Thursday, February 26, 2009

WEEKEND PIC - Feb 27 - March 1 2009

YOUR GUIDE TO THE WEEKEND MOVIES

NEW This Week:

a. SEX DRIVE (comedy with Josh Zuckerman, Amanda Crew (pic, right), Clark Duke, James Marsden, Seth Green, Alice Greczyn and Katrina Bowden) Rated * * * (3 stars) Somewhat like American Pie-meets-Road Trip involving a trio of best friends driving from Chicago to Knoxville, Tennessee. Passable teen comedy with enough humour, fun and heart. (Reviewed below)

b. SEVEN POUNDS
(mystery drama with Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson, Barry Pepper and M
ichael Ealy) Rated * * 1/2 (2.5 stars): After Pursuit of Happyness, director Gabriele Muccino collaborates with Smith to make an enigmatic weepie. With so many plotholes, it's not quite there. (Reviewed below)

c. LOVE MATTERS (Singaporean comedy with Henry Thia, Mark Lee, Lai Ming and Yann Yann Yeo) Rating: * * (2 stars): This Jack Neo comedy about marriage, sex, porn and whatever is far from being Neo's best. Rather, it is a scattershot amalgam of his previous films.

d. STREET FIGHTER: THE LEGEND OF CHUN-LI
(action adventure with Kristin Kreuk, Moon Bloodgood, Michael Clarke Duncan, Chris Klein, Neal McDonough and Robin Shou) Rated * (1 star): A brainless, plotless and utterly hopeless sequel to the 1994 turkey that was Street Fighter.
(Reviewed below)

STILL GOING STRONG:


1. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (drama with Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor and Irrfan Khan) Rated * * * * (4 stars): With eight Oscars including one for Best Picture and Best Director, are you going to miss this one about a boy from Mumbai slums becoming a millionaire in a TV show?
(Reviewed here)

2. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMI
N BUTTON (drama with Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Jason Flemyng, Elias Koteas and Tilda Swinton) Rated * * * 1/2 (3.5 stars): This was the top Oscar contender with 13 nods. However, it won three 'technical' awards but it is still compelling. (Reviewed below)

3. DOUBT (drama with Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman (pictured below), Amy Adams, Viola Davis and Joseph Foster II) Rated * * * 1/2 (3.5 stars out of 4): With four acting nominations for the Oscar, this drama begs to be seen by any avid moviegoer worth his or her popcorn. It may be 'slow' but it's quite rivetting.
(Reviewed below)

4. CHANGELING (police drama with Angelina Jolie (pic), John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly and Amy Ryan) Rated * * * 1/2 (3.5/4 stars): Directed by Clint Eastwood, this is a parable of wronged innocence and abuse of power reminiscent of L.A. Confidential. And of course, there's Jolie's Oscar-nominated performance to watch out for. (Reviewed below)

5. BURN AFTER READING (comedy with George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton and Richard Jenkins) Rated * * * (3 stars): A comedy by the Coen Brothers with Brad Pitt seemingly on steroids, given his energetic performance. Expect the usual Coen elements, greed for money, death and adulterous fun.
(Reviewed below)

6. PUNISHER: WAR ZONE (action thriller with Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Julie Benz, Colin Salmon, Doug Hutchison, Dash Mihok, Wayne Knight and T.J. Storm) Rating: * * (2 stars): This third reincarnation of Marvel Comics' The Punisher (Stevenson) for the big screen may be an improvement on the earlier efforts but it is way below the standard of Iron Man and The Dark Knight. Why punish yourself?


7. ONG BAK 2 (martial arts actioner with Tony Jaa, Sorapong Chatree and Nirut Sirichanya) Rated * * 1/2 (2.5 stars): Again it is teeming with action, courtesy of Tony Jaa, the Jackie Chan of Thailand. A bigger and better production than the first but still lacking in finesse and plot development.

SEVEN POUNDS: The Pursuit Of Tears

SEVEN POUNDS (mystery drama)
Cast:
Will Smith, Rosario Dawson, Woody Harrelson, Barry Pepper and Michael Ealy
Directed by Gabriele Muccino
Time: 123 mins

Rating: * * 1/2


Rosario Dawson and Will Smith as lovers in Seven Pounds

PREAMBLE: Seven Pounds opens with its ending: A tired and frazzled-looking guy (played by Will Smith) calls 911 to report a suicide. When the voice at the other end asks, "Who's the victim?", the guy answers: "I am."

Now that director Gabriele Muccino (working on a screenplay by Grant Nieporte) has given the ending away, there is nowhere else for the narrative to go except backwards - in a series of jumbled-up flashbacks that seem designed to confuse the audience.

THE SKINNY: The title probably refers to the 'seven pounds of flesh' debt from Shakespeare's Merchant Of Venice. Seven Pounds, however, is not a mystery thriller like The Sixth Sense where its 'curiosity factor' evaporates once we catch on that Bruce Willis' character is a ghost. In Seven Pounds, even though we can guess the gist of what's happening, Muccino has put in place many puzzles and plotholes that needed to be filled.

In the first half of the film, none of what you see makes much sense or seem to be of dramatic significance.
In the opening scenes, for instance, we see that Smith's 'Ben Thomas' is an IRS investigator (or Taxman) who has a list of people that he needs to work on. One is Ezra Turner (Woody Harrelson), a blind customer service employee whom Ben insults on the phone, seemingly for no reason. Then there is Emily Posa (Rosario Dawson), a heart patient in need of a transplant whom Ben goes all out to help - not only with her taxes but also her garden!

HITS & MISSES:
Later on, Muccino starts setting up more plot pieces - like a deadly jellyfish that Ben keeps as a pet in his motel room; his flashes of a fatal car accident; a deal Ben makes with his lawyer friend Dan (Barry Pepper), and another he has with a woman (Elpidia Carrillo as Connie) who is a victim of physical abuse by her husband. These pieces will fall into place at the end of the movie and that's when curiosity may give way to incredulity.
Seven Pounds is Smith's second movie with Italian director Muccino - after The Pursuit of Happyness in 2007.

