Movie Review: Quickie Edition X

Igor: Not Pixar-quality animation, not Shrek quality jokes, but a little endearing no less – Igor is slightly dark, slightly edgy, slightly different – but the problem is that it’s all slightly so. The voice cast is stand-out – John Cusack as the title character , Steve Buscemi as a suicidal immortal rabbit type thing, Sean Hayes (of Will & Grace) as the brain-in-a-jar, Eddie Izzard and even a little cameo from John Cleese. For all their effort though, they can’t help a weak plot from meandering and being way too obvious. ★★☆

Smart People: Official Crush: Ellen Page. Officially Mystified why People Find Her Attractive: Sarah Jessica Parker (seriously? She’s got a face like a horse!). Quirky and maybe even kinda dark-comedy-at-heart story about a crumudgeonly professor who has an accident and is forced to have his adopted unemployed brother drive him around. Touching in some bits, funny in many others, cringe worthy in a few – not without its flaws, but with plenty of merits none-the-less, primary amongst which is Ellen Page. ★★★☆

Thick as Theives: The reasons you may want to watch this: Morgan Freeman, Antonio Banderas, it’s a heist movie. Reasons you may actually not just walk out of the cinema: Radha Mitchell. Reasons you should want to watch this: none. Reasons you shouldn’t watch this: most ridiculous plot since Ecks vs Sever (Banderas does like a rank action flick once in a while), stupidest dodge-the-security-system scene since that awful one with Catherine Zeta-Jones in Entrapment (except she was hot but Banderas isn’t half so (though I speak only for the men). ★★ (half-star extra credit because I like heist movies, ok?)

Baby Mama: I guess this probably came first, and maybe 30 Rock was used as a cross-promotion device, but Tina Fey needs to lay off the baby-gaga for a while. It’s good for a gag in a sitcom, maybe even 2 eps, but stretched as it is here with Fey playing the straight-(wo)man to Amy Poehler’s slapstick white-trash routine, it gets tired. Fey and Poehler have great on-screen chemistry, but I can’t say that for the rest of the cast, and while this can tug a heartstring or two, it turns out bit of a mixed bag overall. ★★

How to Lose Friends and Alienate People: Call me a sucker for a good rom-com, but I enjoyed this little ditty. Simon Pegg is an independent magazine editor in London who gets the call-up for work at a prestigious magazine (think Vanity Fair). Only, he gets unceremoniously dumped into the Eye Spy-esque department, writing fluff peices on celebrities. Co-worker Kirsten Dunst reluctantly helps him to settle in (after being ordered to do so), but Pegg’s character wants his hard-hitting stories of old back. Almost fomulaic, Pegg’s wonderfully flexible facial expressions and brilliant comic timing bring a certain something else to an otherwise hackneyed plot you’ve seen somewhere before. ★★★☆

Ghost Town: Another rom com set in New York with a British comedic actor, but this time it’s Ricky Gervais as a grumpy anti-social dentist. Gervais goes in for a “routine” operation, but dies on the table for 7 minutes before he is revived – and now he can see dead people. One of the dead people (Greg Kinnear) manages to convince him to help him out with his wife/widow (Téa Leoni, y’know, the hot chick in Bad Boys). The plot spins out the ghost story to a slightly different angle, but it’s fundamentally about the redemption of Gervais’ character and how Leoni’s character falls in love with him regardless, etc etc. Bit predictable, but no less sweet for all that, I thought. Gervais is brilliant. ★★★

W.: Kinder to George W. Bush than many would anticipate, but not soft by any means. Josh Brolin puts up a stellar performance that captures many of Bush’s mannerisms down to a tee, and Richard Dreyfuss is spooky as Cheney. Perhaps a bit too soon – given this was released before Bush left – but an interesting biopic no less. ★★★

Religulous: Bill Maher hasn’t got much of a profile in Australia, but going on what I’ve seen in this movie, maybe he really should have a bigger profile. Maher examines religion and its many inherent faults and inadequacies, primarily focusing on the three monothiestic/“Abrahamic” religions – I guess because this is most familiar to himself and his target audience, Americans. Sort of like The God Delusion brought to life, Maher really pulls a fast one around the simpler folk who can’t see the forrest for the trees. Some very good laughs. ★★★★

