Wednesday, November 30, 2005

THE FOG: Another needless remake

(horror thriller remake)
Time: 101 mins
Rating: * *

Maggie Grace and Tom Welling (right)
THIS plodding and needless remake of John Carpenter’s 1980 movie is apparently aimed at the young crowd. It can be rather boring for those who have seen the original which has become a cult movie.

The main reason for this remake is its hot lead star Tom Welling who plays Clark Kent on television’s Smallville. Welling has a huge following among the school girls, while for the males, we have Maggie Grace who plays the spoilt Shannon in ABC’s Lost series — and Selma Blair of Cruel Intentions and Legally Blonde.

Welling is Nick Castle, operator of a fishing charter at a small town called Antonio Bay in Oregon, USA. On the eve of its Founders’ Day celebrations, when the town is to unveil a new statue, Nick’s anchor stirs up something sinister and angry on the seabed. Dark clouds hover over the island and a huge fog is heading in — seemingly going against the wind...

At this time, Nick’s old flame, Elizabeth (Grace, taking over the role by Jamie Lee Curtis in the original), returns from New York, to make amends with her estranged mother, Kathy (Sara Botsford). Nick runs into Elizabeth that misty evening when he is on the way to see radio deejay Stevie Wayne (Blair, taking over from Adrienne Barbeau) — and the two conveniently pick up from where they left off.

Yes, director Rupert Wainwright interrupts the story flow for the mandatory shower scene and some tender moments as Nick and Elizabeth rekindle their affair. He also delves into a subplot about Stevie’s son picking up a weird object that has been washed ashore but fails to capitalise on it. The fog, we soon learn, brings with it a variety of nasty events, like mysterious fires, a near drowning by killer seaweeds and even a fateful encounter with the garbage disposal unit of a sink.
Then Elizabeth stumbles on a journal in the most unlikely of places — and a couple of girls are murdered on a boat enshrouded by the fog.

Wainwright is rather faithful to the original story about the ghosts of men and women seeking revenge on the descendants of the culprits who left them to die at sea in 1871. In the original, written by Debra Hill and Carpenter, the victims were lepers but Wainwright does not mention the disease in this remake. The ghosts look more pathetic than frightful.

Like Carpenter, he is also not very particular about acting, leaving Grace and Welling to do what they do best — show off their physical assets. Blair, however, is convincing as a single mother and the cocky radio deejay. I had expected Wainwright to bring something new to the material, not just a rehash.

ZATHURA: Fun ride for the family

(fantasy adventure)
Time: 113 mins
Rating: * * *

Jonah Bobo in Zathura
ZATHURA is the space version of Jumanji, the 1995 ‘board game’ movie based on Chris Van Allsburg’s book. If you have enjoyed Jumanji, you would definitely like Zathura which is also written by Allsburg. The 10-year gap between the two movies has brought about better special effects and more eye-popping visuals.

In Jumanji, each roll of the dice brought a new herd of wild animals stampeding into a quiet American suburban community. In Zathura, the players are blasted into space — as far as Saturn — and can only return to Earth when a winner is declared. Allsburg, by the way, is not only into board game fantasies. He is also the author of last year’s visionary adventure, The Polar Express, which took us to the North Pole for Christmas.

Walter Budwing (Josh Hutcherson) and his younger brother Danny (Jonah Bobo) are typical siblings who fight each other over almost everything, especially for the attention of their father (Tim Robbins). One Saturday, when Dad is at work, the two brothers are left at home with their older sister, Lisa (Kristen Stewart) who tells the boys: “Don’t wake me up unless the house is burning down.”

The brothers fight, Danny hides in the dumbwaiter and is lowered into the basement.
There, Danny discovers the Zathura board game and persuades Walter to play with him. The older boy says he would rather watch TV. Playing the game by himself, Danny draws a card: “Meteor shower. Take evasive action.” Almost at once, meteors start zipping through the roof into the living room — and right through the floor.

Yep, the thrill ride has begun — and the kids find themselves and their home hurtling into space!
As the game continues, the players are besieged by a demented robot, giant heat-seeking lizards called Zorgons, and are shot at by alien spaceships. The boys are joined by an abandoned astronaut (Dax Shepard) who helps protect the kids from intergalactic hazards.

