Wednesday, February 22, 2006

PRIME: Duet with Streep & Thurman

(romantic comedy)
Time: 100 mins
Rating: * * *
Meryl Streep & Uma Thurman in PRIME
FOR most moviegoers, the primary attraction of this romantic comedy must be the Oscar-winning virtuoso Meryl Streep. With Streep and the delectable Uma Thurman in the cast, what can go wrong?

To be sure, nothing much except the Malaysian censorship cuts which leaves many gaps in the narrative. Streep plays Lisa Metzger, a psychiatrist and friend to 37-year-old Rafi Gardet (Thurman) who has problems adjusting to life after a bitter divorce.Lisa encourages Rafi to go out and get intimately involved again. Rafi does just that — with Dave Bloomberg (Bryan Greenberg), a 23-year-old Jewish painter who is still living with his grandparents.

The age-gap is a matter of concern to Rafi but when she confides this to Lisa, the therapist brushes it aside, saying that age doesn’t matter if she really cared for him. Lisa says the same for Rafi’s concern that Dave is Jewish and she is not. With her hang-ups thus allayed, Rafi goes full steam into her relationship with Dave and even invites him to share her apartment.

Then comes the zinger: Lisa discovers that the guy in Rafi’s life is her son -- and this throws a spanner into the whole works. As a therapist, she may encourage the relationship, but as a mother, it is another story. This turn of events is so disturbing to Lisa that she has to consult her own therapist (Madhur Jaffrey as Rita).

Should she come clean with Rafi and declare conflict of interest? Or carry on and try to talk her out of the relationship? Never mind the outcome. The fun is in watching how Lisa reacts to Rafi’s descriptions of their love-making, relating Dave’s opinion of his mother and even describing his private part in the most endearing terms imaginable.

Writer-director Ben Younger (who did the 2000 youth comedy Boiler Room) extracts as much mileage as he can from the ‘comedy of errors’ subplot before moving on to present its ‘logical’ conclusion. Well, when you have someone like Streep in the cast, it is reasonable to draw as much of her talent — and her fantastic range of facial expressions — as possible. Thurman contributes a bit too, including a touch of sexual energy and glamour to the comedy. She seems perfect for the role and no one would question why a younger man would fall for her. Greenberg supports well enough but he is definitely eclipsed by the two big stars.

Jon Abrahams is featured in a subplot as Morris, Dave’s buddy who likes to throw cream pies in the faces of the women he has dated, while Jerry Adler and Doris Belack play Dave’s bickering grandparents. We are not sure what the title refers to, but Prime is an intelligent and sophisticated comedy that should please most discerning viewers. Why, it even has an ‘epilogue’, instead of the usual romantic endings.

ELECTRIC SHADOWS: Insights Into Reel-Lives

(drama in Mandarin)
2004 Time: 98 mins
Rating: * * * 1/2
Guan Xiaotong and Wang Jhengjia
MOVIES provide escapism for the masses and this is especially true of Communist China in the Sixties and early Seventies. The villagers did not have the comfort of air-conditioned cinemas like we had, and for some time, they had to make do with open-air screening of ‘patriotic films’.

Electric Shadows, written and directed by first-timer Ms Xiao Jiang, is about how the cinema affects the lives of some villagers near Ningxia, circa 1971. The movie, released in 2004, has been compared with Cinema Paradiso not just because of its theme but also because it is just as bittersweet and sappy.

The story opens in Beijing where our protagonist, Mao Dabing (Xia Yu), delivers bottled water by day and spends most of his nights at the cinema. Mao’s life takes a drastic turn when he crashes his bicycle into a pile of bricks and find himself beaten up by a girl (Qi Zhongyang). He ends up in hospital and is told by the police that his assailant, a deaf-mute, is being evaluated for a mental disorder.

Later, when he meets her, she scribbles a note asking him to take care of her fish in her apartment. At the unit, Mao not only feeds the fish but also his curiosity about the girl’s background. Her home is a veritable shrine to old Chinese movies with posters of film stars, a 16mm projector and rolls of films. More importantly, Mao discovers a notebook in which she has outlined her life history in story-board format.T his takes us, in lengthy flashbacks, to the height of the Cultural Revolution when her mother, an aspiring actress named Jiang Xeuhua (Jiang Yihong) causes a scandal in the village by getting herself pregnant.

Xeuhua and her daughter Ling Ling (Guan Xiaotong) are understandably ostracised by her comrades, except for the kind movie projectionist, Uncle Pan (Li Haibin), who is an admirer of Xeuhua. At school, Ling Ling befriends a mischievous brat (Wang Zhengjia) who later moves in to stay with at her home. This is the best time of Ling Ling’s life as she and her new friend imagine themselves as movie idols and reenact their roles.

Of course, real life is very different from ‘reel life’ and Ling Ling, who believes that her father is a movie idol, soon gets trapped in between. The twist in the plot is a bit over-contrived but we should be able to overlook this flaw and appreciate the broader picture about how ‘flickering shadows’ can have a hold on one’s life.

