Monday, June 12, 2006

Movie Review: The Omen

(poster courtesy of

I nearly got to watch this film on the 6th of June. I was near KLCC on an off-site meeting which ended early that day and thought of catching the movie since I have to go there anyway to catch the LRT back home. The thought of watching “The Omen” on 6/6/06 was quite novel and I found out that a lot of people think the same as well. The show that I wanted to watch that day was fully booked and I wasn’t keen on waiting for the next showing with my heavy laptop bag and whatnot. I decided then to go for an early dinner at KLCC instead and watch the movie on the weekend at my usual cinema where I’m almost certain able to get the seats that I like. In foresight, it would have been a little more exciting if I was able to watch this film on that particular date so I at least have something original from the film to talk about.

“The Omen” directed by John Moore is the second remake (the first being the waterlogged “Poseidon”) to come out of Hollywood this summer blockbuster season. With the exception of several minor additions and music score changes, this film is in essence a slavish replication of the original 1976 movie of the same name directed by Richard Donner. This film even reuses the original screenplay written by David Seltzer with uncredited revisions by Dan McDermot to less than effective impact compared to the original. While not as pointless as Gus Van Sant’s 1998 shot-for-shot recreation of “Psycho”, the film does still begs the question why it should be remade other than to capitalize on the calendar coincidence. There were too many times in the film that audiences who have seen the original will be left wondering why they paid money to watch something that they have seen done much better before.

As in the original film, “The Omen” begins when a high ranking US ambassador Robert Thorn (Liev Schreiber) cannot bear to tell his wife Kate (Julia Stiles) that her baby was stillborn so he accepts an offer made by a priest at the Italian hospital to secretly adopt an orphaned infant and pass him off as his true son. This seemingly benign act would later bring misfortune to all as the child, now called Damien (Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick), seem to have a knack of causing those around him to die horrible deaths as he grows older. When their attentive nanny and a priest who tried to warn him about Damien’s true parentage dies in spectacular fashions, the father begin to realize that all is not as it seems with Damien. With the help of a doomed photo journalist, Robert races across Europe to find out the truth behind the deaths and the ominous happenings that surrounded his family. All his efforts would end up in vain when he discovers who Damien real father was and what they have planned for him. Unfortunately their plans would be fatally inconvenient for the Thorns now that they know who they were dealing with.

As mentioned before, “The Omen” is a remake of the original using the same script that was written for that 1976 movie. As such, almost all of the scenes and dialogues followed closely to what we have seen before. I can’t be sure if they used the same sets or locations from the original but I do have the sense that they may have used a close approximation of it. Unlike the earlier “Poseidon” remake, this film is true to the point of slavish in their recreation of the original film. There were a few new scenes added in this new remake in an attempt to differentiate itself from the original but they neither added anything new or exciting to what was already a warmed-over fare. The new opening scenes set in the Vatican actually undercut the story’s plot build up now that we know that the Anti-Christ was scheduled to be born in the first 5 minutes of the movie . The new dream sequence unimaginatively added used cheap scares and loud noises in hopes that it would jolt the fast becoming bored audience from their seats but added nothing more. The new additions, in short, were pointless and easily dispensed of without taking anything away from the experience.

Taking the reins from Gregory Peck and Lee Remick, both Schreiber and Stiles portrayal of the doomed parents pales in comparison. While he is a great actor in his own right, Schreiber’s constantly dark and brooding expression made his Robert Thorn too morally ambiguous. Audience of the original could easily understand Peck’s, an icon of the all-American fatherhood from his earlier movies, anguish when he found out that he had to kill his son to save the world but in this remake it was hard not to believe that Schreiber’s Robert would have the same difficulties in driving a knife into his son’s heart the moment he found out the truth about Damien. It also didn’t helped that Julia Stiles’ Katherine played out more like a helpless victim from the start instead of a mother gradually realizing that there was something horribly wrong with her son.

Fortunately, the supporting actors fared a little better than the main leads. Both Pete Postlethwaite and David Thewlis in their roles of the mad Father Brennan and the doomed photo journalist Keith Jennings managed to make the most of their limited screen time. I was quite a surprised to find their characters more memorable to me than the leads in this movie. Mia Farrow’s Mrs. Baylock, the replacement nanny from hell, came across as sickeningly sweet and patronizing which is a departure from the much more reserved and controlling approach that her predecessor used for her character. While it may not work in some of the scenes, the choice to depart from the original was a welcomed breath of fresh air in the whole déjà vu – ish experience.

One glaringly obvious item that made the original work better for me than this remake was how the character Damien was portrayed. Richard Donner was able to keep the audience hooked into his version of the movie by letting us come to the realization organically that not all is right with Damien. The audience are taken in by Harvey Stephens’ innocence and charm that it was hard to not to be horrified when we watch his gradual transformation from angelic to demonic. In contrast, Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick’s Damien in this remake practically telegraphs diabolical evil by constantly scowling and glowering at everything he sees from start to finish. Unless this child actor was born pissed and had his features frozen in a perpetual scowl, there was no excuse for the director not to give this actor better directions on how the character should act.

There were more than a few occasions when I caught myself thinking about how bored I was while watching this movie. The movie came across too much like a pale imitation of the original and had too little to add to the experience. Having the film undercut it’s own plot build up with the new opening scene and the unrelenting creepy kid scowl at the audience did not helped to lessen the disappointment I got from having to pay to watch the film. It is very rare that I leave the cinema feeling like I just wasted nearly 2 hours of my life but that was exactly what I felt after watching this warm-over presentation.

Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Here we go again

(image courtesy of

This may be a bit late in coming but I was actually a bit hesitant to put in the effort to recap the show at first. After the debacle of last year’s MI finale (yes .. I’m still sore about the results), I wasn’t sure I was up to the challenge to recap another weekly popularity contest disguised as a show about the search of the next big name deserving of the one million ringgit prize money. I also missed the first episode of the East Malaysia auditions show so I thought that I would skip it this time.

Then I found out about the repeat shows being streamed on the web courtesy of the local ISP sponsor for the show.

Instead of having to furiously jot down notes during the show and scheduling my nightlife (what little I have) around a fixed TV slot so I can get my notes for weekly recaps, I can now actually watch the show at any time when it is convenient for me. I will have the ability to really scrutinize the performances and figure out what works and what doesn’t. At the very least, this time around, I would be more confident about what I’m jotting down in the recaps after getting more opportunities to review the performances.

With that said, I hope to start putting up my own take on 8TV’s “One in a Million” weekly fairly soon. I’ve watched the repeat shows on the web and the collection of talent that I’ve seen in the first 2 audition shows was also a factor in my decision to recap the show. There were more than a few diamonds in the rough here that might be worth following to see their progress in the show.

I hope to have my write-ups for both audition and 1st round eliminations up soon.

Update: I will be back dating my recap entries so I document when they actually first show the episodes but will provide the links to the entries here until I catch up to the latest episode.

Recap for KK auditions is located here.

Recap for KL audition and 1st Central Eliminations forthcoming soon.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Movie Review : X3: The Last Stand

(picture curtesy of

After months of speculations and anticipation, I finally get to see the movie that I have been most looking forward to this summer blockbuster season. When I wrote about watching the trailers back in December and March, I also listed down a few spoiler-ish observations that was able to glean from the two trailers. Coming into the theater to watch this film, I was both excited and apprehensive to see how much I have speculated back then would actually come up on screen. While a lot of the things that I speculated did come up in the finished product, I was pleasantly surprised by the many other story twists that I would have never thought of unfolding as I watched the movie.

“X3: The Last Stand” is allegedly the last installment in the X-Men movie franchise. In this last installment of the mutant trilogy, our merry mutants have moved away from the mutant vs. mutant and human vs. mutant struggles we saw in the first 2 movies. Mutants seemed to be more visible after the end of the last movie and the US government even has a blue-furred mutant Dr. Hank McCoy/The Beast (Kelsey Grammer) on the Cabinet. Just as the world was beginning to look more like what Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart) envisioned for his charges, the news of a cure that seemingly neutralizes the mutant gene in mutants is made public by a pharmaceutical company owned by Warren Worthington II (Michael Murphy). Worthington Sr. had invested his sizable fortune to find the cure after finding out that his only son, Warren Worthington III/Angel (Ben Foster), was a mutant with the ability to fly with his 16 feet long angelic-looking wings.

While the mutant cure is being promoted as a purely voluntary option for all mutants, Eric Lehnsherr/Magneto (Ian McKellen) sees it as just steps away from being something that is forced onto the mutant population by the fearful baseline humans. His fears would be later confirmed when they realized that the US army had been outfitted with cure-guns specially designed to administer the cure forcible to any mutant. In response, Magneto swiftly gathers like-minded mutants into an army opposed to the cure. At the core of his army is the new Brotherhood of Mutants consisting of Raven Darkholme/Mystique (Rebecca Romijn), John Allerdyce/Pyro (Aaron Stanford), Cain Marko/Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones), Callisto (Dania Ramirez), Jamie Madrox/Multiple Man (Eric Dane), Archlight (Omyhra Mota) and Quill (Ken Leung). Commanding legions of disfranchised mutants, the Brotherhood of Mutants seeks to destroy the cure at its source at any cost.