Here, however, Muccino's aim seems to be the Pursuit of Tears, given the emotionally-charged sequences Smith has with Dawson. These, by the way, form the touching love story that lends depth and meaning to the movie. Some may find the proceedings too manipulative and tacky while others, especially the women in the audience, may succumb to the tearjerker.


THE LOWDOWN
: If you are muddled by this review, it is because I am trying to avoid spoilers for those intending to catch the movie. Indeed, Seven Pounds demands a great leap of faith from its viewers. If you are prepared to suspend disbelief and buy into the movie's redemption theme, then you may be swept along by it. Otherwise, it will be just another highly-contrived Will Smith fable that is not quite the standard of Will Shakespeare's play.

(This review was published in Life & Times of the NST)

STREET FIGHTER: The Legend Of Chun-Li - Yaks!

STREET FIGHTER: THE LEGEND OF CHUN-LI (action adventure)
Cast: Kristin Kreuk, Moon Bloodgood, Michael Clarke Duncan, Chris Klein, Neal McDonough, Robin Shou, Taboo, Josie Ho, Cheng Pei-pei and Edmund Chen
Director: Andrzej Bartkowiak

Time: 90 mins

Rating: * (one out of four)

Michael Clarke Duncan and Kristin Kreuk

WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL? The big deal is that after the first screen version of the Street Fighter videogame had been so badly roasted by critics, the makers if this sequel do not seem to have learnt anything from that 1994 debacle.

That Street Fighter starred Jean-Claude Van
Damme and Raul Julia. Soon after doing the movie, Julia died and he was mostly remembered for his melodramatic performance as General Bison. As for the movie itself, it was a laughing stock even for videogame fans.

The movie spelled a
'Game Over' for Street Fighter's foray into the big screen - until now.

Screenwriter Justin
Marks and director Andrzej Bartkowiak (of Romeo Must Die) must have thought that most people would have forgotten about how bad the first movie was. Ironically, however, he did not bother to make his sequel any better.

This one still lacks a proper plot and storyline.
The teaming up of veteran martial arts star Robin Shou and Kristin Kreuk (better known as Lana Lang of TV's Smallville) in the title role, does nothing for the action. And if you think director Bartkowiak would try to get more out of big names like Michael Clarke Duncan (of The Green Mile fame), Neal McDonough (of Desperate Housewives) and veteran Asian icon Cheng Pei-Pei, you will be disappointed.

WHAT'S IT ABOUT? The movie opens with Kreuk's voiceover narration of the events in Chun-Li's childhood - and you realise that Bartkowiak is taking the easy way out. For an action adventure, a lot of time is wasted unravelling an utterly senseless plot.

In the 1994 original (also based on Capcom videogame, Street Fighter 2), Chun-Li was a TV reporter played by Ming-Na Wen. Here, Kreuk's Chun-Li is a pianist who is trained in Chinese martial arts by her businessman father (Edmund Chen) who has dealings with the vile Bison (McDonough) and his sidekick Balrog (Duncan). When Chun-Li is still a student, her dad is captured by Bison and the poor girl thinks he is dead.

Bison's nefarious plan is
to wipe out all the other crime lords and buy over the slums of Bangkok so that he can build his Shadaloo empire! Meanwhile, Chun-Li learns that Daddy is alive and sets off from Hong Kong to Bangkok to rescue him. In Bangkok, she survives in the slums as a 'street fighter' before teaming up with the mysterious Gen (Robin Shou).

HITS & MISSES: The scripter seems to have taken the franchise to a supernatural level. Gen has the ability to create a magical 'power vapour ball' and
to disappear and reappear out of nowhere. If you think Gen is unintentionally funny, wait till you listen to Kreuk speak Cantonese (in a HK subway scene). Other unintentional humour comes from co-stars Chris Klein and Moon Bloodgood who play bungling detectives investigating Bison's activities. These two reluctant 'love interests' provide the needless comic relief in between the chases and brawls.

Forget Ong Bak. You won't find Tony Jaa's type of stunts here. The action
choreography is second-grade and the acting is campy even from the cast of established stars. McDonough hams his way through the show while Duncan earns his keep as the typical bouncer and strongman. Kreuk looks awkward throughout the movie, while Cheng Pei-pei only has a short cameo. However, after watching Klein and Bloodgood here, you wish you could send them back to acting school.

THE LOWDOWN: Forget this sequel. Stick with the game. It has a lot more thrills.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

ROLE MODELS: Mostly For Cosplay Fans

ROLE MODELS (comedy)
Cast:
Seann William Scott & Paul Rudd (pictured), Christopher Mintz-Plasse, Bobb'e J. Thompson, Elizabeth Banks, Jane Lynch (98 mins) Director: David Wain
Time: 95 mins
Ratimng: * * (out of 4)


WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL? For most of us, Role Models will just be another American comedy more suited to Western tastes than local. It is rather derivative and not funny enough. However, it may end up as the popular DVD movie for 'cosplay' (costume-play) and live-action role playing fans here in Malaysia.

WHAT'S IT ABOUT?
Danny (Paul Rudd) and Wheeler (Seann William Scott) are two salesmen who go from school to school selling a brand of energy drink (inspired by Red Bull) to kids as substitute for illegal drugs. Wheeler loves his job but Danny thinks that he is stuck in a rut and he takes his frustrations out on almost everyone.