Movie Review: In Bruges

In Bruges: Dark-as-pitch comedy about a couple of hitmen (Colin Farrell, Brendan Gleeson) who are banished to Bruges, an historic town in Belgium, by their boss (Ralph Finnes) to lay low after a botched hit. A few good laughs and a great performance from Farrell, but there’s little enough redemption for any of the characters. This movie is definitely not one for the queasy. ★★★☆

Movie Review: Slumdog Millionaire

Slumdog Millionaire: Jamal, a slum kid done good, is just trying to get back with his girl. The universe seems to have other plans for him, and it involves appearing on the Indian Who Wants to be a Millionaire? – where, despite his slum upbringing, he knows a streak of answers. This however makes the host suspicious, and he calls the cops to take him away for a shake-down.

A film adaptation of a novel, Q & A by Vikas Swarup, Slumdog Millionaire is up for serious Oscar contention. Directed by Danny Boyle (Trainspotting), it’s little wonder a story like this is being considered a dark horse for Best Picture. Timelines are interspersed, but each subtly clear and distinct, though it does like to meander. Told mostly in English, the plot manages to keep its thread, though there are moments of credulity that the suspension of disbelief is required to overcome. Scenes of the slums can be confronting, and occasionally it appears to be exaggerated to make the point, but it’s all in there, and then some.

Much of the cast appear to be first-timers or near-unknowns, with the exception of the host (Anil Kapoor, former Bollywood heart-throb), and the police detective (Irfan Khan, last seen by me in The Namesake a week ago), who both fill their roles admirably. The newcomers and child actors do well, though not without the occasional moment of heavy-handed direction.

Stylistically told, well acted and with a brilliant soundtrack by A. R. Rahman (featuring M.I.A.), Slumdog Millionaire should definitely surprise. ★★★★

Movie Review: Quickie Edition IX

Tropic Thunder: The line between action movie and spoof action flick blurs wildly in this, though it pulls out just ahead in the spoof column. I suppose it’s only a commentary of our times when you wonder whether the product placement in this is intentional or whether it’s there to be parodied. While there aren’t any stand-out performances, the movie does chug along nicely enough, and it’s worth a few laughs. ★★★

Dhrona: Zero out of Five. Zip, zilch, nada. No redeeming features what. so. ever.

(I mean, if you can make Priyanka Chopra look frumpy, you’re most certainly doing it wrong.)

Australia: Australia, the country, deserves better than this, if only because there is such talent that it could have had better. Australia tells the story of Lady Sarah Ashley, newly arrived in the Territory to try to sell off a cattle ranch, Faraway Downs. A series of unfortunate events sees her staying, and a love story, a tale of hardship and a snippet of war are all told in the backdrop of early World War II Darwin.

You know it’s an “epic” because (a) the running time is 2 hours and 40 minutes (interval? what interval?) and there’s at least three or four points throughout that you think “Is this the end yet?” (at least before checking your watch).

Baz Luhrman certainly starts off with a hyper-realistic style that is intriguing, but this very quickly degrades into a by-the-numbers play, every twist to the plot well sign-posted. This belies the talent of the acting, barring Nicole, with unsung Aussie heroes such as Bryan Brown and David Wenham in particular standing out from the crowd.

In the end, if it wasn’t for the little kid Nullah, this would be a dull epic hardly worth slogging through. Despite all this, it is after all your patriotic duty as an Australian to go watch this. ★★☆

Dostana – Now, this is how you make Priyanka Chopra look smokin’. The story here is that two guys (John Abraham and Abhishek Bachan) living in Miami have to pretend to be a gay couple to get an apartment, and they end up being housemates with The Hot Girl (Priyanka). Who they inevitably fall for, but comedy gets in the way of telling her that they’re not, etc.

Genuinely funny and not-half-bad rom-com, though inevitably overdoes the songs. ★★★★

The Namesake – well constructed and largely on-the-money portrayal of an Indian migrant family. Meera Nair directs a story that’s almost a series of viginettes that move along the timeline in jumps. Each jump is appropriate, and the tale is told with a minimum of fuss or superfulous material.

