments come in the final third of the film.

With all the drama going on, there is still plenty of room for action too. Considering this is 1933, you won't get high speed car chases and stunts, but there are a lot of firefights going on and lots of bodies going down. Kudos to Mann for balancing that factor equally. Oh, and watch out also for minor appearances by Emilie de Ravin (Lost), Lili Taylor (The Haunting), Leelee Sobieski (Joyride), Channing Tatum (Fighting) and jazz singer Diana Krall.

It's a must watch, whether you're a Depp fan or not. (4/5)

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

The Last House On The Left

Year: 2009
Director: Dennis Iliadis
Cast: Tony Goldwyn, Monica Potter, Garret Dillahunt, Sara Paxton, Riki Lindhome, Aaron Paul, Spencer Treat Clark, Martha MacIsaac


This film is a remake of another film of the same name by Wes Craven, the horror maestro behind the Scream movies and Red Eye. But this is less on scares and more on violence.

The story: John & Emma Collingwood (Tony Goldwyn & Monica Potter) and their daughter Mari (Sara Paxton) head to their lake house for a vacation. While there, Mari decides to go to town to meet an old friend, Paige (Martha MacIsaac). The two girls meet a young boy, Justin (Spencer Treat Clark), who leads them back to his hotel room so that they can smoke pot. Trouble ensues when Justin's father Krug (Garret Dillahunt) returns to the room and finds them there. Krug happens to be a criminal who just escaped police custody, thanks to his two partners, Francis (Aaron Paul) and Sadie (Riki Lindhome).

Krug, Sadie and Francis take the two girls hostage. Eventually Paige and Mari attempt to escape, but Mari gets shot as she tries to run, and ends up in the lake. When a vicious storm rolls in, Krug and company take refuge with the Collingwoods, not knowing that the couple are Mari's parents. When Mari shows up at their doorstep barely alive, her parents learn about what happened, and plan revenge against their new guests.

This is only Dennis Illiadi's second attempt at directing, and unfortunately he still has a lot to learn. If there's one thing that bugged me about The Last House On The Left, it's how the story kept dragging on and on. It's supposed to be a thriller, but there's almost no suspense felt here. Everyone moves at a slow pace, like they're bored or they just need to drag themselves to make up more screen time for the film. And when they make it look like they're bored, they bore us too, of course.

Acting wise, almost everyone underacts. And it sure is a sad fact. Goldwyn and Potter aren't bad actors, but this film sure justifies the reason they're not A-listers in Hollywood. They look rigid for the most part, at least until the last third of the film, when they have to shift to a higher gear. Dillahunt is sadly not effective here as the villain, even though he was quite impressive on TV series like Deadwood and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles. His character is abusive, but not smart or intimidating as he should be. Paul and Lindhome just spend a lot of time cussing, because that's what most villainous lackeys do, right? Yawn. But the worst piece of acting came from Paxton, who as Mari, was sterile for the entire film. She ought to be terrified in the face of danger, in front of her very violent captors, but looks like she'd rather be doing something else. She's cute, but can't act to save her life. Which leaves Clark, who has grown considerably since being in Gladiator. As Justin, Clark demonstrates how he really fears his father, and how he totally resents everything his father does, and what his father forces him to do. And Clark does this by using his eyes. You can see the fear he experiences in them, which speaks louder than anything he says on screen.

All that's left to admire in this film is the violence. You'll see lots of blood, lots of gore and a novel yet dangerous way of using a microwave on your enemy. But even violence needs direction, and with the awful treatment Iliadi has given this film, it just doesn't work. In the end, all that gore feels pointless. I don't even feel the justice that was supposedly served to the bad guys, because there wasn't enough drama to back the film up.

I have heard a lot of negative comments on the Transformers sequel, about how it has many large plotholes and how nonsensical it turned out. Trust me on this, that film was a lot more fun than sitting through The Last House On The Left. You've been warned. (2.5/5)

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen

Year: 2009
Director: Michael Bay
Cast: Shia LaBeouf, Megan Fox, Josh Duhamel, Tyrese Gibson, John Turturro, Ramon Rodriguez


The most talked about film of 2009 is finally here. This reviewer was lucky enough to catch a premier screening of Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen two nights ago. I say lucky because tickets for this film are selling out even as I type this.

Since it's Michael Bay's film we're talking about here, you can expect lots of mindless action and huge explosions from start to finish. If you recall, the first Transformers film was chock full of destruction, so in this sequel you can expect even more shit getting blown up.

