Sunday, April 25, 2010

How To Train Your Dragon

Year: 2010
Directors: Dean DeBlois & Chris Sanders
Voice cast: Jay Baruchel, Gerard Butler, Craig Ferguson, America Ferrera

After hearing so many good things about this animated film, which not only slipped below my radar but also dominated the box office in the US since its release, I had to see it for myself.

How To Train Your Dragon is set on the island of Berk, where a Viking village resides. The narrator of the story is also its protagonist, a young boy named Hiccup. He talks about how dull it is at his village, except for the one problem it faces every day: dragon attacks.

Every single day, Hiccup's village is set upon by dragons
, and every brave Viking in his village would fight bravely to defend their home. Hiccup wants to be one of those brave Vikings, alas he is just not good enough. Hiccup is physically inadequate, clumsy and not very brave, which is the total opposite of his father Stoick, who is also the village head.

Hiccup wants so badly to prove himself to his father, so during one dragon attack, he takes a shot with his own specially designed ball cannon, and he hits one! Unfortunately, no one believes he did it, so he sets out to find the dragon he shot down. He finally does, and realises that it isn't just any dragon, but the one that none of the Vikings have ever seen up close or fought before.

Hiccup knows that by killing this dragon, he will finally fulfil his dream of becoming a Viking, but he simply can't bring himself to do it. He sets the dragon loose instead, and then learns that it isn't as fierce or barbaric as his village has made them out to be. Hiccup and the dragon, whom he names Toothless (due to his retractable teeth) become friends and through Toothless' behaviour, Hiccup learns more and more about dragons and how to face them in Viking practice back home. Soon Hiccup becomes the respectable Viking upstart he had always wanted to be. But how will he tell his father the truth about the dragons when the latter has sworn to fight them all his life?

This animated film is directed by the same guys who brought us Lilo & Stitch, which would explain the uncanny similarities between Stitch and Toothless, both physically and personality wise. The story is not unfamiliar if you've seen many animated films before this: it highlights things like friendship, family, misconception and bravery. But the best part about How To Train Your Dragon is the fact that it doesn't feel old or predictable. It has a large dose of fun, humour and drama to keep you entertained throughout its runtime.

The other thing that's good about it is the animation. There are many scenes where Hiccup flies with Toothless, and the sight is wonderful to behold. Even in 2D, it looks awesome, like one big rollercoaster ride, so I can only imagine how much more awesome it is in 3D. The way the skies, clouds and dragons cross one another over and over is done very fluidly and is truly impressive. The human characters are also well animated, with every hair being shown in exquisite detail. I noticed how impressive Stoick looks on screen, with his huge torso and big beard standing out and looking very real. The dragons on the other hand are given different colours depending on their class, so it is easy to tell them apart.

I really can't find much fault with this movie, other than one question that I have: if they're Vikings, why do they speak with a strong Scottish accent? Ah, but who cares? There's enough action, fun and heartwarming moments to savour here.

Dreamworks isn't up there yet with Pixar, but they're starting to show promise with this film. Let's just hope they don't make any more Shrek sequels. (4/5)

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Clash Of The Titans

Year: 2010
Director: Louis Leterrier
Cast: Sam Worthington, Liam Neeson, Ralph Fiennes, Gemma Arterton, Mads Mikkelsen, Alexa Davalos, Jason Flemyng, Pete Postlethwaite

The trailer to this movie has to be the most kick ass trailer of the year, featuring non-stop action accompanied by rock music in tune. It's pretty hard to say no to watching the film after witnessing that.

Clash Of The Titans is a remake of the 1981 film that starred Harry Hamlin in the lead role, and featured stop motion animation effects, which was great in its time, but outdated compared to the Avatar level effects we have now. The story is based on Greek mythology, about Perseus, the half human son of Zeus, King of the Gods, who lives a normal life with his human family as a fisherman.

Then one day, his family is killed by Zeus' brother Hades, simply because they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Hades was attacking a group of men who destroyed Zeus' statue. Men have grown weary of the gods' actions and now seek retribution. Hades strikes at the kingdom of Argos and threatens to unleash his pet beast, the Kraken on them unless they sacrifice their princess, Andromeda.

The king of Argos learns that Perseus is the son of Zeus, and asks him to lead his men on a journey to find a way to kill the Kraken. Joining them is Io, an immortal who has watched over Perseus since he was born. They embark on a journey to see the Stygian witches, who may know how to kill the Kraken. However, Hades has other plans, which include killing Perseus and overthrowing Zeus.