When a problem
with his girlfriend (Elizabeth Banks) pushes Danny to breaking point, the two men land in trouble with the law. To avoid going to jail, they have to join a programme called 'Sturdy Wings' where they play big brother to lonely kids. Wheeler is assigned a foul-mouthed pre-teen named Ronnie (Bobb’e J. Thompson, pic, right), while Danny gets Augie (Christopher Mintz-Plasse of Superbad), a teenage nerd who is obsessed with medieval fantasy role-playing.

HITS & MISSES: Directed and co-written by relative newcomer David Wain, Role Models is a predictable buddy caper with a message about the importance of unconditional love. The pairings do not start well and their ensuing 'sputters' provide some crazy situations especially between the sex-crazed Wheeler and vile-tempered Ronnie.

Soon, the comedy strays into drama and even documentary (the live-action role-playing) territory and the laughs peter out. Wain and his co-scripters (Rudd, Ken Marino, Tim Dowling, W. Blake Herron) have not bothered to develop Danny and Wheeler's roles further other than to portray them as 'big brothers'. It is as if they have no life other than doing the role model thing!


Role Models reminds us of Judd Apatow's comedies (like Knocked Up and The 40-Year-Old Virgin). Indeed, it is written by Apatow's usual gang of collaborators but here he is conspicuously missing. Role Models has none of the subplot adornments (or 'bling-bling') that lend colour and sparkle to Apatow's efforts. Its ending, especially, looks shoddily contrived and phoney.


The cast, however, are strong. Rudd and Scott pair off well as 'opposites'; Elizabeth Banks is credible as successful lawyer Beth who is tired of Danny's grouchiness; and the kids, Thompson and Mintz-Plasse, make a good account of themselves. However, the one performance that stands out is from Jane Lynch whose zany portrayal of Gayle Sweeny, the Sturdy Wings community service boss, is demented enough to evoke plenty of chuckles.


THE LOWDOWN:
Role Models is forgettable, uninspired and bland.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Slumdog Darling At Oscar Awards

SLUMDOG Millionaire won eight Oscars at the 81st Academy Awards - including for Best Picture and Best Director. This is hardly surprising, given the hooha over Danny Boyle's rags to riches story.

There are also no surprises at the Kodak Theatre in Los Angeles where most of the predicted winners won.

Here is a list of the winners (in Bold).


1. Best Picture: "Slumdog Millionaire", "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Frost/Nixon," "Milk," "The Reader,"

2. Best Actor: Sean Penn ("Milk"); Richard Jenkins ("The Visitor"); Frank Langella ("Frost/Nixon"); Brad Pitt ("The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"); Mickey Rourke ("The Wrestler").

3. Best Actress: Kate Winslet ("The Reader"); Anne Hathaway ("Rachel Getting Married"); Angelina Jolie ("Changeling"); Melissa Leo (" Frozen River"); Meryl Streep ("Doubt")

4. Best Supporting Actor: Heath Ledger, "The Dark Knight"; Josh Brolin, "Milk"; Robert Downey Jr, "Tropic Thunder "; Philip Seymour Hoffman, "Doubt"; Michael Shannon, "Revolutionary Road."

5. Best Supporting Actress: Penelope Cruz, "Vicky Cristina Barcelona"; Amy Adams, "Doubt"; Viola Davis, "Doubt"; Taraji P. Henson, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"; Marisa Tomei, "The Wrestler."

6. Best Director:
Danny Boyle, "Slumdog Millionaire"; David Fincher, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"; Ron Howard, "Frost/Nixon"; Gus Van Sant, "Milk"; Stephen Daldry, "The Reader".

7. Best Foreign Film: "Departures", Japan; "The Baader Meinhof Complex," Germany; "The Class," France; "Revanche," Austria; " Waltz With Bashir ," Israel.

8. Adapted Screenplay: Simon Beaufoy, "Slumdog Millionaire", Eric Roth and Robin Swicord, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button"; John Patrick Shanley , "Doubt"; Peter Morgan, "Frost/Nixon"; David Hare, "The Reader".

9. Original Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black, "Milk"; Courtney Hunt, "Frozen River"; Mike Leigh , "Happy-Go-Lucky"; Martin McDonagh, "In Bruges"; Andrew Stanton, Jim Reardon and Pete Docter, "WALL-E."

10. Animated Feature Film: "WALL-E", "Bolt"; " Kung Fu Panda".

11. Art Direction:
"The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Changeling," "The Dark Knight," "The Duchess," "Revolutionary Road."

12. Cinematography:
"Slumdog Millionaire", "Changeling," "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "The Dark Knight," "The Reader".

13. Sound Mixing:
"Slumdog Millionaire", "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "The Dark Knight," "WALL-E," "Wanted."

14. Sound Editing: "The Dark Knight," "Iron Man," "Slumdog Millionaire, " "WALL-E," "Wanted."

15. Original Score:
"Slumdog Millionaire", A.R. Rahman; "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," Alexandre Desplat; "Defiance," James Newton Howard; "Milk," Danny Elfman; "WALL-E," Thomas Newman.

16. Original Song: "Jai Ho " from "Slumdog Millionaire", A.R. Rahman and Gulzar;" Down to Earth" from "WALL-E," Peter Gabriel and Thomas Newman; "O Saya" from "Slumdog Millionaire, " A.R. Rahman and Maya Arulpragasam.

17. Costume: "The Duchess," "Australia", "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "Milk," "Revolutionary Road."

18. Documentary Feature:
"Man on Wire," "The Betrayal (Nerakhoon)," "Encounters at the End of the World," "The Garden," " Trouble the Water ."

19. Documentary (Short Subject):
"Smile Pinki"; "The Conscience of Nhem En," "The Final Inch," "The Witness — From the Balcony of Room 306."

20. Film Editing:
"Slumdog Millionaire"; "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "The Dark Knight," "Frost/Nixon, " "Milk".

21. Make-up: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button," "The Dark Knight," "Hellboy II: The Golden Army."