But first, the story. After the defeat of Megatron, the Autobots have formed an alliance with the US government. A top secret organisation called NEST is created to assist the Autobots in tracking the last few remnants of the Decepticons still on earth and eliminating them. NEST operations are helmed by the two military heroes from the first movie, Lennox (Josh Duhamel) and Epps (Tyrese Gibson).

Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf), the Autobots' most trusted ally, is going off to college, leaving his girlfriend Mikaela (Megan Fox), his parents (Kevin Dunn & Julie White) and even his protector Bumblebee behind. His quest to lead a normal life however takes a turn for the worst when he finds himself getting thrown back into the Autobot-Decepticon war. A piece of the Allspark, the cube of life of the Transformers from the first film, ends up in Sam's hands, and it inadvertently gives him images of information that is of great interest to the Decepticons. The Decepticons in turn seek to revive Megatron, and in the process of doing so, runs afoul of NEST and the Autobots. The Autobots now have to do all they can to protect Sam and stop Megatron from carrying out his evil plan, which concerns bringing back the very first Decepticon known as The Fallen....

As I said earlier, it's Michael Bay's film, which means a lot of stuff is gonna get blown up. The key is to enjoy watching it all unfold. And let's admit it, you must have enjoyed some of the stuff he's done. Pearl Harbor. The Island. Armageddon. The Rock. Lots of shit getting blown up, lots of action left and right, it's mindless, mind blowing, crazy but fun. You get all that here. Just picture all of the destruction in his previous films, combine them together and you have it in Transformers 2.

I gotta hand it to the CGI guys, they really did an outstanding job with the robot fights and transformations. From robots punching, blasting and slicing each other to pieces, to transforming seamlessly from robot to vehicle/object and back, to robots talking, moving and acting humanlike, all very well done.

Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman, who wrote the new Star Trek film, co-wrote this film and put in a decent effort. The plot may not be entirely original, and some of the lines may sound cheesy, but it works. This time there are more robots to play around with, including the Decepticon Soundwave and the Constructicons that form the deadly Devastator. A few new Autobots are also featured, but some of them are only given a few scenes, such as Arcee and Sideswipe, which is a real pity, since I can identify these characters from the cartoons.

As for the human actors, LaBeouf succeeds again in getting the audience to root for him as the reluctant hero thrust into a war he shouldn't be a part of. Megan Fox is here mainly for the guys to ogle at, but nobody minds, right? I do feel she had more to do in the first film than here though. John Turturro returns as Agent Simmons, whose character has been reduced from a government agent to a closet conspiracy theorist. But he still manages to bring on the laughs.

With all the stuff that's going on, is there any room for negativity? Well, aside from the sometimes excessive use of explosives thanks to the director, there are a few things this film can do without. Like a few annoying characters, for example Leo (Ramon Rodriguez), Sam's new roommate in college. Leo gets the role Sam had in the first film: freak out frequently. Sam of course did it better back then, in here Leo comes off as the guy you'd wish someone would just put in a box and send him to Alaska. Leo freaks out every 5 minutes because of things he doesn't understand, and I get that. I really do. But the filmmakers can develop his character a whole lot better than that. There are also the twin Autobots Mudflap and Skids, whose personalities resemble a duo of high school kids arguing constantly everywhere they go. I know making these Autobots as human as possible would be interesting, but these two aren't even funny. And people say they hate Jar Jar Binks? They haven't met these two yet.

If anything, TF2 is a film where everything you knew from the first film has been amplified. The action, the plot, the humour, even the drama. Sam's parents actually get to do more here than simply stand around and be funny. The robots have more emotions and more things to say as well. All this is good, but I think some of them can be edited better. I mean, we don't need to see Sam's mother embarass him at college after she accidentally takes some weed, do we? Yeah, there is such a scene. Bay's idea of humour, but not really necessary here.

I can already see the critics all over the world condemning this film for a variety of reasons. But just keep in mind, you don't watch a Michael Bay movie to see some substance, you watch it to have fun. And I had fun from beginning to end. (4.5/5)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

State Of Play

Year: 2009
Director: Kevin Macdonald
Cast: Russell Crowe, Ben Affleck, Rachel McAdams, Helen Mirren, Robin Wright Penn, Jason Bateman, Jeff Daniels, Harry Lennix


State Of Play is based on the BBC TV series of the same name, and is directed by Kevin Macdonald, the guy behind The Last King Of Scotland. The film begins with the murder of a petty thief and an attack on a pizza delivery man by a skilled assassin. The reason is unclear. Then the following morning, a woman named Sonia Baker is killed in a subway train accident.