There is an unwritten ‘rule’ of the game that whatever happens, the players would not be physically hurt. Incredible things may happen, the house may get pulverised by meteors and gunfire, but the kids will survive. As soon as she wakes up, Lisa gets frozen into immobility in the bathroom when a card, 'Shipmate Enters Cryonic Sleep Chamber', is drawn.

As expected, there is a lesson in the movie — that the brothers must co-operate rather than compete with one another, to complete the game — but director Jon Favreau (who made Elf in 2003) refrains from being too preachy or sentimental. He keeps the pace fast and hot with lots of excitement and energy. Unlike in Jumanji, where the players seemed two-dimensional, here, we have well-developed characters who seem like kids next door. And with such amazing computer-generated space scenery, Zathura is an absorbing fun ride for the whole family.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

HARRY POTTER & GOBLET OF FIRE: Potter's biggest challenge

(fantasy adventure)
Time: 157 minutes
Rating: * * *

Daniel Radcliffe and Emma Watson
DARK and difficult times certainly lie ahead for Harry Potter and his chums who seem to be facing the biggest challenge of their lives now. I am not talking about the Hungarian Horntail Dragon that Harry has to fight with at the Tri-Wizard Tournament, or his encounter with his nemesis Lord Voldemort (Ralph Fiennes). These and other sundry monsters are all in a day’s work for Harry (Daniel Radcliffe) and the student wizards.

Our young hero’s most fearful challenge here is asking pretty co-ed Cho Chang (Katie Leung) to the Hogwarts’ Yule Ball — and that is the feat that got Harry weak at the knees. You see, puberty has caught up with our friends at Hogwarts and it is not only affecting their relationship but the movie as well.

Besides the sexual jealousies that seem to be taking its toll on their friendship, the kiddie charm of the stars has given way to adolescent awkwardness. Rupert Grint’s Ron Weasley is no longer the cute kid and he frowns way too much. Emma Watson’s overacting is now more obvious and her fusspot Hermione Granger has developed into a stunning young lady. And Radcliffe’s inability to display emotions is even more noticeable.

It is to director Mike Newell’s credit that he emphasises on the youngsters’ sexual awakening although he has skimmed through the issue of Harry’s ‘attraction’ for Cho Chang (who seems to have emerged from nowhere into the story). The ‘romance’ between Hagrid (Robert Coltran) and the visiting principal Olympe Maxine (Frances de la Tour) fares better.

Hogwarts is playing host to two institutions in the Tri-Wizard contest and one of them is the Beauxbatons, an all-girls contingent from France, who sets hearts a-flutter with their grand entry. The Durmstrang boys from Middle Europe are also a force to reckon with. The tournament is for students aged 17 and above but somehow, 14-year-old Harry’s name gets picked by the Goblet of Fire in addition to Hogwart’s champion Cedric Diggory (Robert Pattinson).

The contest, with its fire-breathing dragons, menacing octopuses and a maze of killer hedges, is stunning to watch, but it is rather devoid of any sense of danger — except to young children who may be frightened by the computer-generated monsters (this fourth instalment is the darkest yet and may not be suitable for preschool kids). An eye-candy of sorts is provided by Mad-Eye Moody (Brendan Gleeson), the latest addition to Hogwarts’ staff. Donning a porcelain eye, the feisty Gleeson manages to steal the show from titans like Maggie Smith, Alan Rickman and Gary Oldman.

JK Rowling’s book runs over 730 pages and it is impossible for Newell to cover all its episodes and subplots. That is why we get the feeling that everything seems rushed and under-developed.
However, Newell maintains the franchise’s standard of seamless special effects and wonders but the best so far has to be Alfonso Cuaron’s Prisoner Of Azkaban.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

DRAGON SQUAD: More style than substance

(HK action thriller in Cantonese)
Time: 110 mins
Rating: * * 1/2
The young Interpol agents of Dragon Squad

FIRST, let’s talk about style. The movie poster, featuring some of Asia’s hottest young stars, looks like stuff you can chatter about for hours at the mamak stalls. Next, let’s talk about the cast. It not only has Hong Kong stalwarts like Sammo Hung and Simon Yam, but also heart-throbs like Maggie Q, Vanness Wu, Andy On and Shawn Yue — and even Hollywood’s Michael Biehn of The Abyss fame.