The cast of relative unknowns, especially young Wang Zhengjia, play their roles well. However, we cannot help wondering how and where Xeuhua gets such a fashionable wardrobe in an era of persecution and poverty. Like Cinema Paradiso, this one is a must for avid cinema fans.

Wednesday, February 15, 2006

FIREWALL: Ford Is Back In Action

(hostage thriller)
Time: 104 mins
Rating: * * *
Harrison Ford in FIREWALL
TERRORISTS tried to take over his aircraft in the 1997 action thriller, Air Force One. Now, the bad guys are holding his family hostage and forcing him to break into the bank where he works and transfer US$100 million into their account.

Yeah folks, Harrison Ford is back in action as Jack Stanfield, the head of security of a Seattle bank that is about to merge with a larger conglomerate. Jack is not happy with the merger, especially when his new boss (Robert Patrick) takes a ‘low priority’ view towards security matters. However, one night, after a business meeting with Bill Cox (Paul Bettany), he is shocked to find that this guy is the leader of a high-tech robbery gang who have taken his family hostage.

The ruthless Bill Cox has turned his seaside mansion into their ‘command centre’ and forced his wife Beth (Virginia Madsen), daughter Sarah (Carly Schroeder) and son Andrew (Jimmy Bennett) to help them. To keep his family alive, Jack must break into the computer system of his own bank and ‘rob’ it.

Of course, this type of plot entails a match of wits between the harried Jack and the cocky Bill, who seems to be having the upper hand. Bill has done his homework well. He knows the daily routine of Jack’s family and even their medical history. However, it is strange that Bill is totally unaware of the bank’s merger and that Jack does not have access to the customer data that he needs to rob the bank with.

No, screenwriter Joe Forte and director Richard Loncraine do not mean for Firewall to be a tussle between two computer geeks. That would be confusing and boring for those unfamiliar with computer lingo. Firewall is an action thriller and ultimately, the problem is solved by brute force — with Ford doing another Indiana Jones or Jack Ryan (read Patriot Games) type of rescue.

This is evident in the casting of Mary Lynn Rajskub who stole our hearts as computer expert Chloe in the TV suspense series 24. Here, Rajskub plays Jack’s faithful secretary Janet, who risks her life to help her boss turn the tide on the robbers. And as expected, she has the audience eating out of her hand again in a trademark role. Other cast members, like Madsen and the ‘children’, turn in credible performances in rather undemanding roles, while Alan Arkin and Robert Forster are forgettable as the head of Jack’s bank and a law-enforcement friend.

As a February release — the time of year when the major distributors palm off the ‘less-promising’ films — Firewall is way above average in terms of entertainment, tension and thrills.

KEEPING MUM: Mr Bean Plays It Straight

(dark comedy)
Time: 105 mins
Rating: * * *
Rowan Atkinson and Maggie Smith
IT is hard to imagine Rowan ‘Mr Bean’ Atkinson in a straight role, but this black comedy is as close as it can get. Atkinson plays the Reverend Walter Goodfellow, a workaholic priest of a small town called Little Wallop (population: 57) in rural England.

Walter is so engrossed working on his Sunday sermons that he has neglected his family. His sex-starved wife, Gloria (Kristin Scott Thomas) is starting an affair with her golf-pro (Patrick Swayze), her daughter Holly (Tamsin Egerton) is the village slut, and his sensitive son Petey (Tobey Parkes) is being bullied at school.

The family is in dire need of straightening up and this is just the job for their new housekeeper Grace (Maggie Smith). Grace’s penchant for solving household problems is apparent when she manages to put an end to the incessant barking of the neighbour’s dog, providing Gloria with her first good night’s sleep in a long time. Gloria does not know how her godsend of a housekeeper does it, but she is grateful. Grace also manages to take care of other little problems, like stopping the naughty boys from bullying Petey at school.

Grace’s solutions to the Goodfellows’ problems are somewhat unorthodox — and rather terminal. And the real fun here lies in discovering how she puts an end to her boss’ woes. Smith carries the comedy with the proverbial straight face and good naturedness and we can’t help but root for her. Of course, there is a twist to the plot and the clue lies in the movie’s title, Keeping Mum, which is a pun on ‘maintaining silence’ and ‘keeping mother’.

The giveaway is in the opening scene where a genteel English woman boards a train with a bag that oozes blood. The blood belongs to her dismembered husband and when she is packed off to jail, she asks: “Does this mean you won’t be serving tea?”

Those who are accustomed to seeing Atkinson’s Mr Bean shenanigans may be disappointed with his role here but he is still amusing as the vicar who is all engrossed in preparing his speech on God’s Mysterious Ways at a convention. Scott Thomas is in top form as the cheating wife, while Swayze is expectedly sleazy as the villain of the piece.

However, the star to watch out for is Tamsin Egerton whose performance here provides the lure for the younger generation. Directed by Niall Johnson, Keeping Mum is adapted from Richard Russo’s novel which is originally set in America. Those who are delighted by Four Weddings And A Funeral would definitely like this dark Brit effort that may ‘almost’ pass off as a feel good movie.