After seeing this film, I must say that Greek mythology is indeed fascinating to behold. We have gods, demigods, beasts and many otherworldly creatures to look out for here. With Louis Leterrier, the man behind The Transporter and The Incredible Hulk at the helm, Clash Of The Titans is nothing short of exciting action and splendid effects. There isn't a dull moment in this film as we constantly move from one setpiece to another, one battle after the next, so it doesn't overstay its welcome.

Having an all star cast sure helps a lot too. Sam Worthington once again becomes the reluctant hero he has played before in Terminator Salvation and Avatar, which means that he doesn't really have anything new to bring to the table, but what's important is that it works. Liam Neeson succeeds in being the regal Zeus while Ralph Fiennes is effective as the corpse like Hades. Initially I thought Fiennes would channel Voldermort into his role, but thankfully he doesn't, at least not too obviously. I also thought Gemma Arterton would be a disastrous choice for any role in any film, but she isn't too bad as Io here. I still think she needs acting lessons though. Mads Mikkelsen gives a memorable performance as Draco, leader of the army that accompanies Perseus on his journey.

You know, almost every review on this film that I've read has been negative, saying it has no soul, not fun, silly, inaccurate and not as good as the original. I can't say anything about the original, having not seen it, but I do think this version is fun. Sure, it has its flaws, like its anti-climactic final battle, but overall I had a ball watching this. You can say that Clash Of The Titans isn't quite as epic as a film of its genre should be, and thus it's like getting fast food when you ordered five star cuisine. But my first goal in watching a movie is to be entertained, and that's what I got here. That's what really counts.

From the way it ended, there ought to be a sequel. I certainly hope so, then Leterrier and company can try redeeming themselves to those who disliked this film. But go see this, if you can help it. (4/5)

Sunday, April 11, 2010

The Lovely Bones

Year: 2010
Director: Peter Jackson
Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Stanley Tucci, Susan Sarandon, Michael Imperioli

You guys remember Peter Jackson, right? The guy who made the very successful Lord Of The Rings trilogy and remade King Kong. Well, he always wants to make a big impact on the silver screen, though this time around it's something more low key.

The Lovely Bones, based on the novel by Alice Sebold, tells the story of Susie Salmon, a 14 year old girl in the 70s who lived a happy life. She has a loving family and spends her time taking pictures with her trusty camera. She had everything going for her, until the day she died.

Susie narrates the entire film as she speaks of herself, her family, her crush and of course, the day she died. She was killed by her neighbour, George Harvey, who in essence is a serial killer. Her parents' marriage suffers because of the tragedy, as Susie's father becomes obsessed with finding the culprit.

But Susie doesn't only talk about the impact of her death on her family, she also talks about her experiences in the afterlife. She is in a strange world that keeps changing day by day, sometimes it is as beautiful as heaven, and other times it reflects the darkness that shadows her brutal murder. As her family deals with their loss, Susie herself must face the choice of letting her past go or finding justice.

If there's one thing that Jackson hasn't changed from then till now, it's his meticulous storytelling. Jackson takes great measures in giving the audience every gesture, word and thought that he can milk out of his script, coincidentally written by his frequent collaborators Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens. This results in a very detailed and character driven film, and with the visual effects he uses to display Susie's world in the afterlife, his storytelling force is obviously multiplied threefold.

Saoirse Ronan gives a memorable performance as Susie. What I like about her are her eyes, which are bright and stunning, and it immediately gets your attention. It also helps that she is truly a talented actress. She will go far in this industry with the right roles. Mark Wahlberg and Rachel Weisz provide great support as Susie's parents while Susan Sarandon is also effective as Susie's weird but well meaning grandmother, Lynn. Stanley Tucci stands out though as the killer George Harvey. With a few cosmetic changes, Tucci does a splendid job in making himself look different than the way we usually remember him, and is very convincing in being the mysterious neighbour that creeps you out every time you look at him.

But now, it's time for me to tell you what didn't work. It's the overall pace. Like I said, Jackson is meticulous, kinda like how he put in a very lengthy ending for The Return Of The King. Well here, he fits in a lot of detail on Susie's experiences in the afterlife. It just goes on and on and on. And on. Then when we get to the climax, he does it again, and it just didn't make sense to me. And the way the family and Susie get their closure is rather anti-climactic, not to mention the fate received by George Harvey. It's like you waited the whole film for a big payoff, and it just doesn't happen. I suppose this story is different in the sense that it's about a murder from the victim's point of view and not the killer's, but in any case, Jackson needs to learn a thing or two about editing, because his pace here just ruined the rating I was ready to give him when I was halfway done.