On the flip-side of the argument, the X-Men favors opening a dialogue with the authorities about the cure despite their own misgiving about their intentions. Ororo Munroe/Storm (Halle Berry) finds the mere idea that there was something to be cured in mutants morally reprehensible while Logan/Wolverine (Hugh Jackman) feels that it is up to the individual mutant to choose what is best for them. Marie/Rogue (Anna Paquin) sees the cure as a way for her to be able to finally physically touch her boyfriend Bobby Drake/Iceman (Shawn Ashmore) who seems to be getting closer to fellow teammate Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat (Ellen Page). When The Beast resigns from his position in the cabinet over differences with the administration on the issue of the cure, he rejoins the X-Men and adds his considerable skills alongside the strongman Peter Rasputin/Colossus (Daniel Cudmore). The team will have to rise to the occasion when they have to try to stop Magneto and his army when they come to destroy the cure at the source.

While both side of the conflict begin to assemble their forces, Jean Grey/Phoenix (Famke Janssen) returns seemingly from her death at Alkali Lake as shown at the end of the last installment. Her return bodes ill fortune for her grieving boyfriend Scott Summers/Cyclops (James Marsden) who gave up leadership of the X-Men after her death. Resurrected with vastly greater levels of telekinetic and telepathic powers, Phoenix becomes Magneto’s most powerful ally when he decides to raid Alcatraz Island where Worthington Pharmaceuticals is developing the mutant cure from the genetic material they harvested from an imprisoned young mutant Jimmy/Leech (Cameron Bright) who has the ability to temporarily suppress any mutant power within a certain radius. The final climatic battle would leave a lasting impact to all involved and would irreversibly change the X-Men forever when they have to face the ultimate sacrifice that they have to undertake.

If all of this seems a lot to be happening in a movie, it is because it is. Story threads from the previous 2 installment make their appearance here to be tied up by the end of the 105 minutes. Add to that, the new storylines that appear here, the combination of these plotlines at times seemed too rushed and unsatisfying. Unlike the previous two films, the newly introduced mutants have little exposure time to allow the viewer to really know them. This was true for the new mutants on both sides of the conflict. Angel was hardly an X-Men in any sense compared to Nightcrawler at the end of the last film and if you’ve seen Archlight’s display of power in the trailers then you’ve already watched everything that she does in this movie. I would have liked to see more character beats in the film for them to shine and be memorable. I guess that part of the problem is that there were too many mutants running around in this movie for director, Brett Ratner and the screenplay writers team of Simon Kinberg and Zak Penn, to keep track. In this regards, Bryan Singer’s skill at juggling multiple character development as seen in the last 2 installment was sorely missed.

As a fan and long-time reader of the X-Men comics, the movie has it’s high and low points. I have to say that I was absolutely thrilled at seeing the Danger Room session and the famous “Fastball Special” maneuver which incidentally looks more like a hammer throw rather than a fastball pitch. Seeing it on screen is akin to hearing Human Torch shouting “Flame On!” in the Fantastic Four film for a fanboy. I was even more excited at the prospect of see the Sentinel on screen but alas they only gave us a severed Sentinel head instead. After being disappointed by the lack of the mutant-hunting robot, I was further disappointed by the lack of Phoenix-effect that we say at the end of the last movie when Jean Grey was resurrected. Most of the time the Dark Phoenix seemed to be channeling either Carrie or Gollum when she used her powers. Fortunately for the character, I have no problems with their explanations on how Jean Grey turned to the Dark Phoenix. That particular character development arch felt very organic and in line with the more “real world” feel of the movies compared to the comics.

Acting-wise, I have to say that this latest installment of the X-Men franchise is a mix bag. I was fairly concerned about how Beast would come off but after watching the movie, aside from the hit and miss makeup job, Kelsey Grammer did an acceptable job with the character. Standouts from the movie would be the usually suspects from the previous installments with special mention for Famke Janssen chilling portrayal of the Dark Phoenix. As I mentioned before, the newly introduced mutants this time around got the short stick in this deal. We hardly get to see Colossus in action when a scene where he goes toe to toe with the Juggernaut would have been very much welcomed. Ben Foster’s character, Angel, had all the build up but in the end was let down by disappointing pay-off. Most of the mutants on the Brotherhood side fare no better when their combine powers could be more dramatic in the hands of people who know the characters better.

If this movie was to be the last of the franchise, I have to admit to being sad as it closes the trilogy with a whimper instead of the bang that I expected. After the momentum of the first 2 films, especially the much superior X2 : X-Men United, it was slightly disheartening to see it falter at the finish line. I sincerely hope that I am wrong in this regards and that a future expanded and restored version will be released in DVD form to correct this oversight. I do believe that there is an extended version out there as the film felt too short and rushed through the editing process. Despite all indications based on what the audiences saw in the closing credits, I am not putting too much hope that they will revive the franchise with these group of characters. It would be a bonus if they did but if the don’t then I will be looking forward to the characters spin-offs rumored to be in development. I wouldn’t mind watching a film about the young students at X-Academy dealing with the mutant powers for the first time.

X3 : The Last Stand was not all bad. It fulfilled all the requirements of a summer action movie admirably and it had a fairly thought-provoking storyline. The movie also boast the highest casualty body count in the franchise including several major characters which I admit took me by surprised. The action scenes were sufficiently grand in scope and execution to sustain interest although I would have liked to see more heart in the movie based on a comic that has always been known for angst. If one was willing to over look several glaring plot holes when the characters choose to ignore the more logical approach in favor for the more “showy” action then this film then this can be an exciting movie to spend the afternoon at. Long time comic fans may continue to debate about how successful the movie was but personally I felt that much more could have been done to make this last installment better. There was so much potential here that ended up unrealized at the end.

Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Movie Review : The DaVinci Code

(picture curtesy of TheDaVinci

Dan Brown’s “The DaVinci Code” was one of those books that I actually managed to finish within a single sitting. From the first moment that I opened the cover, I was instantly hooked in by the fast paced plot and interesting premise. It also didn’t hurt that the short chapters in the book had a cinematic feel to it that made it easy to visualize the story in a visual medium. When it was announce that a feature film was being released based on the novel, I already had my own expectations of what the movie could be like based on my earlier read. As I entered the cinema to watch the “The DaVinci Code”, I was anxious to see how closely my expectations was with the actual product directed by Ron Howard.

In “The DaVinci Code”, Tom Hanks plays the role of Robert Langdon, a Harvard symbologist, who was in Paris delivering a lecture when he becomes embroiled in a murder investigation headed by Inspector Fache (Jean Reno). The victim of the murder, Louvre museum curator Jacques Sauniere (Jean-Pierre Marielle), was found with symbols drawn all over his body by himself as he bled to death after being shot by a hooded albino monk Silas (Paul Bettany). What Langdon didn’t know was that one of the messages that Sauniere left behind was his name which Fache took as a clue as to the identity of the curator’s killer.

Enter Sophie Neveu (Audrey Tautou), a cryptologist for the French police and later revealed as Sauniere’s granddaughter, who warns Langdon of Fache’s intentions. After out-witting the inspector and his team of police personnel, Langdon and Sophie started to try to figure out the message that was left by the dead curator for both of them. The message they receive starts them in a journey to decipher clues that would explain why Sophie’s grandfather was killed. Their journey takes them from the bowels of the Denon Wing of the Louvre, to a local office of the Swiss Bank then to the French country side followed then by a visit to London before ending at the Rosslyn Chapel in Scotland within a 24 hour period.

Along the way, the pair also picked up Sir Leigh Teabing (Ian McKellen) to assist them to uncover the truth surrounding the Holy Grail whose secret Sauniere died to protect. As the trio traveled to escape an unrelenting Fache, they were also pursued by the murderous monk, Silas, on the orders of Bishop Aringarosa (Alfred Molina) who is trying to destroy everything linked to the secret that was being unraveled with the first murder. After a fair amount of twist and turns in the story, the real truth regarding the secret that Sauniere died to protect was finally revealed and justice summarily meted out to those who deserve it.

Working from a literal adapted screenplay written by Akiva Goldsman, Ron Howard’s “The DaVinci Code” stayed mostly true to Dan Brown’s source material. Other than minor changes to some of the characters, the film follows the original book almost religiously to an extent. Unfortunately for this movie, what worked magically on the printed medium seems to be lost in this meandering adaptation. The film did not successfully convey the sense of urgency and desperation that made the original novel such a page turner. While the movie doesn’t actually grinds to a halt at the more slower scenes but it did feel that the movie would be better served by adding a little more sense of urgency in it. There were point in the movie that you really feel the 140 minutes running time for this movie.

