Sunday, December 27, 2009


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


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)


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