If anything, The Lovely Bones provides some solid performances and pretty CGI. But try not to watch this if you're tired. (3.5/5)

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Edge Of Darkness

Year: 2010
Director: Martin Campbell
Cast: Mel Gibson, Ray Winstone, Danny Huston, Bojana Novakovic

Did you know that Mel Gibson hasn't had a starring role in a movie since Signs back in 2002? Between that and now, he stepped behind the camera and made, among other things, the controversial The Passion Of the Christ and the primal Mayan adventure flick Apocalypto.

So after eight years Gibson is back in front of the camera again, in a role very familiar to him.

In Edge Of Darkness, which is based on the British TV miniseries of the same name, Gibson plays Tom Kraven, a Boston cop who is a single father to his daughter Emma. One day, he greets Emma from the train station and shortly after, she starts throwing up badly. Before he can take her to the hospital though, someone shows up at his doorstep and shoots her dead.

Initially, Tom thinks that he was the target, being a cop and all. But after doing some digging, he realises that Emma may have been the one the killer was after. Tom looks into Emma's contacts as well as her employers. The company where she works happens to be a nuclear research facility with shady dealings.

Eventually Tom runs into a man named Jedburgh, whose job primarily is to clean up any mess that would put powerful people in trouble with the law. Jedburgh ought to be stopping Tom from investigating his daughter's death, but helps him instead out of his own motives. But things don't get easier for Tom as Emma's friends start ending up dead...

Martin Campbell has done great things, like making The Mask Of Zorro and successfully rebooting James Bond with Casino Royale. Here, his job is to not only reboot his own TV series into a film, but make Mel Gibson watchable again. I can't say much about the first part, not having seen the TV series before, but he does succeed in bringing Gibson back to doing what he does best.

Admittedly, this role isn't a stretch for Mel Gibson, as this is not the first time he's played an aggrieved father (Ransom, The Patriot). But anyone who has lost a loved one tragically, or being able to imagine it vividly, can relate to Gibson as he brings Tom Kraven's grief and obsession for justice to the fore. As usual, Gibson drives the plot with his prime emotional performance. Ray Winstone is effective as the mysterious Jedburgh, though it's not one of his best roles. I don't think he's recovered from the abysmal Indiana Jones 4 or voicing Beowulf just yet.

However the film is not without flaws. The plot drags a bit in the middle third of the film, as Campbell spends a fair amount of time on Tom reminiscing of his past with his daughter, as well as hearing her voice occasionally when he's alone. This does add to Gibson's performance, but it ought to be used sparingly. The plot itself also gets sort of lost at times, when there are scenes that make you wonder why it was there, or why certain actions were done or if it was relevant. Oh, and there's the violence which can be quite unflinching.

So mostly what I can take away from Edge Of Darkness is Mel Gibson. The movie needs some polishing, and this obviously isn't one of Gibson's best work, but there's no doubt that he can still be the lead character in a film and run with it. (3.5/5)

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Alice In Wonderland

Year: 2010
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover

I'll be honest with you. I don't know the Alice In Wonderland story. Out of all the children's tales I read as a kid, this one was a little vague to me. I remember it being an adventure of a girl named Alice in a very strange place, but not much more. And when I looked up the story online, the plot confused me further.

But I am aware of how well known this story is, and how the hype has been building since Tim Burton was announced as the director for a live action adaptation of this. And with his favourite guy Johnny Depp in the lead, it can't go wrong, can it?

First off, this film isn't about the first time Alice ventures into Wonderland, but rather the second, so it's a sequel of sorts. Now 19 years old, Alice only remembers her adventure as a dream. One day she is coerced by her friends and family to be engaged to a man she isn't fond of, so she runs off into the woods and tumbles down the rabbit hole again, back to the same place she visited 13 years ago.

Once there, she meets up with her old friends, the rabbit, the March hare, the dormouse, weird twins Tweedledee and Tweedledum, and of course, The Mad Hatter. But all is not well in Wonderland. The big headed Red Queen has taken control and strikes terror across the land with her maniacal rule. Whenever she disapproves of something, she orders for someone to be beheaded. Now, Alice's friends need her to lead them to war on behalf of the gentle White Queen and slay the Red Queen's monster, the Jabberwocky, and subsequently overthrow her. However, it's not so simple, as they do not immediately believe that she is the same Alice from 13 years ago.