Washington Globe journalist Cal McAffrey (Russell Crowe) digs into the first two attacks, which he feels were under odd circumstances. At the same time, Rep. Stephen Collins (Ben Affleck) receives news of Sonia's death. Sonia was his aide, and we subsequently learn that the two were having an affair. Collins' reaction to her death in front of the media makes tabloid headlines. It couldn't come at a worse time for him, as he is in the middle of a hearing where he is speaking out against Pointcorp, a large company pushing for sponsoring large defense contracts for the government.

Washington Globe news blogger Della Frye (Rachel McAdams) seeks Cal's help in investigating Sonia's death, because Cal and Stephen Collins were roommates in college. Cal is uncooperative at first, but he eventually works with Della after being persuaded by his editor, Cameron Lynne (Helen Mirren). Cal meets up with Stephen and tries to uncover the truth, and soon he and Della learn that the three incidents are related. Cal's friendship with Collins is then put to the test when the former starts to get romantically involved with the latter's wife (Robin Wright Penn), and the deeper Cal digs, the more his reputation and conscience is called into question.

Macdonald does a splendid job in helming a thriller that keeps you rooted in the goings on until the very end. It does not have plenty action scenes, but the characters and the riveting storyline are more than enough to reel you in and keep you on edge. The way Cal and Della investigate and probe for information, the way information is submitted, exchanged and eventually put out to the world through the media, is rather interesting to watch, which is a sure plus point for the film.

Crowe succeeds as Cal, and drives the film for the most part. He is a journalist who never stops seeking the facts at any cost, even when the people around him don't know if he's after a story or trying to help a friend, he pushes on. As the viewer, you sort of know whose side he's on, but do his methods justify his intentions? That is the question. McAdams, whom I've always disliked for simply being too good looking to take seriously, acquits herself well as Della, who is ambitious and yet sometimes too ambitious for her own good. Mirren is slightly wasted as the tough as nails editor Cameron though. A few more scenes with her would have made her more memorable. Penn and Jason Bateman (as an informant) lend credible support too. Affleck is somewhat miscast as Stephen Collins, but he didn't do too badly, just not enough to stand up to Crowe.

However, the film deserves a better climax than the one it got. There is a twist at the end, but its delivery wasn't very convincing. Thankfully, Russell Crowe's screen presence makes up for that. He is what makes State Of Play a worthwhile watch.

Stay for the closing credits, which show how a newspaper goes from print to ship. (4/5)

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Drag Me To Hell

Year: 2009
Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Alison Lohman, Justin Long, Lorna Raver, Dileep Rao, Adriana Barraza, David Paymer


Sam Raimi is known for two things: Spider-Man and the Evil Dead movies. Long before he brought Spidey to the silver screen, the Evil Dead was Raimi's groundbreaking work, presenting classic horror and terror to film. Now he's going back to his roots, so to speak.

Drag Me To Hell introduces us to Christine Brown, a young woman who works as a loan officer at the bank. She's bright, pretty and has a loving boyfriend, Clay. One day, she meets an old woman, Mrs Ganush, who wishes to extend her loan on her house. In an attempt to impress her boss, Christine turns the woman down.

Unfortunately, this turns out to be a huge mistake on Christine's part, as Mrs Ganush is a gypsy, and she didn't take that kindly. She attacks Christine later that night and subsequently puts a curse on her. After consulting a fortune teller, Christine learns that she has been given the curse of Lamia, where in 3 days the evil spirit of Lamia will come for her and drag her to hell, literally. Thus begins Christine's journey into terror, as she experiences nightmares, hears unsettling sounds and gets terrorised physically and mentally by things that are there or otherwise. Unable to tolerate it any longer, Christine and the fortune teller, Rham Jas seek out a woman who has battled the Lamia before, for help.

Drag Me To Hell has quite an intriguing plot, the kind that makes you want to root for the protagonist while wanting to see how it plays out to the end. For that, I'll give Sam Raimi and his brother Ivan, who co-wrote the screenplay, credit where it's due. I have to admit, when I got to the end, I was impressed and rather let down at the same time. My latter feeling was because I should have seen that ending coming, and the fact that I didn't was kinda embarassing, but nonetheless it was a nice touch.

Alison Lohman plays Christine with a very sweet like demeanour, and it's refreshing, yet at the same time I kept wondering if this character truly exists in our world. I observed Christine to be someone who is exceptionally brave, even though she is obviously afraid. Why? Because despite being terrorised by evil forces beyond her control, Christine never once has a nervous breakdown. She gets terrifying visions of Mrs Ganush, gets thrown around the room at one point and gets a serious nosebleed at work, and she doesn't cry profusely or show signs of emotional stress? She sure is tough. The fact that we see her eating ice cream after a failed attempt at getting help for her condition only reinforces the idea, and it kinda makes it funny when it shouldn't.

