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)

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Terminator Salvation

Year: 2009
Director: McG
Cast: Christian Bale, Sam Worthington, Anton Yelchin, Bryce Dallas Howard, Moon Bloodgood, Helena Bonham Carter

Over 20 years ago, James Cameron created a film that eventually became a successful franchise. The Terminator franchise speaks of a war between man and machine, and how Skynet, the computer that runs the machines, nearly destroyed mankind with a nuclear holocaust, then follows it up with a war on the survivors. The plot in the past three films revolve around Skynet sending a machine back in time to kill John Connor, the would be leader of the human resistance. The plan is always foiled by a lone warrior sent back in time as well by the resistance.

This infamous thread and storyline has made tons of money at the box office and spawned a TV series too. And it made Arnold Schwarzenegger's career. But how will it fare now without him?

If you've seen Terminator 3, then you'll know that Judgment Day, the day of the holocaust, was inevitable and finally happened. Terminator Salvation takes place after that. The film first offers viewers a prologue, of a man on Death Row named Marcus Wright, who donates his body to science after his execution.

Cut to the year 2018, where the war between man and machine rages on. John Connor isn't the leader of the resistance yet, but he does have a reputation. After a Skynet facility is destroyed, Marcus emerges from it, alive, unscathed and unaware of Judgment Day. He runs into Kyle Reese (whom fans and followers of the series will know that he is the hero from the first Terminator film and John Connor's father) and his friend, a mute girl named Star when he walks into L.A. When they hear a radio transmission from Connor, the trio attempt to find him, only to be intercepted by Skynet. Kyle and Star are captured while Marcus ends up in Connor's base. Once there, it is learnt that Marcus is part machine.....

McG, who is somewhat panned for making Charlie's Angels, wasn't exactly a popular choice amongst Terminator fans, but he does a more than decent job here. We get to see tons of destruction and action sequences that are quite mind blowing, and loud too. Kudos also to the production designer for successfully creating an apocalyptic landscape full of wide open deserts and destroyed buildings and cars. The visual effects used to bring the killer machines to life are also impressive.

Christian Bale, who usually brings intensity and sheer amount of brooding qualities to his roles, succeeds in playing the great John Connor. However, as good as he is, he is outdone a little by Sam Worthington. Worthington is excellent as Marcus, the man who is given a second chance at life, only to discover that he is being used as a pawn in a battle. Bryce Dallas Howard, who plays Kate, John's wife, doesn't get much to do, which is a pity since she is really talented. Anton Yelchin, fresh from being Chekov in Star Trek, does a good job as Kyle Reese.

Now, as much as I loved the way this film was made, from the look and design, to the choice of setting this story after Judgment Day, it just doesn't stand up to T2. I know it's hard to do so, since T2 is probably one of the best movie sequels ever made. Thing is, Terminator Salvation should have given more focus to John Connor. After all, the plot has always revolved around him, and the attempts made by Skynet to end his life in the past. In this film, some attention was given to Kyle Reese in this regard, but Marcus is the main draw here. It is Marcus' connection to the machines and his conscience towards his human brethren, and the conflict between them that drives the film. This somehow disconnects the movie from its predecessors, and in turn spoils the plot that runs through the franchise. And on another note, no matter how good the action is here, it doesn't match the excitement I felt watching Arnie fight in T2. That film's action sequences probably has no equal.

But overall, I had fun with this one. It is as chaotic and explosive as it should be. (4/5)


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