When it comes to Tim Burton's films, the first thing that stands out is set design. Like the gothic buildings of Gotham City in Batman, or the wonderful world in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory, or the suburban neighborhood in Edward Scissorhands. Here, the sky's the limit as Wonderland is filled with talking flowers, giant plants, huge castles and a giant chess board. Yes, a chess board. Add to all this some nice CGI to portray the talking animals and other creatures, and the result is a breathtaking visual palette that you would only imagine in a pop up story book. It doesn't quite rival Avatar, but it is impressive nonetheless.

Johnny Depp, as always, shines in his role as The Mad Hatter. You'll notice some shades of Jack Sparrow and Willy Wonka in his performance, but he still manages to make the character his own, with some nicely timed quirks and dark turns. Mia Wasikowska does reasonably well as Alice, though being an unknown actress works against her a bit. You can see her inexperience here and there. Helena Bonham Carter makes the most of her two dimensional Red Queen by making her cruel and funny at the same time, while Anne Hathaway portrays the White Queen as kind yet weird. And she's totally white too. Crispin Glover also does well as Stayne, the Red Queen's enforcer.

Most critics weren't satisfied with Burton's adaptation, perhaps expecting more originality from the man. But I found Alice In Wonderland to be a satisfying tale about finding one's identity and believing in the impossible, even when most sane people wouldn't.

Another winner from Burton. (4/5)

Saturday, April 03, 2010


Year: 2009
Directors: Michael & Peter Spierig
Cast: Ethan Hawke, Willem Dafoe, Sam Neill, Claudia Karvan, Michael Dorman, Isabel Lucas

I love vampire films. Can't get enough of them. But lately, the vampire genre has suffered a tremendous amount of bad press thanks to the Twilight saga, which as you all know, focuses more on the romanticism up to the point where the darkness factor of vampires has been severely diluted.

So we need a new vampire film, the kind that brings us back to the old days when there were no vampire teenagers and lovestruck kids, just the undead with sharp fangs and a real thirst for blood. Enter Daybreakers.

Daybreakers is set in the year 2019, where a virus has turned almost everyone into vampires, therefore humans are the minority. Humans are now captured and farmed for their blood, but as their numbers dwindle, so does the blood. Thus vampires are forced to find a solution, or they will subsequently turn into violent bat-like beasts called subsiders, for which there is no cure.

Edward Dalton (Ethan Hawke) is a hematologist who works for a large pharmaceutical firm owned by Charles Bromley (Sam Neill). Bromley tells Edward to find a suitable blood substitute before what they fear becomes a reality. Try as he might, Edward is unsuccessful. Then one day he runs into a human named Audrey (Claudia Karvan), and helps her hide from the police. (Edward happens to be a human sympathiser by the way) This prompts her to seek his help in ending the war between the two races.

But how? This is where Elvis (Willem Dafoe) comes in. Elvis happens to be the only vampire who miraculously turned back to a human being. Audrey introduces Edward to him and together they try to recreate the process that turned Elvis back. But Bromley is going to do whatever it takes to prevent the humans from changing the status quo.

German brothers Michael and Peter Spierig wrote and directed this film, and as far as creating a different angle of the vampire genre goes, they do succeed at first. Imagine a world where vampires are in charge, where normal activity takes place mostly at night, where all cars have dark tinted shields, and all the stuff you've seen on True Blood is multiplied tenfold. It's quite an interesting prospect. But like I said, it seems that way at first.

As the story moves into the second half, it becomes less cerebral and more violent. The plot gets lost at times and the pace gets uneven. By the time we get to the climax, the entire situation gets really messy and thus less believable. Which is a pity, because this movie had a ton of potential going for it, but the execution of the plot slowly suffers towards the end.

Hawke puts in an understated performance as Edward here, but in hindsight his role wasn't meant to be the action hero type, so it more or less works. Neill is quite effective as the villain Bromley, but it is Dafoe who steals the show as the charismatic Elvis. He can be serious, preachy and funny all at once. Transformers: Revenge Of The Fallen's Isabel Lucas, who plays Bromley's human daughter Alison, is unfortunately wasted here. Her character is nothing more than a tool to get the audience's sympathy.

There are also a couple of inconsistencies worth pointing out here. The vampires in Twilight don't have fangs and they sparkle instead of spontaneously combusting in sunlight. Thankfully the vampires in Daybreakers are just the opposite, which is accurate. But they are not faster or stronger than normal folk, and having no reflection in the mirror is just too old school. That's weird to me. So far, the vampires in the Blade films are still the best portrayed.

In the end, Daybreakers just falls short of being great. If you don't mind the gore and blood on show, give it one watch. And pray that the hinted sequel does better. (3.5/5)


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