Tuesday, April 25, 2006

SWAN SONG for Malay Mail's At The Movies

WE have come to the final instalment of this weekly movie review column which had run in The Malay Mail for almost 30 years. For this week, I would like to do an overview of those years which had formed a big part of my life.

My first film review assignment was in July 1977 when I was asked by the editor to take over the job from a colleague who had quit. Working as a desk-bound sub-editor in The Malay Mail, I was more than happy to be able to write – and reviewing movies suited me fine because I had been an avid cinema-goer since my childhood days in Penang. Those were the days of Saturday morning cheap matinees that cost 50 sen and reruns at the Great World Park for 25 sen. That first review – of detective spoof Murder By Death – saw print on July 9 1977.

From then on, I was hooked, both to writing and watching movies way ahead of the public. In May 1979, the star-rating system came into being. The then editor, Chua Huck Cheng, reckoned that it would give readers an idea of what I thought of the movie at a glance. In 1981, the annual Malay Mail Readers’ Top 10 Movies Poll was launched and it caught on with our readers so much that many had made it a point to take part every year.

Of course, the project also attracted the cinema giants and Kentucky Fried Chicken who came in as sponsors for complimentary tickets and KFC snack vouchers. And like old faithfuls, they had been supporting this Annual Poll right up to last year. Way back in the late 70s and early 80s, Press screenings were held at night at the Shaw Brothers and Cathay Organisation offices in the Bukit Bintang area. Chilled beer was among the beverages served.

My most memorable movie review assignment has to be that of The Wild Geese in January 1979 when the folks of Genting Highlands flew the Press contingent up by helicopter to the resort where they dined and wined us before screening the movie in conjunction with the launch of their cineplex. We were then given a free overnight stay at their posh hotel before being flown back to KL the next day. Like they say, it was a tough job but someone had to do it.

The most trying times for this columnist were usually in the week before the Chinese New Year when the distributors rushed to get their movies out in time for the festival. This meant that we had to attend two to three screenings a day and writing about them within the week. Now, didn’t I say it was a tough job?

Contrary to what many people think, reviewing movies is not just finding fault with them. I had strived to bring out certain aspects of the production that readers tend to miss out on. For example, in M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, many viewers had thought that it was about UFOs – instead of its theme about Faith that the protagonist (Mel Gibson) was wrestling with.

Also, I have had my share of readers who did not agree with my ratings for certain movies but I had always maintained that it was my heartfelt personal opinion. I had always appreciated feedbacks even if they were brickbats. My greatest joy as a columnist was compiling the Shakey’s Young Reviewers Column which ran from January 2000 to 2002. I had learnt a lot from these youngsters and some of them – Arivind Abraham, Davina Goh and Jason Lim – are making a local movie called S’kali which will be released soon.
The YReviewers after watching Dude, Where's My Car?
Yes, it had been a pleasure writing the column despite having to meet deadlines and structuring my life around it. The ‘new’ Malay Mail plans to boost its coverage of movies and I hope to be part of it too.Till then, my sincere gratitude to GSC, TGV Cinemas, KFC, Buena Vista Columbia Tristar Films, 20th Century Fox, UIP, Warner Bros, Regilent Sdn Bhd, and the staff and readers of The Malay Mail for their support all through the years. Check out this blog for future reviews. Goodbye and see you all At The Movies!
After a screening at Shakey's in MidValley Megamall


(mystery thriller)
Time: 110 mins
Rating: * * *
Kiefer Sutherland and Michael Douglas
THERE is an assassination attempt on the life of the President of the United States and agent Kiefer Sutherland is heading the investigations into a possible mole in the Secret Sevice. Are we watching a big-screen version of the popular TV series 24?

Well, it certainly feels like it, given the sort of plot and action in this mystery thriller. Sutherland is David Breckenridge, a no-nonsense Secret Service agent who bulldozes his way through the investigations very much like the way his Jack Bauer did in the TV series. He has a rookie partner in Jill Marin (Eva Longoria of Desperate Housewives) but the main star of the show is Michael Douglas’ Pete Garrison, a veteran agent who had taken a bullet for President Ronald Reagan in 1981.

