Saturday, March 6, 2010

My Review on 3 Chinese New Year Holiday Movies

Tiger Wohoo! (大日子)
Rating: *** (Out of 4)

Few gave it a chance initially. The first locally (Malaysian) produced Chinese New Year themed movie failed to get a cinema release slot during the all-important Chinese New Year (CNY) 2010 season, ironic for a CNY-themed movie. It was only given a limited release on selected cinemas, one month before the actual CNY festival.

And then there was miracle.

Good word of mouth spread. The movie played to sold-out crowd for a good 3-4 weeks. Fans were screaming on facebook saying that it was hard to purchase tickets. The film eventually chalked up an estimated RM 4 million in ticket sales, a terrific figure in the context of the Malaysian market, a phenomenal achievement for a locally produced Chinese language film.

Is the film good?

Story wise, it resembles that of the Taiwanese film 'Cape No. 7 (海角七号)', a tried-and-tested coming-of-age story. 'Tiger Woohoo!' is not the most exquisite piece of film making. Nevertheless, it does have its charm, and that was important. It is charming to the point of making itself a winning crowd pleaser, despite its flaws.

The cast as a whole are new-comers, so do not expect Oscar-calibre performances here. Still, one of them stood out. Chen Keat Yoke as village girl Ah Lian. That was an astonishingly good acting performance for a first-timer.

True Legend (苏乞儿)
Rating: **1/2 (Out of 4)

Cliched and formulaic, 'True Legend' is a recycling exercise of many familiar martial art genre devices. One can easily spot the resemblance to films like 'Fearless (霍元甲)', 'Ip Man (叶问)', 'Fist of Fury (精武门)' and many more.

Still, as a whole, 'True Legend' is a descent pop corn movie. It is good enough if you have nothing to do for your holidays, though it is not something spectacular or memorable. The movie has a great villain, and that saves the day. I guess a cliched revenge drama like this needs a great villain. A great villain somehow compensates for all the glaring flaws, and it pumps up your blood during the climatic fight sequence.

In 'True Legend', we are given a villain so creepy and bizarre that it seems like something you expect to see in a Hollywood superhero movies like Spiderman or Batman.

That, really is the saving grace for this film. The fight sequence is uneven, good and exciting only when it is staged organically without the annoying 3D visual effects. Leading man Zhao Wenzhuo is capable of putting up a good fight, but slumped into embarrassingly bad acting when the script requires his character to go through some emotional upheaval.

Little Big Soldier (大兵小将)
Rating: ** (Out of 4)

Subject matter has potential. In fact, it is probably the only film during this 2010 CNY season that offers a dash of originality with its subject matter.

Unfortunately, it remains just that, a potential. The potential was not developed, and the film falls flat. This promising material was not given justice with the kind of writing and directing it deserves. This is a prime example of originality alone do not make a good film. It has to go hand-in-hand with good craftsmanship.

There is so much unfulfilled potential in it. It could be made into an anti-war drama that is upbeat in its tone. But the filmmakers shows little ambition towards that end, focusing instead on staging Jacky Chan's trademark (and tired) comedic action sequence.

The film lacks suspense, and it is barely funny. More importantly, it lacks charm. In a film with only 2 main characters, one has to wonder why they came about as so plain and uninteresting despite given so much screen time. Whereas a film with an ensemble cast like 'Tiger Woohoo!' was able to create interesting characters that charmed us, with much less screen time per character.

Surely writing and directing had made all the difference.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

American Beauty

Rating: ***1/2 (out of 4)
Cast: Kevin Spacey, Annette Bening, Chris Cooper
Director: Sam Mendez
Year of Release: 1999

To most of us, there will come a time when you become disillusioned with your repetitive life existence. It wouldn't help when people around you, and society at large, constantly putting pressure on what you should do, and what you shouldn't do. 'There are rules in life, you need to have structure and discipline!' said Colonel Fitts (Chris Cooper), while disciplining his son, Ricky.

Combined with insecurity over perception of lack of success, you are bound to yearn for flashes of freedom, to do what your heart tells you.

If you are in this situation, known as mid-life crisis, I supposed there are two ways you can respond to it. Either you just shrugged, and accept it as part of life, or you snap, and spiral down to self destructive rebellion.

Miles Davis (Paul Giamatti), the hero from Alexander Payne's comedy masterpiece 'Sideways', took the former approach, just as most of us will do in real life. Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey), took the latter approach.