Thursday, February 09, 2006


Time: 90 mins
Rating: * * 1/2
Jim Carrey and Tea Leoni as Dick and Jane
SEE Dick smile. Hear Dick sing and see him dance in the lift. Dick (Jim Carrey) is happy because he has just been promoted to vice president of communications at his company.

See Jane frown. Jane is Dick’s wife and she is unhappy with her job as a travel agent. Jane (Tea Leoni) wants to quit. See Dick and Jane hug each other. Dick and Jane are happy because he has got the promotion and she can now quit her job. They can also get a new lawn and a big new car.

See Dick run. Run Dick run. Dick is running because he has lost his job and he must race with other hopefuls to a job interview. Why has Dick lost his job? Because his company has gone bust and Dick has been made the scapegoat. Scrape, scrape, scrape. See Dick and Jane scrape for food to stay alive.

See Dick rob. Rob, rob, rob. Dick is trying to rob a convenience store so that he can pay the bills. Jane is helping him because he is not a good robber.

See Jack smile. See Jack (Alec Baldwin) hunt and play golf. Jack is Dick’s boss and he is happy because he has cheated the public and has gotten away with millions of dollars. See Dick and Jane follow Jack into the bank. What are they trying to do now...?

Fun With Dick And Jane is a remake of the 1977 movie starring George Segal and Jane Fonda. Back then, it was fun and funny because stories about a white couple in Los Angeles crashing out on the American Dream were a novelty. Now, with the Enron debacle, the times have changed and stories like this are commonplace and even cliched. Simply put, there isn’t much fun watching Dick and Jane Harper go from suburban middle-class luxury to poverty and crime after his boss, Jack McCallister, turns Globodyne into another Enron.

Sure, we sympathise with the Harpers when their electricity is cut off and they have to sell all their possessions. We sympathise with their son who is bewildered by what is happening to him. However, it is when they refuse to swallow their pride that things start getting messy and incredulous.

I am delighted that director Dean Parisot does not require Carrey to have to resort to his Ace Ventura-style schtick to get the laughs. But then he is not getting many laughs here with his slapstick either.Leoni fares a little better as the suffering wife although she shares no chemistry with Carrey. Baldwin, on the other hand, is deliciously wicked as the devil boss, while Richard Jenkins (of Six Feet Under) seems to have a great time as Jack’s stooge and chief financial officer.

The last act, in which Dick and Jane go after their villainous boss, looks over-contrived and implausible. After the 1998 economic meltdown, many people have experienced the disintegration of their social status. Most have found ways of climbing back up and comedies like this only poke fun at the wrong places.

THE DESCENT: Six Chicks In A Hell-hole

(horror adventure)
Time: 103 mins
Rating: * * *
Some of the chicks in The Descent
IN 2002 British film-maker Neil Marshall made his feature debut, Dog Soldiers, which shows a bunch of soldiers encountering huge werewolves in the Scottish highlands. Dog Soldiers turned into a cult movie, and horror fans awaited Marshall’s next feature.

The Descent would not disappoint them. Unlike Dog Soldiers, there is not much humour here but the shocks and gore are piled up so thick that there is no time to sit back and relax. Just a few minutes into The Descent, you will jump out of your seat watching a family on a car trip...

The story is about six female friends who get their thrills exploring caves in the Appalachian Mountains. Well, not the run-of-the-mill tourist attractions, but the ‘extreme’ kind where they ‘pothole’ into mountain openings. Their motto is: If there is no risk, what is the point? When their friend Sarah (Shauna MacDonald) loses her husband and daughter in a nasty car accident, the girls, led by the gungho Juno (Natalie Mendoza) reckon that they should help her to forget the tragedy by going on another ‘potholing’ trip into an uncharted cavern. Others in the group include base- jumper Holly (Nora Jane Noone), Scandinavian half-sisters Rebecca and Sam (Saskia Mulder and MyAnna Buring) and English teacher Beth (Alex Reid).

However, it soon becomes clear that Sarah has not fully recovered from her mental breakdown as she is still plagued by flashbacks and hallucinations. Then, to make matters worse, a rockfall blocks their only way out and Sarah finds herself fighting for her life as well as her sanity. Meanwhile, as terror wreaks havoc on the women, old wounds start to fester and the women find that they cannot trust their own kind.

Now, if you think that writer-director Marshall is content to scare us with a claustrophobic damsels- in-jeopardy tale, you have another thing coming. The girls are not alone. The cave is inhabited by Gollum-like creatures who have apparently adapted to their surroundings. And these sightless beings have become flesh-eaters, preying on the nubile visitors!

Marshall makes good use of his claustrophobic setting, heightening the eerie atmosphere with dim lighting. We get glimpses of the caves and its monsters by the light of torches, green glow-sticks and a video-camera’s night-vision screen. The poor lighting also helps to hide the flaws in the computer-generated creatures and bats. And although there is enough room for character-development, especially of Sarah, we do not root for the adventurers because we get the feeling that they deserve what they get, venturing into ‘forbidden’ territory. Also, the second-string cast do not endear themselves well to the audience. However, there are enough jolts here to make this one a scare-fest for horror fans.