Let’s talk attitude: The guys of Dragon Squad are full of ‘attitude’. They not only talk tough, they act tough too. Why, Sammo Hung, who plays a disgraced cop trainer, puffs on a cigar even when he goes out for his morning jog with the recruits. And let’s talk about the premise. With a plot about Interpol agents fighting master criminals who have come to Hong Kong to settle a score with the notorious ‘Puma Duen’, it is definitely a premise with promise.

Promises, promises. What all these add up to is a loud action-packed flick that makes no sense at all. It is evident that director Daniel Lee has tried to throw art into the fray, especially the fighting sequences, but all it amounts to is style without substance. A total waste of time.

The five Interpol agents are played by Xia Yu, Eva Huang, Vanness Wu, Lawrence Chou, and Shawn Yue. They have come to bring the crime lord Puma Duen to justice but before they can even start, ‘Puma’ is captured by a gang of mercenaries led by Petros Davinci (Biehn), his buddy Ko (Huh Joon-ho) and sharpshooter ‘Viet’ (Maggie Q).

Petros wants revenge for the murder of his brother — and so does Ko for some betrayal. However, they are not satisfied with just capturing Puma, they also want Puma’s brother, Tiger.
In order to get into Tiger’s lair, Petros befriends Tiger’s old flame Ching (Li Bing-Bing) who is unwittingly hiding the man’s secret account numbers.

Meanwhile, the Interpol agents, not wanting to go back empty-handed, seek the permission of police commissioner Hon Sun (Simon Yam) to get veteran cop Kong Loong (Sammo Hung) to help them track down the mercenaries. You would have thought that with such a plot, there would be some tension and suspense. There is nothing of the sort. Instead, we get a lot of ‘posturing’ and acts of bravado, like dashing out into a hail of bullets (and coming out unscathed).

Yes, these guys talk big too, spewing ‘lines of wisdom’ like “Everything can be negotiated, except the truth”, “A soldier’s glory is to die in battle” and “Your own memories can lie to you”. Some scenes are ‘painful’ to watch. Like the beautiful Maggie Q trying to act tough, Xia Yu and Eva Huang trying to be lovers, and an overweight Sammo jogging with his breasts flapping up and down.

The Asian criterion for international ‘blockbusters’ seems to be that they must have fantastic Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-type of action. Nothing else seems to matter.
Well, soon western cinema-goers are going to get tired of them. Most people in Asia are, anyway.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

CHICKEN LITTLE: Disney's Chick Flick for Kids

Time: 80 mins
Rating: * * *

Chicken Little
HE may not realise it but this little cluck, who panicked the whole town by crying “The sky’s falling, the sky is falling”, has become Disney’s pioneer of sorts. With Chicken Little, Walt Disney Pictures is giving Pixar a run for the money by making the transition from two-dimensional hand-drawn pictures to 3-D computer-generated imagery.

And with this debut ‘chick flick’, Disney is hoping to play catch-up — or even out-perform — Pixar’s hits like Finding Nemo and The Incredibles. For the past few months, Disney had been using the cute little chicken in trailers to lure the children to their new and improved format.

The verdict: Young children will definitely like Chicken Little as they can relate to its theme on father-child relationship. However, for the older kids who have had a taste of Shrek, this one may just be another ‘kiddie outing’.

The tale is rather simplistic. Chicken Little (voice of Zach Braff of TV’s Scrubs) is trying to live down the infamy after causing the mayhem in Oakey Oaks with that ‘acorn incident’. He is being ostracised at school, and his three buddies — Abby ‘Ugly Duckling’ Mallard (Joan Cusack), Runt of the Litter (Steve Zahn) and Fish Out of Water (Dan Molina) — are also considered losers.