Garrison is a legend among his colleagues but there is a skeleton in his closet: He is secretly having an affair with the First Lady (Kim Basinger as Sarah Ballentine). When Breckenridge gets into the case, old wounds start to fester. Garrison has also had an affair with Breckenridge’s wife and now, with all the evidence pointing to him, Garrison has to go on the run to find the real culprit.

The Sentinel, directed by Clark Johnson based on the novel by Gerald Petievich, aims to keep us guessing on the identity of the mole but the ‘expose’ comes as no surprise, really. Thankfully, there is no religious controversy in the terrorists portrayed here.

As expected, Douglas skillfully guides us through the mystery, displaying the stamina and the smarts Garrison has gathered over two decades of protecting the President. Basinger does not have much to do here but she is still as sultry as ever in a steamy sequence with Douglas.The most watched role has to be Longoria’s who acquits herself well enough as the level-headed partner to the hot-headed Breckenridge.

The best part of the movie is watching how the Garrison-Breckenridge rivalry subplot plays out — culminating in the latter having to draw his gun on his former best friend. The climax, at a summit in Toronto, Canada, is not even close to the nail-biting endings of the 24 series but it certainly won’t leave you with a bitter taste as you leave the cineplex.

ULTRAVIOLET: Jovovich goes Ultra-Bland

(action thriller)
Time: 85 mins
Rating: * 1/2
Milla Jovovich as UltraViolet
HER name is Violet, Ultra Violet. She tells us that she was born into a world we may not understand. Well, 10 minutes into this hot-chick flick, we may not even give a damn about her.

Ultraviolet, another videogame-type movie that has its roots in comic books, reminds us of Aeon Flux, last year’s big flop. It has all the so-called ‘cool art’ that computer graphics can generate but no substance or ‘soul’. Why, it has an even more idiotic plot than Aeon Flux – and nothing seems to make sense. All we get is a stunning Milla Jovovich showing off her well-toned abs and striking cute poses that seem to be a substitute for combat. Throughout the show, she wears different hair colours, a variety of eye shades but the same single blank expression!

Yeah guys, Jovovich is Violet, a man-made mutant in a futuristic world that is paranoid about ‘contaminated blood’. Violet is a Hemophage, part-vampire, part-chameleon and a 100 per cent hot chick. She has transformed into such a creature because of a botched government experiment to make stronger humans.And now that the government is intent on exterminating all Hemophages, Violet has become a champion of her race against the military forces of Daxus (Nick Chinlund) who has developed a ‘Doomsday weapon’ against the mutants.

This weapon turns out to be a boy (Cameron Bright) known only as Six. (Just don’t ask how his blood can be used against the Hema- phages). Unable to kill the child in cold blood, Violet is forced to go on the run from her own people as well as Daxus’ goons. So right from the opening, we see our shapely heroine single-handedly wiping out scores of attackers and dodging hundreds of bullets. Then, like in a videogame, we move on to the next level where she has to confront more villains in the same detached manner – but with a different lipstick colour or hair dye.

Oh yes, did I mention that there is some sort of a love interest for Violet in a scientist named Garth (William Fichtner)? I didn’t? That’s because even this little ‘romantic’ subplot is also botched up by director Kurt Wimmer who manages to turn every scene into a stylised mess. We understand that a large part of the movie is computer-generated but surely Wimmer could have gotten some emotions out of the live actors.

After all they have been paid to ‘act’ in front of the blue screen. Yet throughout the 85-minute footage, there is nothing to show for in terms of humour and feelings. Just repetitious sequences of Violet twirling her sword and dozens of her assailants falling to the ground. If looks can kill, who needs such Ultra-Silly movies anyway?

REINCARNATION: Rehashed and Recycled

(Japanese horror)
Time: 95 mins
Rating: * *
The child victim and her doll
PICTURE this plot scenario: In 1970, a college professor went on a suicide rampage at a hotel near Tokyo and killed 11 people, including his wife and daughter. While his victims ran for their lives, the killer recorded the acts on an 8mm cine-camera — just like a typical Japanese tourist.