The normally brilliant Tom Hanks seems to be woefully miscast in the role Robert Langdon. His portrayal of the character came off too clinical and measured that made the character less engaging for the audience to invest their time empathizing with his plight. The painfully glaring omission of any explanation for the character’s motivation also helped little to build a character that the audience can identify with. This was true not only for Tom Hanks character but also the other characters in this movie. By glossing over the character motivations that made these characters so alive in the printed medium, the audience were left with fairly uninteresting and superficial copies. Fortunately for us, Ian McKellen’s wonderfully proficient portrayal of Sir Leigh Teabing saves audiences from falling asleep too deeply mid way into the movie. Applying the “playfully-eccentric-but-with-great-power” acting method that he perfected while playing Gandalf in the Lord of The Rings trilogy, Sir Leigh Teabing becomes the most memorable character in this movie that doesn’t have to strip naked and flog himself with a whip for penance.

“The DaVinci Code” is by no means a total failure. The film was an involved and engaging story especially to those who might have not read the original book. Those who have set their own expectations based on their own reading of the book might find themselves disappointed if not outraged by the lack of the sense of urgency and human failings that made the original a true page turner. Too many of the characters were portrayed without the character motivations that would help them come alive on screen. The decision to gloss over such an important character component was strange choice to make given the ample opportunities that the 148 minutes running time gave them to develop these characters. In the end we are left with a serviceable summer blockbuster release that I felt full of unfulfilled promises and unrealized potential.

Saturday, May 27, 2006

One in a Million 01- 01, Airdate: 26/05/2006 – KK Auditions: East side is da best

(image courtesy of

Unlike last year, the end of American Idol on our local TV this year is not followed with the local Malaysian Idol competition. I guess that they had a really hard time trying to sell last year’s winner to the local public and could not make back what they had to pay to use the franchise name locally. So instead of Malaysia Idol, we get “One In A Million” which is clearly a thinly veiled attempt at having another go at the talent based reality show that have been proven as popular with the local viewers. The competition format looks to be much of the same thing but instead of a promised recording contract as a prize at the end of the competition, the winner of OiaM will get a RM1 million prize to be used studio time to develop their own album as well as to pay for the marketing of said album. They also say that the winner has an option to keep all the cash for themselves but I doubt that the producers of the show will allow it.

Like it’s discarded cousin, OiaM starts off with public auditions to select those who have the talent to go on to the Central Elimination round in KL. This time around, the auditions will only be held in Kota Kinabalu for the East Malaysian folks and in Kuala Lumpur for folks from the Peninsular. Those who came for these auditions had to go through the normal registration process before being herded into the waiting area while waiting for their turn to audition in front of 2 judges. Returning from his stint in MI is Paul Moss who seems to continue his role as the caustic judge of the bunch although this year he seem to have some competition in terms of snarkiness from Syafinaz who is the second judge on the show. I guess it would be interesting to see if a competition will develop between them to see which judge can reduce a grown person to a pool of tears the fastest on this show in the coming weeks.

Host duties for this show this year are taken by Awal Ashaari and Marion Caunter. They flipped languages this year with the male host taking up the running BM commentary while the female host doing the same in English. Marion definitely seems up to the job with her being from the 8TV late night Quickie segment but I have not seen Awal’s hosting skills yet. Personally I’m finding that Awal is a poor substitute to Jien who hosted the previous to Malaysian Idol seasons. It’s hard for me not to find him irritating the moment he starts to talk. I don’t know if it is just the voice or the childish antics that I find more grating with this male host. Hopefully I will be able to learn to tune him out in the coming weeks if he doesn’t get better in his hosting skills.

I have to point out that it was very meta of the producers of the show to start off the first show of the season with a clear statement of who/what they were not looking for at the end of the show. The first audition they show on this show was by a unassuming guy who did a very flat impression of a fan-favorite winner of the other talent-based reality show last year. His performance was almost immediately slapped down by the two judges who tells him that they were looking for originality and not someone doing an impression of the winner of that other show which incidentally rolled over last year’s MI many times over in terms of ratings. I guess someone was still sore that they can’t sell the CDs they made off last year’s MI winner.

Next up was a shy-looking girl in a tudung who told the judges that we will be singing a rock song by Amy Search. I have to admit that I was rooting for her up to the point she opened her mouth and the ear shattering shrieking started. It was as if she was calling all the denizens of purgatory to rise up and smite the judges where they sit. Thankfully it ended shortly before either one of the judge’s head exploded from her singing. After peeling myself from the sofa I was sitting from, I wondered if this was the type of auditions that they were going to be showing on the show tonight.

I should have know that the previous contestants was just the start of a whole string of bad audition clips coming up. There was a rather sad Robbie Williams wannabe butchering one of his songs in the auditions, another who would easily poke someone’s eyes out with his karate chop dance moves and many, many more bad auditions. While this was happening I was thinking that the producers should have learnt their lesson from last year in the MI audition episodes. Bad auditions are only funny when they are shown in small manageable doses after which they just become sad to watch. Even Paul Moss had enough and pulled a walkout ala Simon from American Idol this year although I guess that someone didn’t tell him that according to the script, he was not suppose to return to the judging area till the next day. Probably he came back because there is one less judge in OiaM compared to AI and he risked getting only the contestants that Syafinaz liked get through. Either that or it’s in his contract that he can only copy Simon up to a certain limit.

The first “good” audition highlighted this episode is by Khairul who wants to use the RM 1 million to collaborate with Steven Tyler from Aerosmith for his album if he wins. I doubt that the prize money would be enough for that but that’s his dream and he is entitled to it. The audition was fairly good as he has a solid rocker voice that sounded confident but it seems to me that he was the first good audition that Paul had seen that day. Both judges gave their approval for Khairul to go to the next round.

Next up was Ayu in the spotlight that highlights her current living arrangement in the boondocks of Sabah. While she is not the most commercial looking of the contestants, she really has a big voice that belies her small frame. Her voice sounded clear and has some weight powering the big notes. Those who know me know that I am a sucker for big voices so her audition pleased me. Hers was the type of auditions that make one wonder how many more untapped talent are languishing out there in obscurity. Both judges unanimously let her through and she will be definitely one of the contestants that I will be watching out for in the next round.

Unlike in MI, contestants who can play a musical instrument are encouraged to audition with them. Other than the possible comfort factor, I don’t see how accompanying yourself with a guitar would help make the auditions better. Case in point was the next contestants, Jorge, who doesn’t come-off as the type that the producers of this show are looking for. His vocals skills from the audition had a really raw quality that might not be able to be refined in time within the competition. I would have picked him as one of the auditions that the judges would pass over but I guess there was something that they saw in Jorge since they let him through although not before the following quip :

Syafinaz : So difficult to say yes.
Paul (deadpan) : Yeah. I know. That’s why you’re still single.

ZING!!! Of course Syafinaz could only throw daggers at Paul with her eyes while he just smirks there. Just one of the more memorable moments from the hour long internet repeat show.

Next up was a girl who worked in a moneylender office which was not clearly identified in her segment so I didn’t really caught her name. She sang her own song for the audition and her husky voice had some rough qualities that could use some polish to it. What made her audition memorable was her last minute wavering on the reason why she wanted to be in the competition. When she declared that she would rather be a song-writer rather than a singer, I thought that both judge’s head was going to explode. She was so nonchalant about it, I wasn’t sure if it was just nerves or she was just blur in what she was suppose to be doing in the audition. Her post audition comments didn’t really help to explain her behavior but the judges still let her through when she came back in. Personally, I would just cut my losses and not let her through until she figures out what she really wants to do.

Next contestant reminds me of those auditions that might be entertaining the first time you see it but gets old really fast. Carpet Guy doesn’t have the best voice or the skills for this competitions. What little vocal talent he has seems to be buried under the supposedly amusing dance moves that he pulled during the audition. The judges seemed to be thoroughly amused by this that they let the guy through although I doubt that he would make it further with his funny dancing when push comes to shove. It was also hard to figure out if the judges were laughing with him or at him.

Next segment showcased potential contestants coming into the audition singing songs by Atama who was a local hip-hop artiste in Sabah to varying degrees of success. When the real deal himself comes into the audition room, the audience was shown a fairly lackluster performance from the original artiste. While the rapping was fairly consistent and clear, it lacked the attitude and confidence that I would expect from a published artiste singing their own work. The second song that he sang was no different in terms of energy and presentation. Paul goes as far as to tell him that he would be OK as a backup singer but not the main act. It wasn’t a very confidently delivered performance.

Reminiscent of AI, OiaM also has it’s own best friend team coming to the auditions together to try their luck. Best friends, Errol and Gary, wanted to change their lives and saw the competition as a way to do it. Their life story as they told it reminded me of something that I would see from one of those HK “Young and Dangerous” films so the name “Hongkie Twins” almost immediately cross my mind when I heard their auditions. Both sang Cantonese songs which I can’t comment about the song selection but both delivered it fairly competently. Both got through to the next round so we will be seeing them again in the Central Eliminations round.

They showed a bunch of auditions by people who were placed into the maybe group. As the judges explained it, the maybe group consisted of potential contestants whom the judges see some potential but we either too nervous or picked the wrong song for their auditions. These contestants were asked to come back more prepared for a second chance at their auditions. I don’t think that they had the call backs at the end of every day since they were there multiple days for the auditions and they only had 8 callbacks. While some took the opportunity to improve, those who were not picked to continue on simply didn’t have the quality of vocals that the producers of the show are looking for. From the 8 callbacks, only 6 made it through which made the total number going through from the East Malaysian audition round at 31 contestants.