On the domestic front, Chicken Little is also trying to prove himself to his widowed father, Buck Cluck (Garry Marshall), a former baseball hero in town. He is not doing a good job of it until he manages to turn the tide in a little league game. Then one day, a piece of the sky really falls on the little chicken. It is part of an invisible spaceship that is hovering above the town.

Chicken Little believes the town is coming under alien attack — but will the townsfolk believe him this time around? This War Of The Worlds parody, which takes up the second half of the movie, appears rather cliched. It gives the feeling that the scripters have hit a wall in planning what to do with the story.

The alien attack theme is just one of the many pop culture references that pop up in the movie. Director Mark Dindal also throws in familiar pop songs (from the 70s to contemporary) to liven things up. It has been a tradition at Disney’s to portray single parent families in its movies and this one is no different. However, this may be the first Disney effort that is heading into the ‘gay area’ in its portrayal of Runt’s character: He is effeminate, grooves to old songs and idolises Barbra Streisand.

The celebrity voice cast, which include ‘cameos’ by Don Knotts, Patrick Stewart, Patrick Warburton and Adam West, do a good job of adding colour to their roles. As family entertainment goes, Chicken Little should keep the kids occupied. But it is nowhere close to the thrills we got from The Incredibles.

JUST LIKE HEAVEN: Reese Goes Clinically Blonde

(romantic comedy)
Time: 95 mins
Rating: * * 1/2

Witherspoon and Ruffalo
REESE Witherspoon goes from Legally Blonde to Clinically Blonde in this whimsical love story that is all sweetness and fluff. She plays Elizabeth Masterson MD, a workaholic doctor who pulls off 26-hour marathon shifts in the Emergency Ward at a San Francisco hospital.

Subsisting primarily on coffee and snack food, the single woman has no life outside the hospital. No family, no hobby, no boyfriend. When a friend offers to fix her up with a date, she counters: “I’m perfectly capable of meeting men on my own.”

“I know you are. I just want you to meet one that’s not bleeding,” says the friend. Urged to go home by a caring superior, Elizabeth is driving home to prepare for her blind date when she crashes into a truck. Weeks later, her apartment is being sublet to landscape designer David Abbot (Mark Ruffalo) who seems to have fallen in love with the place, especially the couch. After the death of his wife, David has taken to drinking and slouching and now he is making a mess of the apartment.

He must have thought that the alcohol is playing tricks on him when he sees an angry Elizabeth in the bathroom, asking him: “What are you doing here?” He asks her the same question.

Is the movie going the way of Ghost and All Of Me? It seems like that at first, especially when David realises that he is the only one who can see Elizabeth and that she can go through walls and doors. What happens next is for David to come to terms with having a ‘ghost’ follow him around and nagging him about messing up the place.

Basically, this is director Mark Waters’ attempt to suggest the inevitable — that they are falling in love with each other. However, there are not many situations in the script for romance to flourish although Witherspoon and Ruffalo are paired off well here. Witherspoon is both lovable and funny while Ruffalo’s sad-faced passivity provides an ideal foil for her little ‘tantrums’.

Throughout the movie, I was imagining what it would be like if Meg Ryan were to play the lead.
Supporting them in comic relief roles are Donal Logue as David’s friend and therapist. He has the best one-liners, while Jon Heder plays David’s psychic bookstore assistant and spiritual guide who offers a hint about the plot twist.

Just Like Heaven is adapted from a novel by Frenchman Marc Levy. The twist at the ending makes the whole tale look pretty illogical. But then since when has logic ever come into play in fantasy romantic comedies?

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE: Thinking Man's Exorcist

(courtroom thriller)
Time: 113 mins
Rating: * * *

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PURPORTEDLY based on a true story, The Exorcism of Emily Rose is a thinking man’s exorcist flick. There are no 360-degree head-turning or bile-vomiting scenes like those of Linda Blair’s classic.

Instead, we have a courtroom drama where a priest is on trial for ‘negligent homicide’ in the death of a 19-year-old college student after a failed exorcism. Emily Rose (Jennifer Carpenter) is believed to have been possessed by demons. She has haunting nightmares, loses an alarming amount of weight, sees demonic snarls in people’s faces and falls into epileptic convulsions every now and then.