Needless to say, this tragedy shocked the nation and was widely reported in the media. Now, 35 years later, director Ikuo Matsumara (Kippei Shiina) is planning a movie on the multiple murders at the Ono Kanto Hotel and is calling for auditions. However, even as the news of Matsumara’s upcoming film is announced on the radio, several people, from schoolgirls to truck drivers, start seeing ghosts all over the place.

Have the ghosts of the hotel victims been let loose in Tokyo by news of the new film? Are these spirits out for revenge? Not likely. These ‘hauntings’ are writer-director Takashi Shimizu’s ‘scatter-shot scares’ to work up our interest during the opening sequence of Rinne or Reincarnation. Shimizu, who rose to international fame with his Ju-on or The Grudge series (which was recycled by Hollywood), has latched on to the idea of reincarnation for his latest horror flicks. Trouble is, there isn’t much inspiration here and after the opening sequences, the movie goes downhill all the way.

No doubt, he has created the right atmosphere and mood in the dilapidated suburban hotel — but the scares are few and repetitive. The movie’s protagonist is a novice actress named Nagisa Sugiura (Yuka) who is picked to play the murderer’s pre-teen daughter, Chisato. This role is rewritten to accommodate the fact that Sugiura is now a grown-up woman, suggesting that she may be the reincarnation of the young victim.

During pre-production shooting at the Ono Kanto Hotel, Sugiura starts having fainting spells and visions of herself being chased by a knife-wielding man through the corridors of the hotel. She even sees little Chisato’s favourite doll which was reportedly carried wherever the girl went. And one night, Sugiura finds the 8mm camera used by the professor in her bed!Since objects like cameras do not reincarnate, this brings up questions about the credibility of Shimizu’s plot — or the efficiency of Tokyo police regarding the collection of evidence.

No, Shimizu does not seem to be bothered by such details. Like in his previous efforts, he is only interested in generating scares and the supernatural twist at the end seems rather obvious. The big question is: Would Hollywood really want to recycle this mediocre yarn?

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

GUBRA: Flawed but Still Compelling

(social drama)
Time: 113 mins
Rating: * * *
Adlin Aman Ramlie and Sharifah Amani
GUBRA, Yasmin Ahmad’s much-touted sequel to Sepet, is a rather heavyweight social drama that tries to cover too many themes and issues. Yes, writer-director Yasmin has lightened the movie with many comic-relief sequences — and it is engaging and delightful most of the time. However, we can’t help feeling that Yasmin has bitten off more than she can chew here — unlike the more cohesive story that is Sepet.

In Gubra (which means anxiety), we have two main plots: The continuation of Orked’s story and a parallel one about a Pak Bilal (Shahili Abdan or Namron) and two prostitutes who are his neighbours. Orked’s (Sharifah Amani Al-Yahya) story picks up seven years after her affair with Jason (Ng Choo Seong). She is now married to Arif (Adlin Aman Ramlie) but their seemingly happy relationship shows signs of strain when she stumbles upon Alan Lee (Alan Yun), Jason’s older brother, at the hospital where her father (Harith Iskander Musa) is warded for diabetic complications.

Alan is at the hospital to visit his father (Thor Kah Hoong) and after the requisite ‘meet cute’ sequence, Orked and Alan take off to town on their ‘first date’. This turns out to be rather traumatic for Orked when she finds Arif with another woman at a restaurant. She discovers that he has been cheating on her — and the proverbial hell breaks loose. Will Orked, the epitome of the modern Malay woman, forgive her hubby for this transgression?

Juxtaposed against this are several other relationships — that of Orked’s parents whose bond is incredibly strong; that of Alan’s Pa and Ma who never seem to have a kind word for each other; and a budding one between Orked’s maid Kak Yam (Adibah Noor) and a hospital assistant. The first two, which continue from Sepet, are repetitive and undeveloped, while the Kak Yam subplot is played mainly for laughs.

The second plot, about the Pak Bilal (or muezzin) and prostitutes Temah (Rozie Rashid) and Kiah (Juliana Ibrahim), are more complicated and we suspect that this is more of a device for Yasmin to expound on her social issues. Unlike common perceptions of Muslim clerics as stern and serious folks, the Pak Billal and his wife Kak Maz are a jovial couple who tease each other daily. When Temah and Kiah find themselves in trouble, they turn to Kak Maz for help to seek forgiveness from God.

