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


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


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)


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