22. Animated Short Film: "La Maison en Petits Cubes," "Lavatory — Lovestory," "Oktapodi," "Presto," "This Way Up."


23. Live Action Short Film:
"Spielzeugland (Toyland)"; "Auf der Strecke (On the Line)," "Manon on the Asphalt," "New Boy," "The Pig".

24. Visual Effects: "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,"
"The Dark Knight," "Iron Man."

Friday, February 20, 2009

WEEKEND PIC - Feb 20-22, 2009

YOUR GUIDE TO THE WEEKEND MOVIES

NEW This Week:


a. DOUBT (drama with Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman (pictured below), Amy Adams, Viola Davis and
Joseph Foster II) Rated * * * 1/2 (3.5 stars out of 4): With four acting nominations for the Oscar, this drama begs to be seen by any avid moviegoer worth his or her popcorn. It may be 'slow' but it's quite riveting. (Reviewed below)

b. BURN AFTER READING (comedy with George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton and Richard Jenkins) Rated * * * (3 stars): It is a comedy by the Coen Brothers with Brad Pitt seemingly on steroids, given his energetic performance. Expect the usual Coen elements: greed for money, death and adulterous fun. (Reviewed below)

c. PUNISHER: WAR ZONE (action thriller with Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Julie Benz, Colin Salmon, Doug Hutchison, Dash Mihok, Wayne Knight and T.J. Storm) Rating: * * (2 stars): This third reincarnation of Marvel Comics' The Punisher (Stevenson) for the big screen may be an improvement on the earlier efforts but it is way below the standard of Iron Man and The Dark Knight. Why punish yourself?

STILL GOING STRONG:


1. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (drama with Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor and Irrfan Khan)
Rated * * * * (4 stars): With Oscar fever spreading, this will probably be the movie on everyone's lips. Intriguing tale about a slum boy who is suspected of cheating when he wins 10 million ruppees in a Mumbai TV quiz show. (Reviewed below)

2. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (drama with Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Jason Flemyng, Elias Koteas and Tilda Swinton) Rated * * * 1/2 (3.5 stars): This is the top Oscar contender with 13 nods. Aren't you even slightly curious as to why this Case is such an Oscar favourite? (Reviewed below)

3. CHANGELING (police drama with Angelina Jolie, John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly and Amy Ryan) Rated * * * 1/2 (3.5/4 stars): Directed by Clint Eastwood, this is a parable of wronged innocence and abuse of power reminiscent of L.A. Confidential. And of course, there's Jolie's Oscar-nominated performance to watch out for. (Reviewed below)

4. VALKYRIE (War drama with Tom Cruise (picture), Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Carice van Houten, Terence Stamp, Eddie Izzard and Kevin McNally) Rated * * * (3 stars): With a cast of gifted veterans on both sides of the Atlantic, you can expect an engaging plot to kill Adolf Hitler. Even though the outcome is history, the tension and suspense is tangible. (Reviewed below)

5. PINK PANTHER 2 (comedy with Steve Martin, Jean Reno, Emily Mortimer, Andy Garcia, Alfred Molina, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Lily Tomlin, John Cleese and Jeremy Irons) Rated * * 1/2 (2.5 stars): This sequel is an improvement over the scattershot comedy of the (2006) first movie. Or perhaps it is the star-studded supporting cast who provided the glitter to the famous diamond nicknamed Pink Panther. (Reviewed below)

6. EDEN LAKE (thriller with Kelly Reilly, Michael Fassbender, Thomas Turgoose, Bronson Webb, Jack O'Connell
and Shaun Dooley) Rated * * 1/2 (2.5 stars): This made-in-England thriller is about an encounter between a yuppie couple and some village kiddie gang. It is gory, gruesome and ghastly. Not for the faint-hearted. (Reviewed below)

7. ONG BAK 2 (martial arts actioner with Tony Jaa, Sorapong Chatree and Nirut Sirichanya) Rated * * 1/2 (2.5
stars): Again it is teeming with action, courtesy of Tony Jaa, the Jackie Chan of Thailand. A bigger and better production than the first but still lacking in finesse and plot development.

8. NEW IN TOWN (romantic comedy with Reneé Zellweger, Harry Connick Jr., Siobhan Fallon Hogan, J.K.
Simmons, Mike O'Brien and Frances Conroy) Rated * * (2 stars): Predictable, derivative and badly contrived tale about city hotshot exec (Zellweger) going to a small snowy town to downsize a factory there. You can fill in the rest of the story. (Reviewed below)

9. HOUSE (horror thriller starring Michael Madsen, Allana Bale, J.P. Davis, Reynaldo Rosales, Bill Moseley, Leslie
Easterbrook and Julie Ann Emery) Rated * * (2 stars): A confusing and messy horror thriller about couples stranded in a haunted house. Basically, a DVD movie. (Reviewed below)

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

SEX DRIVE: A Nice Surprise

SEX DRIVE (comedy)
Cast: Josh Zuckerman, Amanda Crew, Clark Duke, James Marsden, Seth Green, Alice Greczyn and Katrina Bowden
Director:
Sean Anders
Time: 100 mins

Rating: * * * (out of 4)

Clark Duke, Josh Zuckerman (in costume) and Amanda Crew in Sex Drive

WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL? After watching sex comedies like American Pie and The Sure Thing, you should know by now that the most dreaded 'ailment' among American youth is virginity. It may be a virtue in the preteen years but when the youngsters hit 17 or 18, virginity is like social cancer that needs to be removed immediately.

WHAT"S IT ABOUT? That is how it is with Ian Lafferty (Josh Zuckerman), an 18-year-old hotbed of raging hormones who is still a
virgin. Ian is handsome - and even cute to some girls - but he is not into casual relationships because he has a crush for childhood friend Felicia (Amanda Crew). Felicia, however, has romantic feelings for Ian's best friend Lance (Clark Duke) but the sentiment is not reciprocated. Lance, meanwhile, makes it his life's mission to help Ian lose his virginity.