Yasmin also tries to inject a bit of tension here — when an ex-lover of Temah appears and tries to steal from her to pay off some loan sharks. This sequence, however, remains lacklustre because Yasmin films the proceedings from behind a wall, a'la Wong Kar-wai's In The Mood For Love.

In the acting department, the whole cast is impeccable, especially Amani who is captivating even she she is running about dishevelled. As a sequel, Gubra is compelling especially to fans of that gem called Sepet. And as is usual of Yasmin’s films, she ends Gubra with a controversial ‘dream’ sequence after the credits.


Time: 93 mins

Rating: * * * 1/2
Takakura Ken and Chinese co-star

AFTER his foray into big-budget ‘wire-fu’ flicks, Zhang Yimou is back at what he does best — making low-key heart-warming social dramas. Zhang had followed the ‘International Road’ taken by director Ang Lee with Hero and The House Of Flying Daggers, stylish and lavish movies which were devoid of emotion and substance.

This time around, Zhang is on a project that is close to his heart – fulfilling a dream to work with his movie idol Takakura Ken. As a young student of the Beijing Film Academy, Zhang had been impressed by Takakura’s films. Riding Alone For Thousands Of Miles was written by Zhang with Takakura in mind and it is easy to see why.

Here, Takakura plays Gou-ichi Takata, a village fisherman who is summoned to Tokyo by his daughter-in-law Rie (Shinobu Terajima) because his son, Ken-ichi (Kiichi Nakai) is suffering from liver cancer. Father and son have not spoken in 10 years and Rie figures that this is a good time for a reconciliation. Ken-ichi, however, refuses to see his father and the old man is compelled to leave Tokyo with just a video-tape of his son’s work.

Ken-ichi has been doing research on Chinese folk dances and while watching the tape, Gou-ichi discovers that Ken-ichi has promised singer Li Jiamin (as himself) to return to Yunnan province to film his performance of a masked opera. Li had boasted that he is the best singer of the ditty, Riding Alone For Thousands of Miles (from the opera, Romance Of The Three Kingdoms) but he could not perform the song at that time because he had a cold.

Trying to make amends with his son, Gou-ichi travels thousands of miles to Yunnan to film Li’s song. This mission is not an easy one because Gou-ichi does not understand Chinese — and worse, he later discovers that Li is in jail. However, Gou-ichi’s dogged determination to film the singer helps to open his eyes (and ours) to his need to communicate with his loved ones, and to vent out his emotions openly.

A particularly touching sequence is when Gou-ichi is lost in the stone desert with Li’s illegitimate son, Yang-yang (Yang Zhenbo). Communicating only in sign language, he manages to ‘break the ice’ with the boy and even bond with him. Yes, this is the irony that pervades the movie — a man who has difficulty communicating with his countrymen and family must now find a way to communicate with a variety of people who cannot understand him.

Zhang also includes elements of comedy in this ‘problem’, especially with local tour guide Lingo (Qui Lin) who only speaks halting Japanese. Zhang could have opted for a ‘feel-good’ happy ending but he keeps the movie rooted in reality, making it a compelling tear-jerker. If you have enjoyed Not One Less and The Road Home, you will like this one too.

Tuesday, April 04, 2006

ICE AGE 2: More fun with the Exodus Gang

(animated comedy)
Time: 90 mins
Rating: * * *
The Exodus Gang led by Manny (right)
THE prehistoric exodus gang is back for another romp at the box-office but this time around, the plot is more or less the same as the first instalment. Thankfully, we still have the adventures of Scrat, the little sabre-tooth squirrel whose pursuit of the elusive acorn has provided some of the most riotous laughter. Why, he has even become the signature creature of the Ice Age series.

Here, director Carlos Saldana and scripter Jon Vitti have expanded his screen time, giving him an extra four or five minutes.The ice is melting and our three pals, Manny the Woolly Mammoth (voice of Ray Romano), Sid the Sloth (John Leguizamo) and Diego the Sabre-tooth Tiger (Denis Leary) are on the move again to safer ground.