Next recap: 2nd Audition round in KL.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Movie Review: Poseidon

(picture curtesy of

I think that I can vaguely remember watching the original “Poseidon Adventure” on local TV while I was growing up. If I’m not mistaken it was one of the disaster movies that they show on TV sponsored by a brand name cigarette company back when they were allowed to sponsor shows on air. I distinctly remember watching it, “Towering Inferno” and “Earthquake” in the same week but now cannot recall why I was so excited about it. I guess it was one of those things that I got excited about as a child that just doesn’t make sense why anymore years later. Other that the basic premise about a cruise ship getting hit by a big wave and turning upside down so some survivors need to make their way out of the doomed ship, there was nothing much that I could recall to compare it to the recently released shorten titled remake.

I have to admit that I was fairly impressed by the opening shot of Wolfgang Petersen's “Poseidon”. The use of the seamless shot that follows a jogger’s morning run from one end of the ship to the other was really successful in conveying both the geography of the ship as well as the immense size of the soon doomed ship. Audiences were quickly introduced to the setting of the movie as lovingly as any leading character within this short sequence. I found it to be one of the more pithy and memorable opening scenes that I have seen in a movie this past year and it really helped to set the mood for what was about to follow.

Introductions to the main characters whose adventure the audience will be following were also dispensed in a fairly expedited manner. The jogger that we first saw in the opening scene was ex-Navy Dylan Johns (Josh Lucas) and within minutes, every other principal character is accounted for. This includes the former firefighter and ex–NYC mayor Robert Ramsay (Kurt Russell), his head-strong daughter, Jennifer (Emmy Rossum), and fiancé, Christian (Mike Vogel); the recently dumped gay architect, Richard (Richard Dreyfuss); the plucky single mom, Maggie (Jacinda Barrett) with the spunky kid, Connor (Jimmy Bennett); the good-hearted Hispanic waiter (Freddy Rodriguez) and his stowaway friend (Mia Maestro); the ship's captain, Captain Bradford (Andre Braugher); Stacy Ferguson from the Black Eyed Peas playing Gloria, the shipboard chanteuse and Kevin Dillon playing a jerk who calls himself Lucky Larry. Given the short time that they took to introduced these characters, these simplified stereotypes were all the audience had to go on at this point of the movie.

A scant 15 minutes into the film, the characters’ world are already turned topsy turvy as an enormous rogue wave hits the ship causing it to roll into the water. Suffice to say that it was an morbidly exciting sight to watch as pandemonium ensues following the capsizing of the boat in the wake of the wave. Death by drowning, fires, electrocutions, impaling and crushing speedily dispatched the legion of faceless extras not lucky enough to be listed in this film’s main credit title. Once things settled down, the film really starts as the core group of survivors decide to take the risk of traversing the ship to get to the hull which is now above them to escape the doomed vessel against the orders of the captain. By this time, audiences could predictably expect that anyone who is not in the group leaving the room where they were in would shortly become fish-food and true to form, the Captain and Gloria meet their fate heroically posed when the water broke through the ballroom ceiling surrounding the location where they were left behind.

Spared of the others’ fate, the remaining group of survivor tried to make their way through fires, claustrophobic crawlspaces and endless water logged hallways to escape to the hull of the boat. As in every disaster movie I’ve seen, not everyone would survive the journey. While it is an inevitable occurrence in the genre, I had hoped that their deaths would have had some meaning in terms of groups dynamics and character development in the remaining survivors. Unfortunately for this film, group dynamics and character development apparently was not high in the list when they scripted this soulless feature. At times it felt like the characters were mechanically following a set path and the deaths that happened along the way felt like it was ticked of from a predetermined checklist. While it could be argued that in a real life situation, character development is the last thing you would be concerned about but the omission of a character arch for the survivor that audiences were suppose to root for in this move left me feeling unmoved by their plight.

While it must have been physically demanding for the actors, “Poseidon” doesn’t feel like a film that would vigorously test an actors dramatic range. Most lines were either proclamations of the obvious ("We gotta keep moving up!" ) or expository backstory dialogue that left little impact on any of the characters. Fortunately the script was not unlike the rest of the movies in this genre. I do have to admit that I found the story direction to be fairly straightforward and somewhat uninspiring as these survivor make their way out of the bowels of this doomed ship. There were several key story points that I found to be exciting, notably how they have to nearly drown to go though the ballast tanks, but unfortunately it was too far in between to sustain the excitement.

In the end, “Poseidon” is a short and well executed film that clocks in at a mere 99 minutes of screen time. While at times there is the sense of just going though the paces and a widening gap of emptiness that seemed to grow after the rogue wave hits, the film is fairly serviceable as a summer release. It does look technically accomplished but I would have liked to be able to empathized with the characters more. Unlike the titular ship, I don’t think that “Poseidon” would bowl anyone over too much after a viewing.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Movie Review: Mission: Impossible 3

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Clear your calendar.

Summer blockbuster movie season has definitely arrive.

With new big name movies scheduled to grace our local cinemas almost weekly in the next few month, both my time and wallet will be stretched to the limit to try to catch them all. Compared to last year, the summer blockbuster movie offerings this year show much promise and hopefully will deliver on it especially those that I have been looking forward to. To start off my wallet bursting journey though the summer releases, I took some time off last weekend to view “Mission: Impossible 3” at my local cinema which I notice have raised the admission ticket prices up RM1 from the normal RM10. Good thing that the cinema is fairly close to my apartment so I can save money by buying early-bird tickets for early morning shows but this price increase bears watching if it is applied to all movies this season.

“Mission: Impossible 3”, clearly indicated by the title, is the third entry into the M:I franchise first started back in 1996. Directed by J.J. Abrams, most notably the creator of the “Lost” and “Alias” TV series, M:I3 signals the return of the franchise to the hyperkinetic style missing from the last installment of the franchise nearly 6 years ago. Tom Cruise returns for the 3rd time to reprise his role as IMF superspy Ethan Hunt who at the beginning of the film is celebrating his recent engagement to Julia (Michelle Monaghan). Unknown to his fiancée and everyone else, Hunt continues to work in the IMF as a field operative trainer after retiring from active duty. When one of his star pupils disappears during a field reconnaissance mission, Hunt is recalled by the IMF Operations Manager to lead a retrieval team to get her back. After giving Julia a plausible alibi for his departure, Hunt teams up with Declan (Jonathan Rhys Meyers), Zhen (Maggie Q) and third-time partner Luther (Ving Rhames) to attempt to rescue Lindsey (Keri Russell) who was captured while she was tracking down arms-dealer Owen Davian (Philip Seymour Hoffman) for the IMF.

Despite the pitch battle in the warehouse and wind-generator farm district in Berlin, Hunt’s team failed to retrieve their target alive thanks to a miniature explosive device implanted in Lindsey on Davian’s orders. Thanks to the clues discovered after the failed attempt, the team discovers that Owen is trying to obtain a mysterious weapon on mass destruction known only by the codename “Rabbit’s Foot”. With the info recently obtained, Hunt’s team managed to intercept and capture Davian at Vatican City where he was suppose to meet with the buyers interested in purchasing the device. Davian would shortly later escape custody after a high explosive ambush on Chesapeake Bay Bridge which seems to be orchestrated by someone within the IMF working for Davian. Thanks to the mole within IMF ranks, Davian was able to abduct Julia to force Hunt to help him retrieve the “Rabbit’s Foot” from a secure location in Shanghai. With the device successfully retrieved, Hunts races against the deadline towards a climatic encounter with Davian to save the life of his wife and his own after being implanted with a similar explosive device that killed his protégé in Berlin.

Working from a lean script, credited to Alex Kurtzman, Roberto Orci as well as the first feature director JJ Abrams, M:I3 is definitely a return to the basics of what made the original TV series so interesting to watch. At it’s core, I personally feel that the M:I franchise is always about the spy gadgets and subterfuge and we see both in action in this installment. While it was a different take on the franchise, John Woo’s visual style in the previous M:I film felt too stylized to fit into what we are already familiar with the series. Having created “Alias”, which is itself a homage to espionage shows of the 60’s including the M:I series, it is hard to avoid comparisons of this film with the show Abrams created especially when some of the character interaction we see in the film echoes those we have seen previously in “Alias”. M:I3 does have the bigger explosions and flashier special effect than the TV shows but at times it fails to raise up the adrenaline level befitting the bigger budget that it had compared to it’s small screen cousin. For the most part, the script feels more like a clothesline barely holding distinct action sequence together with a smidgen of storyline in between. Fortunately for this film, the action sequence were well executed and would surely meet the expectations of any action movie junkie watching this summer blockbuster fare.