Kal Penn demonstrates his ability to act is not limited to stoners a la Harold & Kumar, and Tabu & Irfan Khan prove most excellent in the roles of the parents. A brilliant movie, but perhaps limited in its target audience. ★★★☆

Madagascar – Escape 2 Africa: Brilliant! While the first Madagascar was a bit meh, a bit by-the-numbers, it looks like the producers went back to it and said “how can we make this better?”, and they actually found the right key elements. The penguins are in fine form, as is the lemur King Julian (Sacha Baren Cohen, a.k.a. Ali G, Borat) – you get the feeling that there’s an element of ad-libbing going on to make it all the more brilliant. The main plot moves along at a tight clip, with only a little sentimentality. Good laughs make it well worth it for young and old. ★★★☆

Kanye West – 808s and Heartbreak

Kanye follows up Graduation with a brilliant album that you will almost certainly not get on the first listen, if you’re expecting anything like Graduation or Late Registration. Kanye is of course reknowned for his hip-hop, but he takes a turn towards left-field here, experimenting with synth-pop style beats, and heavy on the synth-drums – indeed, half the name of the album, 808s, is for the drum machine used to produce the all-pervasive thumping drum line.

Love Lockdown, the first single from the album, is adequate demonstration of the style – the drum line almost plays a heartbeat throughout the song, and Kanye’s voice is tempred by the blatant and intentional use of Auto-Tune to modify the sounds – the robotic texture gauranteed to alienate one way or the other.

Kanye apparently wrote this album following his breakup with his finace of 18 months, and also in the wake of his mother’s death, and the anger and anguish is apparent in some of the songs. While this doesn’t appear to have the chart toppers of previous releases, the album itself is far more cohesive and well constructed.  The question now is whether Kanye continues to set the pace with this, or whether he wanders into his own new genre. It’s identifiable as hip-hop, but only tangentially.

Movie Review: Quickie Edition VIII

Rocknrolla: Superrrrrb. Guy Ritchie at his best since Snatch, which surprisingly was way back in 2000. Weaves a tale of property, money and gangsters in (where else but) London, and does a damned good job of it. While you might only recognise one or two of the faces in here, most of the cast do well to bring something different to the table. Dry humour prevades, and for once a foreshadowed sequel is not unwelcome. ★★★★

Chaos Theory: a romdramedy that takes the idea of “If a butterfly flaps its wings in Brazil…” and attempts to apply it to a dramedy plot. While there’s a couple of laughs and a couple of moments of genuine drama, there’s a bit too much music montage, and these characters never really grabbed me in any memorable way, barring perhaps the clever little girl. Better than Definitely, Maybe if only because it’s marginally more plausible, in much the same way that saying aliens from Mars is more plausible than saying aliens from Jupiter, say. ★★☆

Fashion: A Bollywood film without a song-and-dance number? That stays on message throughout? With a tightly constructed storyline? And “risque” scenes that fit the plot? And (background) music I could actually feel in my gut? Wow. Priyanka Chopra is my new favourite crush. ★★★☆

Farenheit 9/11: Watched this right before the US election, partly because i thought it’d be the last chance to see it with Bush still nominally in charge (allowing righteous indignation), partly because W is coming soon. Michael Moore is a storyteller, not a pure documentarian – he’s got an agenda and a storyline, and he’ll cobble it together come hell or high water. Not as brilliant as Bowling for Columbine, to be taken with a pinch of salt now and again, but utterly believable and confident, albeit at times meandering. ★★★

Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull: The Indy series is probably one of the very, very few where the sequels don’t come off too badly, and I’d even go so far as to say The Last Crusade was a better film than Raiders of the Lost Ark. But then, obviously, Lucas and Spielberg got greedy… and thus we have this as a result. Mostly involving a non-sensical macguffin to drive the story through action scenes innumerable, Kingdom of the Crystal Skull feels tired. It’s Indy, but not quite as we know it – Indy never has to go from one clue to the next, never has to solve a puzzle that would confound the common man. It’s too easy.

Harrison Ford does his best to live up to the character he brought to life so many years ago, and Cate Blanchett does her best too to try to enliven a character so one-dimensional it’s easy to believe this is a George Lucas creation (can someone please keep him away from a set?). The action is fun, if implausible, but it never seems to come to life or make you sit on the edge of your seat. Disappointing for an Indy fan, but not a bad way to churn through a couple of hours. ★★★

Wall·E: If there’s one thing you have to give Pixar credit for, it’s that they’re always pushing the boundaries of CG animation – and this movie pushes that little bit further. And more so than any Pixar film before it, Wall·E has a message, and it’s targeted. It’s a superbly constructed and well-told message. However, I can see this message going over the heads of children, who are ostensibly the target audience, and that is to miss out on half the brilliance of this movie.