When Ian's Internet chat friend
nicknamed Ms Tasty (Katrina Bowden) offers to meet him for a one-night stand in Knoxville, Tennessee, Lance feels that the offer is too good to pass up. 'Borrowing' Ian's brother's (James Marsden) 1969 Pontiac GTO, the two boys start off on a nine-hour road trip to Ian's sex date - with Felicia tagging along!

HITS & MISSES: Up to here, Sex Drive sounds rather formulaic and predictable - sort of like American Pie meets The Road Trip
and The Sure Thing. I wouldn't blame you if you think it is a copycat or 'recycled' teen flick. Thankfully, it is not. Sex Drive, written by (director) Sean Anders and John Morris, is based on the novel, All The Way by Andy Behrens. Sure, it has its share of toilet jokes and urinating gags, and some really gross-out scenes but then they are the staple of teen comedies these days.

Under Anders' direction, Sex Drive does not strive to transcend low-
brow and gutter comedy, it just makes it look fresher here. There are some sequences at an Amish camp which offer new and interesting insights into Amish life. Here, Seth Green plays Ezekiel, the Amish car mechanic who has returned to his community after spending some time in the secular world. However, Green's role is not a comedic one, it is more like an advertisement for Amish generosity and sacrifice.

On the other hand, Marsden's portrayal of Ian's elder brother, Rex, really goes over-the-top and he manages to
get a few laughs. However, what make Sex Drive likeable are its touching moments, such as a heart-to-heart chat between Ian and Lance where the latter acknowledges that he knows about Felicia's feelings for him but will never act upon them because he knows she has a place in Ian's heart. This is the kind of stuff that one rarely finds in sex comedies.

In the acting department, the lead trio are charming and endearing enough to have the audience rooting for them. A few nude and unsavoury scenes have been censored for Malaysian cinemas but they should not disrupt the storyflow.

THE LOWDOWN: What I like about Sex Drive is that just when we think we have seen them all, it comes up with something that surprises us.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

BURN AFTER READING: Coens' Noir Comedy

BURN AFTER READING (farcical comedy)
Cast: George Clooney, Frances McDormand, Brad Pitt, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton and Richard Jenkins

Directors: Joel and Ethan Coen
Time: 96 mins
Rating: * * * (3 stars out of 4)



WHAT'S THE BIG DEAL? For many people, the Coen Brothers are an acquired taste. Their movies, like Fargo (1996), Intolerable Cruelty (2004), Paris Je t'aime (2007) and No Country For Old Men (2008), are 'unusual' (to say the least) as they defy and transcend genres. Many are structured like jigsaw puzzles that viewers have to fit together to form the big picture.

Movie critics love their 'film noir' (black comedy) style and now more and
more cinemagoers are looking out for their movies, especially after Joel and Ethan Coen won the Oscar for directing No Country For Old Men.

Burn After Reading has been nominated for some Golden Globes and BAFTA awards but has come out
empty-handed. That is not surprising considering that it plays like an Inside Hollywood joke for the Coens' croonies and fans. Well, the movie even stars George Clooney, an inner circle buddy of the Coens, and Frances McDormand, Joel's wife.

WHAT'S IT ABOUT? We can say that Burn After Reading is the Coens' potshot at the CIA - but that would be too simplistic.
The brothers also poke fun at Internet dating, divorce and adultery. Let us liken it to 'rojak cinema' - where different people and events are thrown into the mix and left to generate their own spice and stench.

At the start, we have Osbourne Cox (John Malkovich), a CIA analyst who gets demoted over his drinking
problems. He quits, writes a memoir and gets even more estranged from his wife Katie (Tilda Swinton) who is having an affair with Harry Pfarrer (Clooney), a federal marshall and serial adulterer.

Somewhere downtown, fitness gym worker Linda Litzke (McDormand) is seeking ways to pay for her
plastic surgery. When a disc with classified information is found in the gym, Linda and her colleague, Chad (a young-looking Brad Pitt), figure that they can sell it back to the owner - or to the Russians - for a fortune.

HITS & MISSES: Every Coen Brothers film involves two elements: money and death. And this one is no different. Like in No
Country For Old Men, death is trivialised and randomised - and there is even a sense of perverse fun to the proceedings. Clooney's Harry proudly shows off his gun to his dates - and goes for long runs after sex. Can he be parodying his character in Syriana here? We can't tell for sure.

McDormand, who won the Best Actress Oscar for Fargo, prefers a rather low-key approach and gives her
lonely Linda a suitably credible treatment. However, the funniest scenes come from Brad Pitt's Chad who is more of a caricature than a character. Chad is so dim-witted and energetic that we get dizzy just watching him, especially in a sequence where he tries to blackmail Osbourne.

THE VERDICT: Burn After Reading may not be a riot but it should tickle the fancy of any Coen Brothers fan.

Monday, February 16, 2009

DOUBT: Power-Packed Performances

DOUBT (drama)
Cast: Meryl Streep, Philip Seymour Hoffman (pictured below), Amy Adams, Viola Davis and Joseph Foster II
Director: John Patrick Shanley, based on his play
Time: 104 mins
Rating: * * * 1/2



PREAMBLE: Undoubtedly, this must be the movie with the most power-packed performances of 2008. Why, it is the only movie that has its main cast nominated for FOUR acting Oscars in the 81st Academy Awards. Lead star Meryl Streep has been tapped for Best Actress; Philip Seymour Hoffman is vying for Best Supporting Actor, while Amy Adams and Viola Davis are nominated for Best Supporting Actress.