Fresh from his stint in “Capote”, Phillip Seymour Hoffman portrayal of the icily amoral arms dealer is one of the reasons why people would want to see this movie. The character seem to exude malice direct from the pores and Hoffman stepped up admirably to the plate to realize the character on screen. It is unfortunate that his screen time is so little that if you’ve seen the first 10 minutes of the movie, then you’ve already seen the best part of his work in this movie. To a lesser degree of interest, Jonathan Rhys Meyers and Maggie Q’s characters also suffer from the lack of screen time to allow the audience to invest any level of sympathy to the characters. Ving Rhames’s character does at least get to inject a little more humanity into the story as he questions Hunt of his choice of to expose a unknowing civilian to the dangers of his line of work without giving them the chance to decide for themselves. Like the team handlers in IMF, the existence of these characters could easily be disavowed by the storyline as it had not given it sufficient development time to flesh them out to be other than the clogs in Hunt’s team.

Despite his off-screen antics, it is hard not to acknowledge that Tom Cruise definitely knows how to pull in the audiences with his trademarked million watt smile and chest-out running sequence. His performance in M:I3 is not something that we have not seen in his prior work before but it is enough of a pull for this movie. There were times in the movie that I thought that what I saw on screen from him was a little bit off somehow but it was hard to really put my finger on what was throwing me off. It could be the less than stellar chemistry between Cruise and Michelle Monaghan who played his wife even when she eerily reminded me of Katie Holmes at times. It could also be how peculiar Cruise looked while running in desperation to save her in the backstreets of Shanghai. Irregardless, Tom Cruise sufficiently gave the performance that this movie needed.

The one major disappointment that I have with this movie was the final fate of the villains of this movie. After watching the action sequence increase in frenetic energy levels and desperation as the movie went along, I personally felt a bit let-down by how the movie ended. It felt too rushed and too simplistic an ending after all the buildup that proceeded it. Other than ending more on a whimper than a bang, “Mission: Impossible 3” has all the components of a fun summer blockbuster movie going for it. Good action sequence that are not bogged down by heavy drama in between and sufficiently simple storyline to follow would surely appeal on an escapist level. Just don’t go in expecting to find a deeply coherent reason why the characters do the things they do in the movie and you’ll be fine.

Wednesday, April 26, 2006

On The Soapbox: Stray Thoughts On The Malaysian Film Industry

I went into town last weekend looking for either a paperback edition of Christopher Rice’s most recent book ,“Light Before Day”, or the 2-CD original movie soundtrack to “Rent” (or both). Unfortunately the book was out of stock and they only had the single CD package for the soundtrack CD at the Borders bookstore that I went to. I still want to try to get them locally so this means that I would have to make another trip into town in the near future. Normally I would order them online but ordering either books or audio CDs from is surprisingly a more expansive affair (shipping cost-wise) than ordering DVDs from them. I have yet to find any other online retailer who has better shipping rates and product discounts than so if it is too expansive for me to get them from then I doubt I could get it cheaper on the other online sites. Trying to source the book and the CDs locally makes more cost sense to me at this juncture.

Having read about the Movie Carnival 2006 happening last weekend at Berjaya Times Square from SultanMuzzafar’s blog, I decide to drop in to see what it was all about. I have to say that I was a bit disappointed at the layout of the booths that they had since it was a bit too close together and there it was fairly clear to me that little thought about crowd flow went into the arrangement. More than half of the booths there were more focused on promoting movie tie-in merchandises rather than the movies themselves. The worst example of this has to be the “Superman Returns” booth where they were just signing up people for credit cards. They did have caps with the Superman shield on them but I think you only get them if you sign-up for their credit card. They should have at least some other promotional material and a screen running the teaser/trailer for the movie there.

There were a few large screen displays scattered all over the area showing some trailers of the movies that they were promoting at the event but most of them had their volumes turned down to next to nothing. I would think that it would defeat the purpose of promotion if the viewers can’t hear anything from the trailers being shown. They also grouped all the trailers together with little consideration where it would play so that you would see a trailer for say “Garfield 2” at the “X-Men : The Last Stand” booth which I thought defeated the purpose of having a big name film singled out for a booth. It would have been better if they packaged a trailer package for the specific movie to play at the film’s booth and leave the rest to play at screens in the more general areas. I think they only did the trailers package right for the booth setup for the upcoming “Poseidon” remake.

After looking that the day’s listing of events, I decided to stick around for a bit for the “Gubra” cast appearance later that day. They also had the GSC Movie Forum set up before the cast appearance so I thought it wouldn’t hurt to stay around to listen to the panel for a bit. They set up they had on stage was simple for a non-formal discussion and there were no seats for the audience to sit down to listen to what was being discussed. I’m fairly certain that the topic discussed in that forum session was about the future direction of the local film industry which by the way were prominently absent among the films being promoted at the event. I would think that this movie carnival would be a good venue for local films to get early exposure by way of showing potential viewers their trailer/teasers but other than “Gubra” the upcoming local film promotional presence was sadly negligible. Don’t our local films make trailers/teasers that can be shown before the film comes out in the cinemas? Based on the films promoted in the event, the answer looked like they don’t or just don’t care about promoting locally produced films.

Sidebar aside, I have to admit to not knowing anyone on the discussion panel that afternoon. Being just the casual movie-goer myself, I would have appreciated that the moderator could have run through the introductions better so that we know who they were and their background as related to the film industry. Having them tell you how many times they watch movies in the cinema doesn’t make them a credible forum participant. This is especially apparent when they started discussing about their views of the local film production and where they think the direction that it would take in the future. As I was sitting there listening to the discussion, I was astounded by their lack of awareness of the local film industry other than the old P Ramlee films and Yasmin Ahmad’s films. I didn’t really know if I should be insulted or sad to find out that most on the panel have not watch any locally produced films other than the ones they highlighted.

There is such a wealth of films between P Ramlee and Yasmin’s films that they totally ignored in their discussion. The local film industry was not always sappy love stories and happy endings. We had notable horror movies like the “Pontianak” series long before the horror movie influx from Thailand and East Asia. Our local film industry have deftly tackled social issues resulting from the mass urbanization and modernization of the country back in the days in films such as “Ranjau Sepanjang Jalan”, “Matinya Seorang Patriot”, “Setinggan”, “Langit Petang” and “Dia Ibuku”. The cast of the locally produced films were more multicultural back then as evident in the “Jefri Zain” and “Nora Zain” spy films compared to most movies now. One can hardly ignore the popularity of Jins Shamsuddin’s “Esok” series of film in terms of melodramatic tear-jerkers that entertained audiences in the late 70’s early 80’s. Even closer to the current time, movie such as “Layar Lara”, “Kaki Bakar”, “Embun”, “Paloh”, “Rahsia”, “Perempuan Melayu Terakhir”, “Spinning Gasing” and “Puteri Gunung Ledang” would stand out as memorable films produced locally to people who know the local film industry.

I can possibly forgive the panelist for not knowing these films as they have long been ignored by those responsible for the preservation and promotion of these films. Other than the P Ramlee films that they show multiple times on local TV, there was little effort made to restore and reshow the other locally produce films from the past. With such lack of interest and exposure, it is no wonder that a lot of people hardly know these films and could not appreciate how much they added to the fabric of the Malaysia film industry history. More than anything, I personally feel that the local film industry as it stands now has regressed to an earlier standard of story-telling due to the lack of imaginative interpretation of what is happening in Malaysia today. With the exception of a few local filmmakers, most are content to churn out movies that are blind to the reality of what is happening outside of the confines of their camera viewfinder.

One point that I agreed with the panel was that of the need to pull in more audience to watch locally produced film and help generate a more profitable return so that in turn will generate more locally produced movies. I do not agree with the panelist contention that the reason this is not happening is due to the restrictions placed on the local filmmakers when making their films. An imaginative director/writer could find balanced ways to tell their story in subtext if required to circumvent they restrictions without degenerating to a pretentious artsy mess. I truly, hopefully not naively, want to believe that the local movie-goer today would be able to pickup on subtle subtext if done properly. My own personal view is that the reason why most non-Malays don’t come to watch most locally produced films and by extension contribute to the bottom-line ticket returns is because they do not see themselves in these films. For the longest time, there has been no positive representation of the Chinese, Indian and other races including the indigenous Orang Asli in our films. They do not see themselves and their aspirations reflected in what is being shown in local films and that makes the film more like a foreign film than one produced by their fellow countryman. As long as local filmmakers continue to ignore the other half of the population and continue to represent them in less than appealing unrealistic portrayals, they will never get them to watch local films.

I am not a filmmaker by trade or training. Neither am I a person with links to the film industry. What I am is a concerned movie-goer wishing for better and more honest locally produced films. If the panel on that particular day at the Movie Carnival 2006 proved anything to me, it was that we don’t know our own local films well enough to envision how we can produced better films. In the current atmosphere where some (OK .. one in particular) films being blamed for polluting the national culture and impinging on moral sensibilities, are they conveniently forgetting the past films that have more controversial images and subject matter that could have easily be worse than what we see today just for the sake of condemnation? If so then it is surely a sad and despairing time for our local film industry because we have these small-minded individuals trying to tell the whole country what to watch. If we let them dictate what gets produced locally, we will only get locally films that appeal to only half of the population and ignores the reality of what is happening outside of their narrow world view.