The result is one of rebellious fantasy, an anti-conformation fable that starts off funnily, but by half way turns dark, and ended with a tragedy.

Lester impulsively quit his job, and took on a lowly paid job grilling burgers in a fast food joint. 'I am looking for a job with least amount of responsibility', he said, going head-on against his family's demand on him as a family bread winner. He began to work out, lifting weights, smoking pot and listening to Pink Floyd rock music that he once loved, to rediscover young adulthood. He even lust again his daughter's underage teenage friend, Angela (Mena Suvari).

Morally wrong? Lester wouldn't care. In his own words, 'This is the high point of my day'.

The ultimate freedom came at a price, as Lester shall learn, but we suspect it is all well worth it for Lester, trading brief, complete freedom for years of future repetitive existence, a life which he proclaimed as 'In a way, I'm dead already'.

Lester Burnham is a complex character to play, and Kevin Spacey carried it to perfection. Annette Bening's acting, as his wife Carolyn, is theatrical and farcical, perhaps intentionally so, as director Sam Mendez is a theater veteran. 'American Beauty' was his feature film debut, a fairy tale debut which won him 5 Oscars, including Best Picture.

Due to its fantasy nature, 'American Beauty' is not as emotionally moving as Alexander Payne's 'Sideways'. Nevertheless, it is on its own league, questioning the way we live our life, how rules and structures have made us forget about the joy of living the life. It's a pity, because, to quote from the film, 'There's so much beauty in life'.

* 'American Beauty' won 5 Oscars in the 2000 Academy Awards, for Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Cinematography, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay. It was also nominated for Best Actress, Best Editing and Best Original Score

Friday, January 22, 2010

Paranormal Activity

Rating: ***1/2 (Out of 4)
Cast: Katie Featherston, Micah Sloat
Director: Oren Peli

'Don't see it alone'

That's the tag line of 'Paranormal Activity'. For the faint-hearted, do take it seriously. I kid you not. This is a very scary horror movie, I haven't had a horror experience this scary at the cinema for years. In recent times, the horror genre have always seen more disappointment than excitement. In the obsession for expensive looking special effects, true horror fans can't help but to lament that the film industry seems to have lose the touch to evoke genuine fear.

Here we are, there's this little film made with a shoestring budget of USD 15,000, with only 2 actors (and a third actor with very minor presence), and set entirely in a residential home, and with absence of any special effect. It is amazing that it effectively evokes genuine fear with such minimalist feature.

It uses a mockementary narrative style to tell a haunted house story, to surprisingly good effect. I was somewhat sceptical when I first heard about the hype over 'Paranormal Activity'. Based on my experience of watching the other mockementary styled horror films, such as 'Blair Witch Project' and 'Cloverfield', I thought this method, while lending realism to the story, seems to suffer from difficulties in shaping characters, constraint by its need to present the events in the story as footage discovered after the events took place. As a result, we often knew little about the characters to make the whole viewing experience an absorbing one. That was what I felt about 'Blair Witch Project'. While I admire it as a landmark film, the horror experience was a muted one.

The story revolves around only Micah and Katie, a young couple. 'Paranormal Activity' cleverly arranged a self-introduction sequence by Katie during a consultation session with a psychic, so we knew enough about her as a person to sustain our interest throughout the film. Katie Featherston is an important element which make the film works. She is vulnerable, scared as hell, and helpless. We felt that.

The same could not be said to the Micah character. In fact, it is the weak link of this film, preventing it from achieving greatness. Micah is like a stubborn, mischievous boy who just wouldn't listen., and some of his behavior is just not very plausible. Despite being warned by the phychic not to communicate with the demon with a Ouija board, that's exactly what he did. There is also this difficulties to justify his obsession with his camera. At times, the camera seemed to be present when it shouldn't have been. Although it had to be acknowledged that this is a pretty common problem with other mockumentary horror films.

Despite its flaws, 'Paranormal Activity' scores in what it intend to do, which is to scare. It is a horror experience most of us can relate to. I just know that when end of the year comes, when it is time to compile my favourite films for 2010, 'Paranormal Activity' will be there in the list.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Best films of 2009‏

This is not an authoritative list, it is simply my 10 favorites based on only the films I have seen in 2009. Every year, there are a good number of critically acclaimed films which do not get released in Malaysia, so I wouldn't be able to consider them in this list.