Still, top grade performances are not the only selling point for this John Patrick Shanley movie based on his Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winning play of the same title. Doubt, the movie, takes us to The Bronx of 1964 at a time when there was no such thing as 'political correctness' and homosexual acts in schools are not only taboo, but must be flushed out and exposed. It is also a story of Doubt getting into direct conflict with Certainty. Those seeking clear answers to difficult questions in the plot will not find them here.

THE SKINNY
: At the centre of this movie is Sister Aloysius Beauvier (Streep), the principal of the St Nicholas Church School who seems to suspect sin and wrongdoing everywhere. Thus when she is approached by the sweet, young Sister James (Adams) about her suspicions of misconduct between the congenial Father Flynn (Hoffman) and her only black student, Donald Miller (Joseph Foster II), the stern nun leaves no stone unturned in probing into the alleged incident.


However, as Sister Aloysius starts her campaign against the Irish priest, certain thoughts spring to our minds: Is her dislike for Flynn due to the fact that he uses ballpoint pens (instead of conventional fountain pens) and takes three cubes of sugar in his tea? Or is it because she has seen Flynn putting his hand on Donald's shoulder while the boys are queueing up for classes?
Things come to a head when Donald's mother (Viola Davis) is called to the principal's office to be informed about an incident involving Flynn and her son who is an altar boy...

HITS & MISSES: The movie, directed by Shanley himself, tends to be more verbal than visual, given the conceit of the play. Streep is particularly engrossing when she is doing a 'demolition job' on some poor student or nun, and her Sister Aloysius is perched on such a high moral ground that she appears a monster.

Adams is just the opposite with her bubbly, naive personality while Hoffman exudes compassion and just enough uncertainty to make us wonder if he is indeed guilty. (I don't foresee an Oscar for Streep and Adams, while Hoffman has a tough job going against the late Heath Ledger who is everybody's favourite).


The most impressive performance comes from Viola Davis (pic, right) who only has a couple of scenes as a troubled mother forced to reveal unpleasant views about her own son. This 10-minute sequence is so powerful and memorable that it should constitute a huge plus for her career, even if it does not win her an Oscar!
If writer-director Shanley is more comfortable with dialogue scenes, he is no slouch in the visuals department. He can also be very imaginative - as in the scene of flying feathers during Father Flynn's sermon about spreading rumours. The sets and technical aspects are above average and the editing for this 104-minute film is crisp.

THE LOWDOWN:
Doubt is no blockbuster but it is an intellectually and emotionally satisfying experience.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

WEEKEND PIC - Feb 13 - 15, 2009


YOUR GUIDE TO THE WEEKEND MOVIES

NEW This Week:


a. SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (drama with Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor and Irrfan Khan) Rated * * * * (4 stars): With Oscar fever spreading, this will probably be the movie on everyone's lips. Intriguing tale about a slum boy who is suspected of cheating when he wins 10 million ruppees in a Mumbai TV quiz show. (Reviewed below)

b. THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (drama with Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Jason Flemyng, Elias Koteas and Tilda Swinton) Rated * * * 1/2 (3.5 stars): This is the top Oscar contender with 13 nods. Aren't you curious as to why this Case is such an Oscar favourite?
(Reviewed below)

c. VALKYRIE (War drama with Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Carice van Houten, Terence Stamp, Eddie Izzard and Kevin McNally) Rated * * * (3 stars): With a cast of gifted veterans on both side of the Atlantic, you can expect an engaging plot to kill Adolf Hitler. Even though the outcome is history, the tension and suspense is tangible.
(Reviewed below)

d. EDEN LAKE (thriller with Kelly Reilly, Michael Fassbender, Thomas Turgoose, Bronson Webb, Jack O'Connell and Shaun Dooley) Rated * * 1/2 (2.5 stars): This made-in-England thriller is about an encounter between a yuppie couple and some village kiddie gang. It is gory, gruesome and ghastly. Not for the faint-hearted.
(Reviewed below)

e. NEW IN TOWN (romantic comedy with Reneé Zellweger, Harry Connick Jr., Siobhan Fallon Hogan, J.K. Simmons, Mike O'Brien and Frances Conroy) Rated * * (2 stars): Predictable, derivative and badly contrived tale about city hotshot exec (Zellweger) going to a small snowy town to downsize a factory there. You can fill in the rest of the story. (Reviewed below)

f. HOUSE (horror thriller starring Michael Madsen, Allana Bale, J.P. Davis, Reynaldo Rosales, Bill Moseley, Leslie Easterbrook and Julie Ann Emery) Rated * * (2 stars): A confusing and messy horror thriller about couples stranded in a haunted house. Basically, a DVD movie.

STILL GOING STRONG:


1. CHANGELING (police drama with Angelina Jolie (right), John Malkovich, Jeffrey Donovan, Michael Kelly and Amy Ryan) Rated * * * 1/2 (3.5/4 stars): Directed by Clint Eastwood, this is a parable of wronged innocence and abuse of power reminiscent of L.A. Confidential. And of course, there's Jolie's Oscar-nominated performance to watch out for. (Reviewed below)

2. PINK PANTHER 2 (comedy with Steve Martin, Jean Reno, Emily Mortimer, Andy Garcia, Alfred Molina, Aishwarya Rai Bachchan, Lily Tomlin, John Cleese and Jeremy Irons) Rated * * 1/2 (2.5 stars): This sequel is an improvement over the scattershot comedy of the (2006) first movie. Or perhaps it is the star-studded supporting cast who provided the glitter to the famous diamond nicknamed Pink Panther. (Reviewed below).


3. ONG BAK 2 (martial arts actioner with Tony Jaa, Sorapong Chatree and Nirut Sirichanya) Rated * * 1/2 (2.5 stars): Again it is teeming with action, courtesy of Tony Jaa, the Jackie Chan of Thailand. A bigger and better production than the first but still lacking in finesse and plot development.