Local films would be really boring then.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

PS2 Review: Psychonauts

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I first found out about “Psychonauts” from one of the X-Play TV show episodes highlighting the PS2 games that have been overlooked in 2005. I have actually seen this title at my “friendly neighborhood” game shop where I would usually buy PS2 game titles but never really considered it. This is mostly because I personally have the reaction time of a drugged tree sloth and the depth perception of a blind goldfish so playing platformer games have always been a frustrating affair. The other platformer game that I have remotely enjoyed before were all from the popular “Ratchet & Clank” PS2 game franchise. After seeing the favorably review the game, I decided to give the game a try and see if I would like it as much as I did the “Ratchet & Clank” games.

“Psychonauts” follows the story of Razputin, Raz for short, who sneaks into a secret summer camp training children with psychic abilities to become the titular psychic secret agents. After being discovered by the camp counselors, who were all Psychonauts in their own right, Raz was only allowed to stay in the camp for one day while waiting for his father to take him home. Raz soon discovers that something insidious happening in the camp when he starts to find his new found friends abducted only to be returned as mindless TV-addicted versions of their original selves. Raz starts to develop his own considerable psychic abilities as his investigations of what was happening takes him on an adventure on both camp grounds in the real world as well as the psychic mindscape of the people he encounters during the investigations. It would eventually take all of Raz’s psychic skills to finally uncover the conspiracies surrounding what was happening in the training camp and save all his new friends.

The look of the world of “Psychonauts” would surely be the first thing that gamers would notice and agree to be a far departure from the other platform games out there in the market. Both character and level design sensibilities in this game is highly imaginative and original making the game a refreshing addition to the increasingly stale genre. While the storyline running through this games does seem to follow strictly to the normal platform game mold, the dark humor and dry wit with which the plot is moved along would surely not fail to entertain if not causing a good number of chuckles from the gamer. This is helped by the colorful supporting cast in “Psychonauts” which are not only very well written and realized but also exceptionally very well acted by the voice cast. Unlike a lot of the games out there, gamers would not find repeated dialogues with repeat interaction with these support characters. These supporting characters may look bizarre but they will always have something hilarious to say every time you see them.

The gameplay of “Psychonauts” starts off a fairly open ended as Raz begins to explore the training camp grounds looking for clues about what was happening to his friends. In addition to finding the clues from one location to another in the real world, Raz also has to collect items to trade for other items and to boost his burgeoning psychic powers. While there is definitely a lot of items for gamers to collect in this games, most of the time it doesn’t feel like a chore as most of the items requires the gamers to make use of the skills of Raz both as a psychic and an agile trapeze performer in imaginative ways to solve the puzzles before getting the items. The game controls are fairly easy to master and camera angles are rarely an issue in this portion of the game. While there were some instances that gamers need to really time their leaps and levitation skills, the game rarely degenerate to a frustrating affair as there is normally more than one solution to the puzzles that gamers need to solve to get to the collectable item.

The game really shines when Raz acquires the ability to psychically jump into another character’s mind as his investigation progress. Each character’s mindscape is a level that Raz has to complete to progress forward in his investigation. While some of the earlier mindscape that Raz has to go through function mainly as a training ground for newly acquired psychic skills, they are no less enjoyable to complete as the other mindscapes levels. Each mindscape that Raz goes through in “Psychonauts” is unique, both aesthetically and in terms of gameplay, making for a more varied experience when playing the game. Most of the mindscape levels involved Raz making his way from one point to the other within the level in a fairly linear fashion but how he makes it there is refreshingly different for each level. As in his real world, there are a lot of items that Raz can collect while within the mindscape to upgrade his powers which the makers of this game have successfully made it feel less than a boring chore.

The learning curve for the game is fairly shallow making it easy even for people with little platform game skill (like myself) to get into the game quickly. Every time Raz learns a new psychic skill in the game, the gamer get to test out the new skill for a bit before having to use it in the levels proper. The puzzles that the gamers run into in this game is usually fairly easy for the average gamer to solve once they have the hang of the combination of powers and moves that Raz can execute. If there is one criticism that could be made for the gameplay in “Psychonauts” is that the game can be a little too forgiving at times compared to other games of the genre. While Raz does have a lifebar that the gamer needs to watch out for, dying in the game doesn’t really the end of the game for Raz since he is only kicked out to the real world when that happens in this game with little consequences to the character. While the impact of the character’s lifebar running out does change a bit in the final act of the game, players would have accumulated enough replay lives by this point that dying here will just respawn Raz in his current location.

“Psychonauts” was more enjoyable and engaging than what I expected from a platform game. The hilarious situations and dialogue that I have to go through while playing this game is still the most original I’ve seen in any game I’ve played before. Overall, “Psychonauts” is a game for jaded platform gamers looking for something original and whimsical at the same time for their PS2 console. Engaging storyline and exciting gameplay round out the reasons why PS2 owners should pickup this game to add to their game library. It is truly a game worth spending the time to experience and I hope is just the first installment of a new platform franchise on the PS2. It would be a shame is we never would be able to revisit the “Psychonauts” world again in the future.

Wednesday, April 12, 2006

Movie Review: Gubra

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Truth be told, I first discovered “Sepet”, directed by Yasmin Ahmad, by word of mouth from fellow bloggers back in 2004. I can’t recall why but somehow I missed watching that movie in the cinema but manage to watch it on VCD instead and instantly fell in love with the story. It was a refreshing take on an old subject matter already seen in many local movie which in itself was a welcomed breeze in the increasingly stale local film production offerings. The success of “Sepet” at the time proved that local audiences were ready for a movie that doesn’t include idiotic pratfalls from any ex-Senario members or the less than subtle preaching dialogues delivered by singers who think they can act. “Sepet” was fearless in execution and delivery of controversial issues that we all knew but reluctant to speak out about. Because of this, it was embraced by many who found that it not only spoke clearly for once to them but also spoke out loudly on their behalf.

Thanks to “Sepet”, the little movie that could, Yasmin Ahmad herself became more famous (or infamous depending on who you talk to) with a cult following of her own. Her ease in her interaction with fans whose first impression of her came from watching “Sepet”, myself included, endears her quickly to others. It was from her blog that I first found out about “Gubra” and from that point onwards I knew that it was would be something to look forward for as far as the local films is concerned. When some fellow bloggers got the chance to see a rough cut of the film and wrote glowing reviews about it last year, I have to say that I felt a little envious not only because they got to see it before anyone else but also have the opportunity to give their responses to the directors and editors before they made the final cut of the film. Like everyone else, I had to wait until “Gubra” was released in the local cinema last April 6th before I got to make my own judgment on the finished product.

I came into my viewing of “Gubra” with a much higher expectations that I usually have for local film features. The film in of itself breaks the mold in terms of what a film is in Malaysia that it stands in a class of its own for the time being. To compare “Gubra” with the other local production currently showing in the cinema would do it disservice as “Gubra” is clearly miles away from that wreck. I still believe this now after watching “Gubra” but I can’t help but feel a bit disappointed that my expectations of the film were not fully realized. While there were more than a few things that worked well in “Gubra”, others left me longing for the quiet beauty of “Sepet”. The comparison between “Gubra” and “Sepet” was unavoidable since “Gubra” does continue the story from the first movie and there wasn’t anything else produced locally to compare “Gubra” against.

“Gubra” is a much larger and more complex movie in scope than “Sepet”. Instead of the focus being on mainly Orked (Sharifah Amani) and her kooky clan, “Gubra” also tells the story of the less affluent muezzin Pak Bilal (Shahili Abdan aka Namron) and his wife Kak Mas (Noorkhiriah Ahmad Shafie) whose lives intersect with their prostitute neighbors Temah (Rozie Rashid) and Kiah (Juliana Ibrahim). Their stories run parallel to each other in their own little corner of Ipoh only to intersect thematically as everyone in this story experiences either instances of love, betrayal, acceptance and redemption but not all four in a single storyline. I must admit that I was expecting that “Gubra” would be following similar ensemble film conventions what with all these characters running around with stories to tell so I was quite surprised that this was not the case in the latest offering from Yasmin Ahmad.

Half of “Gubra” focuses on Orked, now married to Arif (Adlin Aman Ramlee) after her return from studying in England, rushing her father to the hospital after an early morning health scare. At the hospital, she encounters Alan (Alan Yun), Jason’s elder brother who was there visiting his father (Thor Kah Hoong) who warded there after being pushed down a flight of stairs by his mother (Mei Ling Tan). While looking for a bite to eat with Alan outside of the hospital, Orked discovers that her husband had earlier left the hospital to meet with another woman whom he was having an affair with. Faced with her husband’s betrayal, Orked forces Arif to own up to his misdeeds and break off the affair with the other woman. Arif does exactly what Orked asks to the extent of publicly humiliating his lover in front of her with the choice words that Arif had earlier told Orked about the other woman. In the end, Orked still feels that Arif had crossed a line that he promised never to do and decides to leave him still after what he had done for her. Orked leaves with Alan to visit his parent’s house where Jason’s letters that were addressed but never delivered to her tearfully reminds her of everything that she missed out with his death (yes, he died at the end of the last movie as far as I’m concerned).