Best films in 2009

1. Departures (Okuribito)
2. Inglourious Basterds
3. District 9
4. Avatar
5. Bodyguards and Assassins (十月围城)
6. Vengeance (復仇)
7. Forever Enthralled (梅兰芳)
8. Shinjuku Incident (新宿事件)
9. Drag Me to Hell
10. Red Cliff (Pt 1 & 2) 赤壁

Worst films in 2009

1. Transfomers: Revenge of the Fallen
2. 2012


Rating: ***1/2 (out of 4)
Cast: Sam Worthington, Sigourney Weaver
Director: James Cameron

James Cameron has a taste for risky projects. He goes for mind-boggling budgeted projects. His 'Titanic' broke record as the most expensive film ever made in its time. Here he is again, after a more than 10 years hiatus from making feature film, 'Avatar' reportedly cost USD 300 million to make.

Hollywood directors are increasingly adept at burning money for special effects, often seemed like a massive waste. James Cameron is not one of them. In fact, he is a rare breed. He spends big money, giving the audience the kind of visual effects feast that they expect, and yet keeps his feet firmly on the ground and not get carried away. He is aware of his essential duty as a filmmaker to tell a story well, by establishing characters that connect to the audience, so that the expensive special effects are there with a purpose, in the context of the story. It matters to the audience what happened to the characters, who win, who lose, who died and who survived.

It was a USD 300 million well spent.

At 163 minutes, it doesn't feel long. It is absorbing, although not right from the beginning. It grows on you. It took its time to establish and develop its characters, and succeeded in sucking the audience into the story. When the final battle is staged, we were absorbed, and we were heartbroken when somebody got killed, we rejoiced with the final victory. (not a spoiler I supposed, a big-budgeted Hollywood production always end with the good guy winning)

Story wise, it isn't new. It is similar to 'The Last Samurai' and 'Dances with Wolves'. It is a tried-and-tested formula, but having said that, it is not probable to expect the studio who invested USD 300 million to experiment with an innovative untested story arc. Formula get re-used again and again simply because it works, so long as the film is well-crafted.

'Avatar' sure works, it is a crowd-pleaser, the kind of blockbuster that pulls in even the indifferent movie-goer who seldom visit the cinema, because the people around them are saying, 'You have got to watch 'Avatar''. And, it will not disappoint. Audience who attended the screening will feel satisfied, and fulfilling. It is not just a rousing entertainment. It is an effective entertainment with substance. It sends its green message, and it plays as a parable of human world conflict, such as the middle east conflict and the war against terrorism, or the exploitation of the native people by foreign intruder, or the relentless human greed under capitalism.

'Avatar' is a perfect example of how a mega film budget should be spent. We have been seeing too many awful special effects extravaganza in 2009, 'Transformers 2' and '2012' being some of the worst. 'Avatar' gave me a new hope; Hollywood still has someone who knows how to craft a good, expensive blockbuster.

If only we have more James Cameron.

Thursday, December 31, 2009


Rating: *** (out of 4)
Cast: Sharifah Amani, Sharifah Aleysha, Brian Yap
Director: Yasmin Ahmad
Language: In English, Malay with English subtitle

‘Muallaf’ from the late Yasmin Ahmad, who past away on July 2009, was actually made before her final film ‘Talentime’. It was not released until now due to its problem with the Malaysian censorship authorities. In any case, it is strangely fitting as a final release, because the film represents Yasmin’s voice, her belief, her views and her philosophy. This is true for all her other films as well, but never had it been as explicit as in ‘Muallaf’.

It tells the story of 2 Muslim sisters, Rohani (Sharifah Amani) and Rohana (Sharifah Aleysha), who ran away from their wealthy but abusive father, and reside in a vacant bungalow in Ipoh. Rohana has a peculiar habit of reciting some strange random numbers when confronted by others. Others were disturbed by that strange habit. What the numbers actually meant, I’ll not disclose in this review. Anyway, the sisters befriended Brian Goh (Brian Yap), a young teacher in a Catholic school, whom the sisters nicknamed ‘Mr. Miserable’, because he never smiled in class. It tuned out that all 3 of them are in a similar predicament; they were traumatized by mistreatment by their loved ones, their family. Brian, who was raised in a Christian family, had drifted away from his religious faith due to that. The sisters, however, were more positive and forgiving.