It also shies away from an ending which would be confronting, nihilistic even, but brilliant and poignant – that, however, is my own sense of artistic grandeur kicking in, and this is, after all, a Disney film, so my ending would probably not go down very well.

These two small nitpicks aside, this is a brilliant film. To me, it misses the mark as a kids’ film, but it’s an excellent film for older audiences. ★★★★☆

PSP Game Reviews – Patapon, Loco Roco & Lumines II

Patapon – it’s a reasonably simple idea executed brilliantly: your button keys correspond to different drums, and combos timed to 4-beats-to-the-bar is like issuing a command. Mashing a “rythmn” game with a platformer that has some of the quirkiest characters and storyline you can think of.

Unfortunately, it is actually really really hard.

It’s deceptively simple – keeping a beat going isn’t too hard if you’re musical enough, but the more advanced commands that come into play later on requires precision timing, and the game is rather unforgiving. It’s also very much you’re-on-your-own in many parts, requiring you to pick up on clues that are far from obvious in order to progress, or resort to looking up a guide. Hand-holding is bad, but progression in a platformer should be fairly obvious, one would assume.

As a result, it is extremely frustrating to be stuck, knowing that you’re close, but perhaps a half-beat away from the prize. And as such, I am stuck on Level 8. If anyone can tell me how to get the rain miracle consistently, your help would be much appreciated.

(Also, from all reports, Patapon 2 is far more forgiving about the beats. Yay!)

Loco Roco – Another platformer, but not as we know it, Jim. You control an amorphous yellow blob that grows when eating flowers, is fond of flying fruit and appears to be out to rescue strange, almost smurf like creatures, all the while dodging alien beings that can only be described as flying dreadlocks. You control your blob’s movement by “tilting the world”, and “flicking it” to jump. Oh, and the soundtrack is packed with insanely infectious, almost kiddie, tunes. (You could compare it to Katamari Damacy, except the comparison is totally off.)

Much like the music, this game is unique and addictive. The simple controls are exploited extremely well, and you’ll find yourself tilting your PSP to try to get that extra bit of speed or bounce. There are very few elements in the level design that are superfluous, and it’s these little cues that you’ve got to look for to get to the secret areas that are vital to getting a high score or even perfection in this game. There’s also a bunch of unlockable mini games to provide amusement on the side.

Best platformer ever? Just maybe!

(Loco Roco 2 is scheduled for release soon, too).

Lumines II – Lumines was excellent, a reinvention of tetris and a combination with rythmn/music games that ensured both catchy tunes and gameplay that could last for hours – as long as your hands could avoid cramping! So much like tetris, it’s hard to find a way to reinvent the wheel for a sequel without losing all those who loved the first.

Lumines II unfortunately fails to do enough. It’s changed the music for the worse – there’s now clearly a tie-in with the music industry to try to push commercial tunes, and the gameplay-to-music matchup of the first is lost, the music now relegated to a soundtrack. It was the ability to build the music and hear it react to your successes that was half the charm of the previous version, and this is severely diminished here.

There are new skins and a more accessible set of play modes catering for beginners as well as offering more for advanced players, but without the flow of the original’s primary challenge mode, it just doesn’t feel up to scratch. I’d still suggest going out and buying the original!

Movie Review: Burn After Reading

Burn After Reading: Black-as-pitch comedy spoof of the spy thriller genre from the Coen brothers, starring Pitt, Clooney, Frances McDormand, John Malkovich, Tilda Swinton and J. K. Simmons – if that’s not a by-line for a winning movie, then I know not what will convince you. I love movies where seemingly simple storylines weave into an intricate plot, and this is probably one of the best that I’ve seen of the type. Definitely not one for the kids though, particularly with Malkovich in fine form as a swearing alcoholic ex-C.I.A. analyst at the core of the hijinks. ★★★★

Movie Review: The Mummy 3

The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor – There’s only so many times you can kill the same bad guy, right? Which is why Rick and Evie are now All Grown Up and settled in Oxfordshire, England, following World War II (where their exploits for the British Government have set them up for the life of landed gentry). They’re thrown back into things when their son Alex (now very much grown up from his showing in The Mummy 2) uncovers the terracotta warriors… only now, they’re mummies from an ancient curse, and the Emperor isn’t happy with his millenia-long sleep.