Across town, “Gubra” traces the story of the young Bilal and his loving wife, Kak Mas, living out their lives as devoted Muslims. The pair live their lives simply in their neighborhood where they happen to live next to a pair of women (Temah & Kiah) working as prostitutes in a nearby house of ill-repute. While their paths cross every morning when he goes to his surau for the dawn call to prayer, the Bilal never judges the desperate women for what they had to do to survive but instead offer them kind words and support. When single parent Temah is diagnosed with HIV, she finds herself embraced selflessly by Kak Mas and her family willing to help her even with her current status. Their non-judgmental attitude and unwavering supports helps her to face the future with her son amidst the uncertainty of how long she would have to live. Kiah on the other had had to continue doing what she does just until she gets enough money to leave town and return to her kampong. Desperate to get the amount she needs, she was even willing to be with an abusive john just because he would pay her extra to let him rough her up. In the end, she finally has enough to leave everything behind but it was all for naught when everything she had sacrificed for was cruelly taken away from her at the very point of her redemption.

With these two story plots anchoring the film, there are several other minor story plots involving the supporting characters that Yasmin masterfully weave in between them. While these minor story points do not add directly to the main stories, they do provide for more in either the emotional content or the comedic interludes that moves “Gubra” along it’s path. One of the minor story plot that I appreciate most was the resolution of the love-hate relationship between Alan/Jason’s Ma and Pa. Within the 120 minutes we get to see their relationship evolve through the threat of loss from one of antagonistic to one of acceptance of the other warts and all. I think that this particular storyline is one of the more personal to me from “Gubra” because it closely mirror what I’ve seen personally in life. One thing that I notice in “Gubra” is that these stories are our stories made real on the silver screen. Like in “Sepet”, Yasmin Ahmad once again has given us a voice by telling our stories when most of us are reluctant to do so.

One problem that I have with the interlacing storylines that are shown in “Gubra” happens whenever scenes of opposite on the emotional spectrums from the two storylines are juxtaposed with each other. On more than one occasion, the story forces the viewer to reconcile scenes of utter anguish from one storyline followed immediately by scenes played for comedic effect from the other. I was left to both logically figure out what message the two disparate scenes was suppose to convey as well as emotionally decide which emotion to carry forth from one scene to the next. The lack of consistent emotional build up and coherent structuring left me emotionally frustrated with a mild headache and with more questions than what I had in the beginning. These scenes are well crafted and enjoyable to watch on its own but the effect of the scene is lost when they were jumbled out in a sequence that is so beyond what an average viewer is expecting to see both thematically and emotionally. I would not go so far as to call the end result of this interweaving exercise a mess but it did detract from an enjoyable first sitting experience of the movie. It left me wishing that the film had not left me feeling that it had broken a contract between the viewer and the movie as we follow along the journey of these characters.

With the exception of a few, most of the major players gave their best performances for this production. Ida Nerina, Harith Iskandar and Adibah Noor continued to show the comic timing and dry wit that they carry off so effortlessly in this outing. I would however give special praise for Sharifah Amani for her stand-out portrayal of Orked who has to be the core that holds the movie together acting-wise. Her heart-wrenching reaction to Arif’s indiscretion and how she dealt with the aftermath was especially wondrous to watch from such a young actress. Unfortunately for me, the two main male leads in Orked’s storyline gave pale performances when stacked against Sharifah’s. Alan Yun’s delivery, in particular, left a lot to be desired and made me miss Choo Seong Ng’s portrayal of Jason from Sepet even more. No doubt that he has a nice looking upper torso that he does show off during the film but while it may be enough for me in some situations, I’m afraid to say that this is not one of them. Last but not least, I also believe that special mention should be given to Rozie Rashid whose portrayal of Temah was a an eye-opening study of quiet inner strength against overwhelming odds and oppressive environment.

Yasmin Ahmad continues to dazzle us with her style of directing with her signature scene composition techniques and camera angles. Her static camera direction allows audience to be part of the scene without giving us the feeling that we are intruding into the character’s life. Extended single takes of scenes allows the viewer to really absorb and appreciate what they are seeing on screen at that particular moment. More often than not, Yasmin employs an almost poetic sensibility in her constructions of scenes especially those that tell a lot with minimum use of dialogues. In a world of fast cuts and blipverts, her directing style stands out as a calming influence. While she did employ her signature off-screen conversation scene reminiscent of Jason’s walk of shame in “Sepet”, the one scene that really bugged me from that movie, it fortunately worked better in “Gubra” than it did in the predecessor. I think that this is partly because the viewers were meant to see the on-screen characters reacting to what was being said off-screen instead of being the one actually saying it as in “Sepet”.

Controversial images, sexual innuendo and dialogue lifted off a familiar Petronas TV ad aside, “Gubra” leaves the audience thinking about the movie long after the final credit roll. Speaking of the final credits, much have been made about the short scene that comes on after the last line of the credits at the end of the movie. Everyone I know who have seen the movie have told me to sit tight at the end of the movie and wait for the scene. To be blunt, my first reaction watching the scene was a big honking WTF (silently in my head although I nearly said it out loud when I first saw it). The whole scene begs the question who it was intended for since the implausibility of the scene happening within the confines of the story had already been made clear within the first half hour of the movie. Was this scene meant to balance out the dark ending that closes “Gubra” prior to the credits? Was this scene a romanticized ideal ending tacked on for those unwilling to let go of what Orked had before? I guess that it could have been worse. I should be thankful that the scene wasn’t Orked finding someone in the showers just to realize that everything that happened in the last 120 minutes were just a dream.

All in all, “Gubra” is still a thought provoking and emotional follow up to, in my humblest opinion a much superior, “Sepet”. While it can be logically taxing and bound to leave viewer with the emotional equivalent of blue balls at times, it is still way batter than the other local features released to date. The interweaving storylines were engaging as it stands and such should be seen as individual stories instead of a cohesive union telling the same story. The wonderful performance from most of the cast helped immensely to lift this production to benchmark levels for other local productions to follow. While I freely admit that not all my expectations for this follow up were fulfilled, I still enjoyed the experience as a whole and would easily recommend it to others who have not watched it.

I just wished that it didn’t make me feel that I miss watching “Sepet” that much more.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Trailer Review : X3 – The Last Stand (TV Spots)

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Thanks to the folks at SuperHeroHype.Com, I was alerted to the latest X3 – The Last Stand TV spots that was shown in the Fox TV network in the US last Tuesday night. The three 30-second clips were shown individually during the network broadcast of American Idols, House and ESPN shows. I only got to see the non-high definition versions of these clips here but I hope that they would put a higher resolution clip soon on either the Apple QuickTime trailers site or the X3 official website. There were some new scenes/info that was shown in these 3 TV spots that were not shown in the teaser or the trailer released back in Dec 2005 and March 2006 respectively.

Just to be consistent with the X3 – The Last Stand teaser and trailer reviews that I’ve done before, I’m documenting here some of my thoughts upon viewing the trailers. I’ve also been noticing a lot of incoming traffic to this site coming from people doing web searches about the movie so hopefully this would be something that is of interest for them. As usual, the speculations listed below are my own guesses on how the storyline will unfold based on what I know from reading the X-Men comics for the last 20 odd years.

TV Spot #1

- Had the most in terms of new scenes/info previously unavailable from the teaser or the trailer.

- There is a new close-up shots of Shadowcat in the Danger Room and a sequence of Angel launching himself through a glass window to fly down the building where he was previously held.

- More shots of Wolverine fighting in the woods near where I think the mutants who followed Magneto was camped.

- Shots of the X-Jet flying over some mountains that seemed to be near where Alkali Lake was suppose to be.

- We get to see a new shot of Shadowcat’s phasing powers in which she phases herself out of the floor where she trapped Juggernaut by phasing him through the floors. In the comics, Shadowcat is very carefully not to phase anyone through solid objects as they would die if she left them there. If Shadowcat leaves Juggernaut phased in the floor without killing him then her powers might work differently in the movie compared to the comics.

- Another point for fanboys to look out for is how Shadowcat got Juggernaut to phase through the floor. In the comics, Shadowcat’s powers work by touch so she would have to touch Juggernaut to get him to phase to the ground. Seeing that she was shown phasing through walls running from Juggernaut in the previous scene, it would be interesting to see how she did it.

- An extended sequence of Storm letting loose while fighting the Brotherhood mutants in a suburban setting which might be Jean parent’s house. She is shown flying in a wind twister and hurling lightning at Archlight and an unidentified mutant.

- There is a new scene with Jean Grey kissing Cyclops at what I think is the edge of Alkali Lake just after her resurrection. Cyclops does not have his visors on which suggest that Jean/Phoenix was blocking his powers. This is in line with the comics as Jean has always been able to block Cyclops powers telepathically in several occasions.

- During the kiss with Cyclops, Jean’s eyes open ominously towards the end of the kiss suggesting that something is amiss with her. Since Cyclops doesn’t seem to be around when Storm and Wolverine finds her in Alkali Lake, something must have happened to him just after Jean’s resurrection.