When her family approach the church for help, they send Father Moore (Tom Wilkinson) to perform the exorcism. It fails and days later, Emily is dead. Father Moore lands in the lock-up, and the church, fearing bad publicity, wants its law firm to persuade Father Moore to accept a plea bargain that is offered by the prosecution.

The firm assigns their up-and-coming lawyer, Erin Bruner (Laura Linney) to defend the priest but he would not accept a plea bargain. “I don’t care about my reputation and I’m not afraid of jail. All I care about is telling Emily Rose’s story!” the man of the cloth tells Erin.

Erin, being an agnostic, does not believe in demons. The prosecutor, Ethan Thomas (Campbell Scott), presumably does, as he is a devout churchgoer. The trial, however, is one of medicine versus religion. While the prosecution argues that Emily is dead because Father Moore had refused to accept her psychotic-epileptic condition, Erin must convince the jury that the drugs Emily is given had made her immune to exorcism — and led to her death.

Emily’s possession and nightmares are gradually told in flashbacks with Carpenter having to perform extreme yoga poses, eat bugs and speak in strange languages. Director Scott Derrickson also spices up the movie with supernatural occurrences that will eventually nudge Erin into believing in the devil. These scares are not the stuff that will jolt you out of your seat, but just weird enough to sustain our interest.

As the lead, Linney has to shoulder most of the drama as the gutsy counsel who must risk her career to defend her client. And she does so convincingly. Wilkinson, too, is effective, bringing depth and humanity to his Father Moore.

And what’s more, the courtroom drama does not end as predictably as you would expect.
You will go out of the cineplex wondering how much is the true story and how much is embellishment.

DOOM: Another alien monsta hunt

(action thriller)
Time: 104 mins
Rating: * 1/2

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SOMEONE has unwittingly opened a door at the Olduvai Research Station on Mars and the proverbial hell has broken loose. A legion of nightmarish creatures is chomping the staff there — and an SOS is sent out to the Rapid Response Tactical Squad (RRTS).

As the squad sets out for Olduvai, its leader, known only as Sarge (Dwayne Johnson, or The Rock) tells his men that it is a ‘Level 5 Quarantine’ which means no one gets in or out. Yes folks, we are on to another Big Alien Monster Hunt — and if you are a fan of Doom the video- game, you know what to expect.

For the uninitiated, Doom the video-game was unleashed to the world in 1993 by Id Software, a small company in Mesquite, Texas. It boasts heart-stopping action, horrible monsters and its First Person Shooter perspective in which gamers explore the map and annihilate enemies through the eyes of their on-screen ‘hero’.

Doom The Movie allows us to follow the RRTS, a motley bunch of hardened Marines, to the shooting gallery that is Olduvai. Of course, director Andrzej Bartkowiak (of Romeo Must Die) and his scripters have provided some human interest background to the characters but it is barely enough for us to root for them.

Besides the no-nonsense Sarge, we have Reaper (Karl Urban) who is reunited with his estranged anthropologist sister, Dr Samantha Grimm (Rosamund Pike), at Olduvai. Expectedly, she is concerned with healing her colleagues while her brother is out to ensure that “nobody gets out alive”. The others are forgettable monster-fodder except, perhaps, for Dexter Fletcher who plays the weird wheelchair-bound communications officer.

There are claims by Dr Sam that the original Martians were superhuman, with an extra chromosome, but this is just mumbo-jumbo. Some of the monsters are parasites like those in Alien, but we don’t get a good look at them simply because the computer-generated images are not up to scratch. Most of the action takes place in dark areas and this can be irritating after a while.

Expectedly, Bartkowiak also includes a five-minute ‘First Person Shooter’ sequence, ostensibly for the game fans, but it would probably leave the non-gamers confused and frustrated. Among the cast, the only ones providing anything that can be considered acting are Urban and Pike. But then with such banal lines, it is difficult to be convincing.

Doom will probably get a boost from its video-game fan base — and then languish in the video rental stores. It makes Resident Evil look like a masterpiece.