However, Manny is disturbed that he may be the last of the woolly mammoths — and his species is facing extinction. Imagine his relief when he meets another mammoth named Ellie (Queen Latifa) and her two ‘brother possums’ Crash (Sean William Scott) and Eddie (Josh Peck). But before Manny and Ellie can start repopulating their species, he has to convince Ellie that she is a mammoth — and not a possum. Ellie, who was abandoned at birth, has been brought up by a possum clan — and she is under the delusion that she is one of them.

This ‘theme’ provides a few laughs — as do some other characters like Fast Tony the Turtle (Jay Leno) and a vulture named Lone Gunslinger (Will Arnett). Character development for the three protagonists looks minimal. The gags seem to have been repeated — with Sid still trying to earn the respect of his buddies, and Diego trying to conquer his fear of water in order to survive in the New Age brought about by global warming. If Ice Age 2 lacks a proper plot, it makes up for it with some tension and suspense in the form of vicious attacks by two pre-Ice Age sea monsters. These marauders, no doubt, will evolve into sharks.

However, the most impressive aspect of this sequel is its new and improved graphics. Animators have always had a problem depicting water but here, the water looks so real that we feel wet just watching it. At last, they have got the colours and bubbles just right. Also, unlike the first instalment, Ice Age 2 has more to appeal to the kids than the adults. Most of the characters are exaggerated for comic potential and the movie is bound to teach the children a thing or two about global warming.

As a sequel, Ice Age 2 is adequate. It cannot compete with Shrek and The Incredibles but it had all the children and adults laughing during a show at One Utama in Petaling Jaya last week. That’s more than I can say for many other so-called comedies.

THE PRODUCERS: Typical Mel Brooks comedy

(musical comedy)
Time: 128 mins
Rating: * * *
Nathan Lane, Uma Thurman and Matthew Broderick
WAY back in 1968, comedian Mel Brooks made his big-screen directorial and writing debut with a spoof on Broadway plays called The Producers. It was a farce about how two producers (played by Zero Mostel and Gene Wilder) come up with a get-rich scheme by making the worst play ever for Broadway.

They had expected the play to fold prematurely — so that they can pocket the money. However, the play turns out to be a hit and this lands the two in trouble with their financiers. Predictably or not, the movie, which was not a musical, turned out to be a success — as a nostalgic embrace of a dying show-business tradition.

This success prompted Brooks to transform the movie into a Broadway musical in 2001. The musical, which starred Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick, became a monster hit and won 12 Tony Awards out of the 14 it was nominated for. It sold out one year in advance on Broadway and was equally successful in London. So can a movie about the play about the movie be overlooked?

For this movie, Brooks got many of the theatrical principals on board, including director Susan Stroman, Lane and Broderick. The result is a silly but affecting old-fashioned musical which should appeal to both theatre-goers and movie fans. Yes, some of the musical numbers drag a bit and most go over the top. However, there are some witty lines here and there — and an overall tone of retrograde humour that pokes fun at the hazy Fifties.

What’s more, Lane is impeccable as Max Bialystock, the scheming theatre producer who makes a business of milking old ladies of their cash. Lane puts his customary gay image to good use here and he is always fun to watch as he puts up an idiotic play called Springtime For Hitler. Broderick is Leo Bloom, an accounts clerk who quits his job to become Max’s partner-in-crime. Broderick provides the requisite naivety and vulnerability to his role, especially when confronted by Uma Thurman’s Ulla, the Swedish receptionist-cum-actress that Max hires to complete the scam. Yes, Thurman manages to liven up every sequence she appears in.

Others who somehow ham their roles include Will Farrell as the eccentric neo-Nazi playwright Franz Liebkind, and Gary Beach as Roger De Bris, the flamboyant gay director who is hired to make a mess of the play.When I say ‘ham’, it may not be a bad thing as the actors are supposed to be bad, anyway. It is just Mel Brooks’ tradition of ‘keeping it bad’ so that it looks good in a round-about way.