Justin Long succeeds in playing it serious as Christine's boyfriend, Clay. You probably wouldn't have been able to imagine someone from a Ben Stiller film being the straight guy here, but Long pulls it off well. Lorna Raver is perfect as the scary Mrs Ganush, but here's where I have to knock Raimi a bit regarding her character. How in God's name can she be so strong? Despite being old, Mrs Ganush is capable of wrestling with Christine and taking a great amount of punishment while she's at it. I mean, I know we ought to suspend some disbelief since it's a horror film, but this is ridiculous.

As for the scare tactics, the usual ones are here. Loud sounds, check. Dark shadows, check. Nightmare sequences, check. And Raimi brings some other things to the table: squeamishness. He makes Mrs Ganush a disgusting person to look at, with the yucky looking dentures and spitting into her hankey act. Then there's a scene where maggots get vomited onto poor Christine's face, and one where an entire hand is shoved into her mouth. What the hell is up with that? (no pun intended) These scenes, meant to make us go "Ewwww" only irked me because I sure didn't see the point of having them. This isn't scary, it only makes me feel annoyed. Annoyed that I had to put up with something so juvenile. Maybe it would work back in the Evil Dead, but not now. These unwanted aspects kinda reminded me of Spider-Man 3, where Raimi goes overboard in presentation.

As a whole, this is a valiant attempt at making a good horror picture. Not perfect by a mile, but worth watching at least once. (3.5/5)

Friday, June 12, 2009

Monsters vs Aliens

Year: 2009
Director: Rob Letterman & Conrad Vernon
Voice cast: Reese Witherspoon, Seth Rogen, Hugh Laurie, Will Arnett, Kiefer Sutherland, Rainn Wilson


Over here in Malaysia, the release of Monsters vs Aliens was delayed in order for the film to coincide with the school holidays. Fortunately for me, on the day I went to watch this, there were very few kids in the theatre. I just hate hyperactive kids making a din.

Anyway, MvA is Dreamworks' latest animated feature film, which begins with Susan Murphy (Reese Witherspoon), a young woman about to walk down the aisle with her husband to be, Derek. On her wedding day however, a meteorite literally lands on her, and as a result she instantly transforms into a 50 foot giant!

The army swoop in, capture her and before she knows it, she wakes up in a top secret facility run by General W.R. Monger (Kiefer Sutherland). She meets the other freaks kept captive there: B.O.B. (Seth Rogen), an indestructible blue blob that talks and moves, Dr Cockroach PhD (Hugh Laurie), a scientist with a cockroach head, The Missing Link (Will Arnett), a half man half lizard and Insectosaurus, a skyscraper sized mutant insect. General Monger tells her that she is now under his custody and she can never go home again.

Then an alien named Gallaxhar (Rainn Wilson) sends a giant robot to Earth to retrieve something that belongs to him. When conventional weapons fail to stop it, Monger sends the monsters out to fight. Susan, now nicknamed Ginormica, discovers abilities she never knew she had and plays a major part in defeating the robot. Displeased with the loss, Gallaxhar decides to come to Earth himself to finish the job and take over the planet.

Storywise, MvA is all about coming to terms with your differences and accepting the freak inside each of us. There are some quiet moments in the film that work towards that, like how Susan's fiancee rejects her after her accident. But mostly MvA drives itself with comedy and action. By giving B.O.B. the best lines to work with, the film is funny enough to sustain interest. Rogen gives his alter ego just the right amount of inane brilliance, and it fits well with the visual jokes in relation to a big giant blob. The film also pokes fun at many other films, such as Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, Independence Day and Godzilla. There's even one jab at Beverly Hills Cop, see if you can spot it.

Witherspoon does fine in being herself throughout the film, while Laurie and Sutherland give major exaggerations of their voices for their respective characters. Listen closely and you'll hear Dr Cockroach sounding a lot like Dr House with an English accent and a Dr Frankenstein like demeanor, while General Monger is just like Jack Bauer with a louder voice. And they both work.

As for action sequences, there are plenty. The battle between the monsters and the robot was well done, and the final showdown between them and Gallaxhar is a little anti-climactic, but fun to watch. The animation itself isn't top notch, if compared to Kung Fu Panda, but it's not enough to ruin a rather entertaining 90 minute cartoon.

A safely entertaining watch, just don't think too much and enjoy the ride. (4/5)

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