4. BRIDE WARS (sneak previews, comedy with Kate Hudson, Anne Hathaway, Candice Bergen, Bryan Greenberg, Chris Pratt and Steve Howey) Rated * * 1/2 (2.5 stars): This story about two Best Friends Forever turning Bitter Enemies Forever over a clash wedding date is exaggerated and silly. Nothing much to laugh at too. (Reviewed below).

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE: Don't Let It Slip Away

SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (drama)
Cast: Dev Patel, Freida Pinto, Madhur Mittal, Anil Kapoor and Irrfan Khan

Directed by Danny Boyle
Time: 120 mins

Rating: * * * * (out of 4)

Dave Patel and Anil Kapoor on the TV show

PREAMBLE: Among other things, Danny Boyle's Slumdog Millionaire is a happy marriage of two cinematic styles - the gritty British approach and Bollywood melodrama. Adapting from the novel Q&A by Vikus Swarup, director Boyle and screenwriter Simon Beaufoy have fashioned a movie that is ghastly as well as gory, brutal as well as beautiful, and unnerving as well as exhilarating. Its story, which has Dickensian undertones (like Oliver Twist and David Copperfield), is packed with energy, romance and enigma.

And if you expect the characters to break out into song and dance a'la Bollywood, just wait for it...

WHAT'S IT ABOUT? The title character is Jamal Malik (the teen version played by Dev Patel), a boy from the slums of Mumbai who finds himself on national TV playing the Indian version of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? His ability to answer a series of questions correctly not only provides him the chance to win 20 million rupees but also gets him into trouble with the police (led by Irrfan Khan of A Mighty Heart fame) who suspect him of cheating. Under interrogation and torture, Jamal explains how and why he was able to answer each of the questions because they somehow related to his past.

HITS & MISSES: Slumdog Millionaire, however, is not just about the TV quiz show. It is a love story, a tale about brotherly
love, gangsters, Fagin-like childnappers - and an overview of India as a global village teeming with abject poverty, international call centres, highrises and a powerful media. In one sequence, Jamal, who has just been kicked in the face by his countryman, says to an American tourist couple who have witnessed the assault, “You wanted to see the real face of India? Well, here it is!”

Of course, Boyle couldn't help taking a dig at USA by having the couple react in the most typical American
way - by paying the boy with a US$100 note as consolation! An allusion to Washington's policy of throwing money at problems, perhaps?

While trying to encompass so many themes and genres, Boyle has to ride slipshod over a few of them. Thus,
the romantic tangle between Jamal and Latika (Freida Pinto) is not properly developed, and the same goes for his relationship with his brother Salim (Madhur Mittal). Still, no one can accuse Boyle of lacking in imagination. His sequences zip from hallucinations to dream to nightmare, and even flights of fantasy. If Patel looks a bit out of place for a 'chaiwallah' (tea-boy) brought up in the slums, he makes up for it with his vulnerable-yet-intelligent looks.

The children playing the younger versions of Jamal, Salim and Latika are commendable, considering that they have no acting experience. Boyle, however, has some experience directing movies about boys coming into big money in the 2004 comedy entitled Millions. This time around, he has hit it big with Slumdog Millionaire.


THE LOWDOWN: Whatever you do, don't let Slumdog get away without watching it.

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Slumdog Wins 7 BAFTAs

RAGS-to-riches film "Slumdog Millionaire" won seven awards (out of 11) at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards last night. They are for outstanding film, director, adapted screenplay, music, cinematography, editing and sound.

Kate Winslet and Mickey Rourke also went home with acting awards — Winslet for her role as a former Nazi concentration camp guard in “The Reader,” Rourke for his performance as “The Wrestler.” Expectedly, Heath Ledger won a posthumous supporting actor award for "The Dark Knight.”

Here is a list of winners at the BAFTA Awards:


BEST FILM: Slumdog Millionaire

OUTSTANDING BRITISH FILM: Man on Wire

DIRECTOR: Danny Boyle - Slumdog Millionaire

ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY: Martin McDonagh - In Bruges

ADAPTED SCREENPLAY: Simon Beaufoy - Slumdog Millionaire

NON-ENGLISH LANGUAGE FILM: I've Love You So Long

ANIMATED FILM: Wall-E

LEADING ACTOR: Mickey Rourke - The Wrestler

LEADING ACTRESS: Kate Winslet - The Reader

SUPPORTING ACTOR: Heath Ledger - The Dark Knight

SUPPORTING ACTRESS: Penelope Cruz - Vicky Cristina Barcelona

MUSIC: A.R. Rahman - Slumdog Millionaire

CINEMATOGRAPHY: Anthony Dod Mantle - Slumdog Millionaire

EDITING: Chris Dickens - Slumdog Millionaire

PRODUCTION DESIGN: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

COSTUME DESIGN: The Duchess

SOUND: Slumdog Millionaire

SPECIAL VISUAL EFFECTS: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

MAKE UP & HAIR: The Curious Case of Benjamin Button

ACADEMY FELLOWSHIP: Terry Gilliam

THE CARL FOREMAN AWARD: Steve McQueen - Hunger

CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON: It's Compelling

THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (romance drama)
Cast: Brad Pitt, Cate Blanchett, Taraji P. Henson, Julia Ormond, Jason Flemyng, Elias Koteas and Tilda Swinton
Director: David Fincher
Time: 135 mins
Rating: * * * 1/2 (3.5 out of 4 stars)


Brad Pitt and Tilda Swinton

PREAMBLE: THE case of Benjamin Button is curious indeed. He was born in New Orleans, USA, in 1918 with the ailments of an 80-year-old. Since then, he started aging in reverse, becoming middle-aged at 20, a strapping young hunk at 50 and ending as a newborn baby. Now, shouldn't this movie, based on a 1922 short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, be categorised as science fiction?