It’s disappointing that Rachel Weisz didn’t choose to return, though one can see why – this ain’t gonna win no Oscars. Maria Bello overdoes the English accent, while Australian Luke Ford, as the son Alex, speaks inexplicably enough in an American accent. The family is probably the most awkward and least likely I’ve seen on screen in a long time. Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh get neglected as the producers attempt to spin this as a quasi-family film, and their skills entirely obfuscated by CGI. Which is not to say this isn’t a fun enough movie when you’ve got your brain switched off – doesn’t live up to the previous Mummy movies, but is a good cheesy romp no less.

★★★

(p.s. there’s a 4th – or more – in the works; the end of the movie suggests something in South America… *cringe*)

Movie Review: Quickie Edition VII

Ballistic: Ecks vs Sever – Antonio Banderas is Jeremiah Ecks, former FBI agent with a stupid name mourning for his lost wife, and Lucy Liu is Sever, disaffected ‘DIA’-trained assassin with an even stupider name. The first thing you need to know about this movie is that it is possibly one of the worst movies ever; secondly, that there was probably more money in the pyrotechnics budget than the scriptwriting, costume and casting budget combined, despite the apparent star power of the leads. Thirdly, it’s based on a video game.

And finally, the title? It lies: after about 20 minutes in, it’s not Ecks vs Sever so much as Ecks with Sever, not to mention the sexual tension between the leads is palpably higher than that between Ecks and his apparently long-lost wife, when he finally rediscovers her. Might have been of some merit if it had come out in 1994; as a 2002 release, watching in 2008, this fails utterly. ★☆

Persepolis: An animated story of an Irani girl, growing up through the Iranian Revolution and Iran-Iraq War, and the subsequent decades. Told entirely in French, this is oft-times amusing, but still largely poignant story, based on an autobiographical graphical novel by Marjane Satpari. The animation style is distinctive and simple to first appearances, but has a flexibility and depth that is used well. Not knowing French, nor the detailed history of Iran’s revolution, I can’t vouch much for the context,  but the story is a compelling one, if a little too heavy. Ends rather abruptly. ★★★☆

Iron Man: Another superhero to add to the growing panatheon of on-screen heroes? Hollywood producers have really begun to mine the comic book world for their ‘fresh’ ideas. In a way, the visual nature of comic books are probably most accesible to movies, the story-boarding and visualising already having been done for them.

That said, Iron Man isn’t half-bad, though the story is half-baked at best in this on-screen incarnation. While Downey Jr. makes a commendable performance, much of the rest of the cast is flat at best. It doesn’t help I suppose that Paltrow annoys me no end no matter what role she is in, and this doesn’t go any way to redeeming her. The action makes up for much, despite everything, and it does end up doing things slightly differently… for the most part.

The inevitable sequel(s) are foreshadowed, and for a pretty good clue to the tone of them, stick around through the credits. Minus points also for having ‘terrorists’ mixing Hindi (or simple Urdu) with Arabic. The hell kind of terrorists are they? ★★★☆

Lust, Caution (色、戒): This is one movie that is so close to perfection, and yet… A weaving story, paced carefully, though with few moments that miss the beat. The direction is studied, with attention to every detail, and the cinematography superb, rich colours where appropriate, washed out in the starker scenes. The cast is undoubtedly some of the most capable, speaking volumes with their eyes as often as with the dialogue. Knowing that lead actress Tang Wei is essentially a new starter, this her first major role, makes her achievement all the more so.

True, the sex scenes are a little full-on, the running time long, and the love story never quite, quite makes sense – unless you take the premise that femme fatales of spy-thriller must necessarily fall in love with those they attempt to decieve, if only to truly bring the tragic circle of the plot back on itself for a neat resolution. Don’t let that distract you too much, though, from pretty much everything else, which is stunning.

This is the kind of movies Wong Kar-Wai makes – a re-imagining of In the Mood for Love, if you will. I’ll freely admit, the only other Ang Lee movie I’ve seen properly is Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, the remaining efforts forever tainted by the awful Hulk. This is somewhat of a redemption.

One of Tony Leung’s lines in this movie is, “If you’re observant, nothing is trivial.” (or so my translation says) – something that could so easily apply to this film, ripe as it is for symbolism and depth beyond the shallow level of a first watch. Little wonder that this movie won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2007. ★★★★☆