- There is a new close-up shot of Wolverine in flight thanks to a fastball special maneuver with Colossus in what I think is a Danger Room sequence.

- New shot of Pyro standing next to Magneto at Alcatraz for the final battle shooting up a ball of fire up in the sky as a flare to alert the other Brotherhood members most probably.

TV Spot #2

- Most of the scenes here have been shown before in the teaser, trailer and TV spots. This spot has the least new info out of the 3 TV spots shown last Tuesday.

- This spot seem to focus more on the individual characters in action. We get to see extended sequence of Storm, Beast, Shadowcat and Angel in action.

TV Spot #3

- We are shown a clearer picture of the X-Men lineup at Alcatraz for the climatic battle which seem to be Beast, Storm, Wolverine, Shadowcat, Iceman and Colossus. The omission of Cyclops and Rogue from the lineup is particularly intriguing as to what their final fate might be.

- Cyclops is seen being knocked down by shockwaves coming from the middle of Alkali Lake when Jean is resurrected. In the comics, Jean/Phoenix rose out of the Caribbean sea in a burst of flames shaped in the shape of a gigantic bird of fire. Given the force of the shockwave and the distance where Jean was when she went under at the end of the last move, I hoping that the Phoenix effect would be one of the spectacular scenes in the movie.

A lot of the speculation out there in the Net is saying that at least one major character from the X-Men will die in the final installment of the X-Men trilogy. We don’t have any indication of who that would be based on the teaser, trailer and TV spots that we have seen to day. What is almost for sure is that Jean/Phoenix will be in the middle of it all and the X-Men would have to deal with her before the movie can end.

Will the movie follow closely to the resolution of the “Dark Phoenix Saga” from The Uncanny X-Men #129-138? Only time will tell.

X3 – The Last Stand arrives in cinemas beginning 26th May 2006.

Thursday, April 06, 2006

DVD Review: Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire

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With the success of the Harry Potter books, it is not a stretch that the movie version of these popular books will keep on coming every other year like clockwork. The lastest entry of the boy-wizard franchise, “Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire”, played in our local cinemas on 17 Nov 2005 to a fairly successful box-office collection due to the legion of fans of both the previous films and the book series. The fourth installment of the currently 6 book series, “Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire” sweeps the stage clear for the entry of a much darker sensibilities in the tone of the stories. The change in the tonal feel of the series fairly reflect the aging core group of readers who first discovered the adventures of this boy-wizard and his cohorts in Hogwarts School of Wizardry.

Much has been written about this movie (I didn’t write a review of the movie when I watched it last year but other reviews are available here) and many have came out to say that this is the best movie of the franchise to date. While I agree that the fourth movie was much darker than the previous 3 movies, I kept having the distinct impression that this particular cut of the movie seemed a bit rushed and erratically paced. The action scenes with each TriWizards trials moves the movie along with little help from the action happening in between which could easily be boiled down to how Harry prepares for the next challenge. To be fair to the filmmakers, they did have to condense a veritable tome length of 700 pages of the original material into the 158 minutes runtime of the feature film so there were quite a few finer points of the plot that had to be cut out.

Like the other Harry Potter movies, a special 2-disk DVD presentation of the movie was released to the market on 7th March, 2006. The DVD set comes in a 2-disk DVD set that was shipped in a cardboard sleeve similar to the one they used in the last DVD set. I have to say that I found the cardboard sleeve a bit redundant as it had the same info from the DVD case printed on it. I could easily throw these cardboard sleeves away and not miss anything important from the packaging so to me it felt a little wasteful of them to continue to ship with this packaging format. I have to say that I missed the packaging that they had for the DVD sets for the first and second Harry Potter films which were much more imaginative than the ones they had now.

Disk 1 of the DVD set contained the feature presentation accessible after the short signature menu screen that highlights the titular goblet in this outing. The picture and audio quality of this DVD set seemed considerably better looking than the somewhat grainy feel of the last DVD set. The light scenes look crisp and the darker scenes, while were more problematic than the brighter lighted scenes, was much better than my cinema experience which had me guessing what was happening on the screen. Like the previous DVD sets of this franchise, there was no audio commentary track available for this movie. With quite a few plot points dropped from the original material, it would have been interesting to hear how the process of choosing what stayed and what got cut happened. It could also be interesting to listen to the now very articulate main casts discuss about their experiences making the movie after making 4 of them.

Disk 2 was where the bulk of the special features of this DVD set were. The features were divided into four grouping represented by the three TriWizards trial and the Hogwarts Castle icon on the map-like navigation menu. Each TriWizards trial grouping started with optional mini games playable using the DVD remote. While these mini games were fairly simple to get through, there wasn’t any reason to recommend going through them as there were no rewards for successfully completing the mini games. It would have been better if they at least put in some DVD easter eggs that would be revealed after successfully completing the mini games.

The “Hogwarts Castle” icon brings the viewer to a collection of short featurettes that detailed the production of the movie and scenes in between the three action set pieces. The deleted scenes segment was located here under the “Additional Scenes” heading. Most of the deleted scenes were taken out because they interrupted the pacing of the film which I whole agreed. The full rock band performance scene which I am thankful that it was mercifully cut short in the film was also included here. The "Preparing for the Yule Ball" segment was interesting to watch in terms to how they planned and executed the scene. For the final segment of this grouping, "Reflections on the Fourth Film", viewers get to watch the three main actors of the Harry Potter series talk at length about their experiences with the film. While there were some repetition in some of the responses to the questions, it was an engaging session to watch and listen to these fairly articulate young actors.

"Harry vs. The Horntail: The First Task" featurettes traced the design and implementation of the CG dragon for Harry’s first trial. They also show that Daniel Radcliffe who plays Harry Potter did more of the stunts himself in this film outing as the film production favored more practical effects instead of the CGI replacements from previous films. Also available in this section is the “Meet the Champions” segment which charmingly introduces the other three competitors in the TriWizards tournament. This segment followed Stanislav Ianevski (Viktor Krum), Clemence Poesy (Fleur Delacour) and Robert Pattinson (Cedric Diggory) as they went through a typical day of shooting from start to finish. It was fun to watch these new comers to the franchise as well as the to see a bit of the behind the scene happenings on set.

The focus of the second featurettes, "In Too Deep: The Second Task", was Daniel Radcliffe preparation for underwater work done for the second trial. Instead of doing the scenes fully with CGI effects, they built a huge indoor blue screen water tank for the extensive underwater scenes that Daniel had to do. He also had to learn how to use scuba equipment as well as how to perform underwater without the breathing apparatus to complete the illusion that Harry Potter had grown gills for the lake challenge. It was a fairly revealing segment to watch for the lengths that the production was willing to go to create the special effects practically instead of relying on CGI special effects fully.

"The Maze: The Third Task" featurettes focused on how both practical and CGI components were combined to make the magical maze that Harry Potter had to traverse in the last trial seem more daunting and massive. This was a fairly entertaining segment to watch for the technical details of the magic that happens behind the special effects we see on screen. The final segment of the featurettes was “He Who Must Not Be Named" which also is my favorite segment of the whole 2nd disk of this DVD set. This segment highlighted preparation that went into bringing Lord Voldemort to screen. Easily considered as the Darth Vader of the Harry Potter set, they had to really work to make sure that Lord Voldemort’s first screen appearance would do the character justice given the importance of this character in the series. Played by an almost unrecognizable Ralph Fiennes, Lord Voldemort came through with flying colors in that what was shown on screen was as close to the way the character was described in the books. With so little focus given to the older characters in the special features in this DVD set, it was a refreshing segment to watch.

The 2nd DVD disk had additionally features that could be access using a computer DVD ROM drive but I did not get the chance to test them out. With the trailers for upcoming CGI animated films “Ant Bully” and “Happy Feet” rounding up the DVD set, the “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” DVD set is fairly easy to recommend as an addition to any DVD library irregardless if you like the books or not.

Monday, April 03, 2006

Coming to a cinema near you - “Gubra”

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After hearing so much about it, the only local film that I am planning to see this year will finally be in the cinema starting the 6th Apr 2006.

From what I’ve heard, this sequel to the critically acclaimed “Sepet”, Yasmin Ahmad’s “Gubra” will be a much darker and heavy film than it’s predecessor. In contrast to the single storyline in “Sepet”, “Gubra” will have 2 distinct storylines that I am anxiously looking forward to see how they intersect with each other. Even if they don’t actually intersect, it would be interesting to figure out the thematic ties that bound the two storylines together.

Most of the reviews for “Gubra” to date have seemed to be high praise for the film and while I do take into account what has been written about the film, I try not have them influence my enjoyment of the film itself. I will be coming into the viewing with fresh eyes that have only seen her work in “Sepet” before. I hope to leave it with even fresher outlook in live as I did after watching “Sepet” for the first time. I expect to be emotionally moved as much as I did watching her previous offering. From what I’ve read from those who have seen it, I have a feeling that I will not be disappointed.

If all goes well, I’m fairly certain that I will be watching “Gubra” this coming weekend.

I’ve made my plans for “Gubra”, what about you?

Update (12/04/2006): My full review of "Gubra" is available by following this link.