‘Muallaf’, as a film, certainly has depth. At its surface layer, it is touching as a human drama, about 3 traumatized souls who met and console each other. Yasmin’s films always give us characters that engage us. Watching it, we care for them. Sharifah Amani, in particular, shines as Rohani. She has come a long way. Her debut in ‘Sepet’ was a discovery, and she has progressed steadily ever since, growing in maturity and grace.

But ‘Muallaf’ is not just a human drama, it is much more ambitious than that. Yasmin wanted to make a statement about what religious faith is all about. I happened to read some articles about her personal life, and one of her friend recalled that he saw Yasmin weeping at one quiet corner of her office, while praying to God to forgive the soul who had hurt her. That was what got portrayed here in ‘Muallaf’, through the sisters Rohani and Rohana. I also happened to watch a TV interview with Yasmin’s mother, who recalled that Yasmin was such a loving child that she will immediately apologized to her mother if she happened to raise her voice a little bit against her mother. That was also what got portrayed here in the film, when Brian raised his voice while talking to his mother on the phone, Rohani who was besides him, asked him never to talk to his mother like that again.

It’s about compassion, it’s about forgiveness, and it’s about not taking your loved ones for granted. You can’t fault a noble theme like that, but as I judge a movie not based on its subject matter, but based on how effectively it presents its subject matter, I felt that while ‘Muallaf’ works commendably as a touching human drama, but in its more ambitious thematic preoccupation of social commentary, it is ok but not great. My little problem with it is that, it feels preachy. It is as if Yasmin was trying too hard to tell us her message. The cinema language is at its most powerful when it indirectly awakens viewers to its message, without explicitly telling them. Yasmin’s own ‘Gubra’, is one such film. In ‘Gubra’, it ends with scenes of people from different religions praying in their respective place of worship, and we realize that everyone is looking for God in their own ways. How powerful.

In ‘Muallaf’, the same message is told, but explicitly in words, told by the character Brother Anthony. The film also quotes direct words from the scriptures in a number of occasions, this is again explicit; and Rohani explicitly tells Brian not to raise his voice against his mother.

This is all noble indeed, but when you try too hard, it came across as preachy and it diminishes the power of the cinema language. ‘Muallaf’ is fairly good, but ‘Gubra’ remains the best Yasmin Ahmad film, in my opinion, followed closely by ‘Sepet.

* ‘Muallaf’ won the Best Asian-Middle Eastern Film Award (special mention) in the 2008 Tokyo International Film Festival


Rating: *** (out of 4)
Cast: Jesse Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson, Bill Murray, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin
Director: Ruben Fleischer

If zombie movie is a sub genre of the broader horror genre, then zombie comedies like ‘Zombieland’ and ‘Shaun of the dead’ (2004) had been gradually claiming a place as a ‘sub sub genre’ under the zombie movies sub genre.

Zombie movie, was of course pioneered by the genre master George A. Romero, the man behind the ‘Dead’ series; ‘Night of the Living Dead’ (1968), ‘Dawn of the Dead’ (1979), ‘Day of the Dead’ (1985), ‘Land of the Dead’ (2005) and ‘Diary of the Dead’ (2008). His ‘Dead’ series are considerable films, using zombies as instruments for social commentary.

In more recent times, zombie comedies have sustained zombies’ place in modern pop culture, thanks to movies like ‘Shaun of the Dead’ and now ‘Zombieland’.

‘Zombieland’ is a funny movie. It tells the story of 4 reluctant partners who stick together to survive post apocalyptic United States of Zombieland. The plot took the form of a road movie,and to a lesser extend a love comedy. There are 4 main characters; the cowardly nerd Columbus (Jesse Eisenberg), the cool zombie slayer Tallahassee (Woody Harrelson), the con sisters Wichita (Emma Stone) and Little Rock (Abigail Breslin). The characterization is fairly rich which is a good thing.

There is a hilarious cameo role by Bill Murray playing himself, nice one.

‘Zombieland’ isn’t a spectacular movie. It works in what it intend to do, which is to be a funny zombie comedy with fairly likable characters, their story together while undergoing a road trip to a reputedly zombie-free California amusement park. The motive behind the journey probably doesn’t make much sense. It doesn’t matter, it is a little bit dumb but fun.