Tuesday, May 30, 2006

Movie Review : The DaVinci Code

(picture curtesy of TheDaVinci Code.com)

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 oneinamillion.bluehyppo.com)

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 http://www.poseidonmovie.com/)

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

(picture curtesy of www.missionimpossible.com)

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.