Not in David Fincher's reckoning. Director Fincher, working on a screenplay by Eric Roth, fashions the movie as a biopic the likes of Forrest Gump, taking us on a 'tour' of the 20th Century and unfolding the stages of Benjamin Button's life in intriguing episodes.

WHAT'S IT ABOUT? The movie, however, opens in the 21st Century - in New Orleans, circa August 2005, when Hurricane Katrina is heading towards the Louisiana city. Here, we see 80-year-old Daisy (Cate Blanchett) on her hospital bed, asking her daughter Caroline (Julia Ormond) to read from the diary of a man named Benjamin Button (Brad Pitt).


As Caroline pores through the diary, she finds her mother's name mentioned. Daisy meets Benjamin when she visits her grandmother at the old folk's home run by Queenie (Taraji P. Henson), Benjamin's foster mother. Young Daisy befriends Benjamin, who looks like a 70-year-old then. She joins him in childish pranks, and then they go their separate ways. When they next meet after World War Two, Daisy finds Benjamin in the prime of his life - and romance blossoms between the two who are eager to make the most of their lives after experiencing the ravages of war and fate. Also, living in an old folk's home, Death is no stranger to Benjamin.

THE REVIEW: Like Forrest Gump, which was also scripted by Roth, Benjamin's life is also like a box of chocolates - colorful and unpredictable. It comes with many segments marked by historical milestones. In the 1930s, he meets a solicitous stranger (Jason Flemyng as Thomas Button), as well as an African pygmy (Rampai Mohadi) and a tugboat captain named Mike (Jared Harris). Further adventures take him to Murmansk in Russia where he has an affair with a sophisticated married woman (Tilda Swinton) and learns what it is like to be loved and desired.

The historical milestones include Benjamin's stint with the US Navy during World War Two, providing action and suspense with a nocturnal U-Boat battle. However, the movie is at its most delightful when it shows Benjamin and Daisy rekindling their love. Here, the lovers look different from before. They are 'hotter' and more vibrant. Unlike in the earlier sequences (in the first half of the movie) where Pitt's face is 'digitally implanted' on an aged body, the romance sequences were shot on film, enhancing the movie's emotional depth and impact. Fincher, after years of assaulting our senses with violent films like Fight Club, Seven and Zodiac, has found a style of completely different tones, aiming for our heart and mind now.

I can go on about the acting, the writing, directing, editing and technical aspects of the movie but the fact that The Curious Case Of Benjamin Button has been nominated for 13 Academy Awards speaks volumes for itself. Although we do not expect it to make a big sweep a'la Lord Of The Rings: The Return Of The King, it should win at least four or five Oscars.

THE LOWDOWN: Catch Benjamin Button and get infected by the Oscar fever.

Monday, February 09, 2009

VALKYRIE: For War Movie Fans

VALKYRIE (war drama)
Cast: Tom Cruise, Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Carice van Houten, Terence Stamp, Eddie Izzard, Kevin McNally, Jamie Parker and David Bamber

Directed by Bryan Singer
Time: 120 mins
Rating: * * * (3 out of 4 stars)



PREAMBLE: Spoilers be damned. Valkyrie is about a plot by a group of disillusioned German officers to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Its outcome is etched in history, so it does not make any difference if I give away the ending and say that the July 20, 1944 plot ended with more than 5,000 arrests and 200 executions of the plotters and supporters. And the Nazi dictator was still alive.

Indeed, whether you know the outcome or not, director Bryan Singer has structured
Valkyrie in such a way that it gradually builds up to a tension-filled war thriller - just like the build-up in Richard Wagner's composition Ride of the Valkyries on which 'Operation Valkyrie' was based. And since Singer knew he could not squeeze suspense from a 'Will the plot succeed?' scenario, he opted for a 'How things went wrong' one instead.

WHAT'S IT ABOUT? The movie centres around Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg (Tom Cruise, pictured), a proud German officer whose patriotism puts him at odds with Hitler's inhumane practices. After being wounded in a battle in Tunisia, Stauffenberg is promoted into Hitler's (David Bamber) inner circle— and is immediately approached by a group of conspirators trying to get rid of the Fuehrer. The group's previous attempt to blow up the Nazi leader with a bomb hidden in a bottle of French liqueur turned out to be a dud.


Their next mission, codenamed Operation Valkyrie, is not only to assassinate Hitler but also to put the blame on his SS Guards, and mobilise his Reserve Forces in Berlin. The brains behind the plot, General Ludwig Beck (Terence Stamp), General Friedrich Olbricht (Bill Nighy) and Major-General Henning von Tresckow (Kenneth Branagh) pick Stauffenberg to lead the operation because he has fresh ideas to offer and because he is able to get things moving.


HITS AND MISSES: As can be expected of conspiracies, the planning takes patience. Singer takes his time to lay the groundwork, and introduce the secondary characters (like Stauffenberg's wife played by Carice van Houten) and children. He also needs to acquaint us with fence-sitters like General Friedrich Fromm (Tom Wilkinson) and show us how the plot is supposed to be carried out.


However, as soon as the plot is set in motion and the bomb explodes, the pace turns frantic and frenetic. Stauffenberg earnestly believes that the Fuehrer is dead and the country is plunged into confusion and chaos.
For me, the pay-off justifies the time and patience invested in the first one-and-a-half hour of this two-hour film. And if we have to talk about flaws, it is probably the ease in which the conspiracy is being planned - with none of Hitler's men being any wiser. Cruise does a good job of bringing Stauffenberg to life, and even looks like the colonel himself. To lend an air of realism to the movie, Singer has Cruise narrating in German and then slowly easing into English for the benefit of the audience. Other members of the cast comprise the cream of British and European cinema veterans and provide top notch performances.

THE LOWDOWN: Valkyrie should be an absorbing treat for history buffs and fans of war movies.